This is what good investments look like – for one game at least – Khalil Mack sledgehammers the football and takes down a quarterback and an entire opposing team.
Eight months after the Chargers’ defense famously failed to stop Las Vegas, Mack and a remodeled unit slowed down the Raiders on the game’s most crucial Sunday, clinching a 24-19 season-opening win at SoFi Stadium.
“They put their stamp on what we expected of them,” center Corey Linsley said. “There’s a bunch of guys up there. … That was very reassuring. It was fantastic. But it wasn’t anything we didn’t expect.”
The Chargers lost in Week 18 of the 2021 season in Las Vegas, on that Sunday night in January that ended when the Raiders won just enough real estate to hit a successful field goal in the final game of overtime.
The loss knocked the Chargers out of playoff contention and sparked a defense overhaul that saw ownership sanction a trade for Mack and free-agent deals worth up to just over $200 million.
The first dividends came right away, Mack ending the tournament with three sacks, another quarterback hit and six tackles total. His final stop came in fourth when Las Vegas hopes collapsed right there along with quarterback Derek Carr.
“It’s definitely satisfying when defense can finish it off,” said safety Derwin James Jr. “Your offense is going out there to kneel the ball, there’s no better feeling than defensive players.”
After quarterback Justin Herbert grabbed a first down, he actually knelt for the win, which was fitting and ironic since Herbert was the tallest offense for the Chargers.
He finished 26 for 34 for 279 yards and each of his team’s three touchdowns in an afternoon when the Chargers rushed just 76 yards and lost Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen to a hamstring injury late in the second quarter.
Herbert led his team to a halftime lead of 17:3, with the lead remaining two touchdowns – 24:10 – well into the third quarter.
But a field goal, a touchdown, and a failed two-point conversion put the Raiders on five points in the final minutes of the game.
Las Vegas took over at their 21-yard line for what would be his last chance with 3:30 remaining. Three passes later, the Raiders had third place and three in their 40.
That’s when Joey Bosa and Morgan Fox — another free-agent addition — teamed up to fire Carr, and Bosa caused a fumble that Las Vegas recovered. After the two-minute caution, the Raiders were fourth and eighth.
Davante Adams had already burned the Chargers for 10 receptions and 141 yards and a touchdown. Chargers coach Brandon Staley named a scheme in which James and colleague Nasir Adderley Adams doubled.
That vice took Adams out of the game, leaving Carr fidgeting while Mack and his buddies fanned out. The veteran quarterback stepped forward to avoid Bosa and looked at Adams as linebacker Kyle Van Noy — another free-agent signing — flew at him.
Eventually, Mack closed and—despite a desperate clutch from Las Vegas left tackle Kolton Miller—Carr fired, causing him to fumble again and effectively ending the game.
“It’s team ball, man,” Mack said. “It’s all team ball. The cover guys did an excellent job. You have done a lot.”
Mack, 31, is entering his ninth year in the NFL, coming off a season he was limited to seven games for the Chicago Bears because of a foot injury. He underwent surgery and hadn’t played since October 24.
None of that was apparent, as he dominated at times in his Chargers debut, playing against his original team after the Raiders drafted Mack fifth overall in 2014.
“I’ve worked with special players my whole career and now he’s one of them,” Fox said. “He’s one of those guys where you’re playing, ‘Okay, he’s a guy.’ He’s just elite in everything he does.”
When asked what he thought of Mack, James said: “Bro, have you seen the game? Three sacks. So come on bro.”
Another freshman, slot corner Bryce Callahan, had one of the Chargers’ three interceptions. Linebacker Drue Tranquill and cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. also took out Carr.
Samuel repeatedly faced Adams as the defense was forced to play without Pro Bowl cornerback JC Jackson, who is out while he recovers from surgery he had on his right foot on Aug. 23.
“I felt like I did everything right,” Samuel said. “I gave up some passes. [Adams is] a great player. He’s a great recipient. I’m just glad the coaches wanted me to take on that role.”
After the Raiders opened the game by converting three-thirds downs, the Chargers stopped them on six of eight the rest of the way. Carr was sacked five times, and the Chargers finished the tournament with a total of six sacks. Though they all recovered, the Raiders also fumbled three times.
All of this looked and felt very different than what the Chargers defense typically produced every week in 2021.
“I walk onto the field and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m playing All-Stars,'” Tranquill said. “You just look at the staff and you have complete confidence: ‘Damn it, something good is about to happen.’ I think we had that belief today.”
The Chargers had that belief. They also had Khalil Mack. Both made a difference.
Allen said he doesn’t think his hamstring injury is serious, although it seems unlikely he’ll be able to play Thursday night when the Chargers visit Kansas City. … Jackson trained before the game and seemed to be moving well. Staley said Jackson “maybe” could have played on Sunday. Jackson’s status for Thursday is uncertain.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/chargers/story/2022-09-11/dominant-khalil-mack-revamped-chargers-defense-beat-raiders Khalil Mack helps revamped Chargers sack Raiders in opener