He has elevated his play to levels of the past, almost to a time when he was named the NFL’s top defender.
Khalil Mack’s rise has been so pronounced of late that it might even be cosmic.
“It’s about how unselfish he is and how for the team and for this defense he plays,” Chargers linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “I feel like the football gods are going to be on your side when you play like that.”
A willingness to stand in against the run and shut down the perimeter by Mack and the other edge rushers has helped the Chargers slow opposing ground attacks. As a result, teams have been forced into the exact sort of passing situations that open sack opportunities, opportunities the Chargers have seized to become one of the NFL’s best at harassing quarterbacks.
Led by Mack, this defense has generated 31 sacks, tied for the second in the NFL while representing a counter punch for a passing defense that ranks 32nd in yards per game.
Mack has nine sacks — like bananas, they often come in bunches, and all of Mack’s have happened in three games — and is on pace to top the career-high 15 he produced in 2015.
Only one player, Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter with 10, has more sacks than Mack, who is 32 and in his 10th season but still has the juice and abs of someone several years younger.
“It’s been special to watch and special to be a part of,” defensive lineman Morgan Fox said. “He doesn’t only produce. He makes everyone around him better too. You’ve seen it on third down and how our run defense has changed. All those edge guys are playing great in the run game. That’s a reflection of the leadership of a guy like Khalil, who’ll get his nose bloody and make those tough tackles.”
The Chargers just sacked New York’s Zach Wilson eight times and are coming off consecutive elite performances, dominating Chicago and smothering the Jets.
But those games weren’t statements as much as suggestions about the Chargers’ prowess. No, to be taken seriously, this defense must stand up to a more daunting foe.
On cue, here come the 6-2 Detroit Lions to SoFi Stadium on Sunday — the NFL’s current it team, with a balanced offense and a quarterback who has been excellent at avoiding sacks and other bits of catastrophe.
will be armed with a dangerous wide receiver (Amon-Ra St. Brown), a budding tight end (Sam LaPorta) and two headache-inducing running backs (David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs).
The whole lot will be protected by an offensive front ranked most recently as the NFL’s best by Pro Football Focus, the Lions having surrendered but 16 sacks, the sixth-fewest.
Now, a chance to really show something? Against a quality offense? And an experienced, established quarterback?
“We’re not trying to prove anything to anyone but the guys in this locker room,” Mack said. “Our expectation is to go out and play dominant defense regardless of who the opponent is.”
The Chargers are 4-4 and have arrived there in the oddest of ways, a two-game losing streak followed by a two-game winning streak followed by a two-game losing streak followed by a two-game winning streak.
Amid the wild swings of success and failure, coach Brandon Staley has preached consistency in perspective and preparation. He has touted his team’s recent practice habits, explaining that game day isn’t limited to 24 hours.
“The NFL demands your respect today,” Staley said, “not predicting what’s going on this Sunday or what’s happening in a couple of weeks.”
While the defenders have been more in step over the last two games, their celebrations have been similarly choreographed, the Chargers heeding the words of coordinator Derrick Ansley, who urged his defense to have more fun.
So the Chargers danced against the Bears and partied against the Jets. Mack’s fellow edge rushers, Joey Bosa and Tuli Tuipulotu, even took to swapping personal post-sack celebrations in salute of one another.
“We’re honing in on the opportunities,” Mack said. “We’re having a lot more fun and enjoying playing together.”
After victories of 17 and 21 points, the Chargers are underdogs Sunday and likely facing another four-quarter fidget festival. In need of a signature win, this game presents the most inviting of blank spaces.
And in Mack, the Chargers have a player capable of leaving his autograph — and fingerprints — all over the SoFi Stadium turf.
“You wish you had 11 Khalils that are willing to put their nose in there and get in a fight for 65 plays or whatever it is,” Fox said. “He’s been awesome to watch.”