This is my Friday column on Khalil Mack. WARNING: This is a Raiders column. 49ers fans — feel free to skip this.
When will the Raiders figure it out?
They make the same mistake every week and it costs them wins. The mistake involves a rookie, Khalil Mack. Before we discuss the mistake, let’s talk about the problem.
The Raiders have the worst third-down defense in football, allowing opponents to convert third downs almost 53 percent of the time, one of the worst conversion percentages ever. Opponents’ drives never end.
Third-down defense shouldn’t be a catastrophe for the Raiders. The Raiders spent their first-round pick this year on the second-best pass rusher in the draft, Khalil Mack. Pass rushers dominate third downs, a passing down.
But Mack has no sacks this season. Did the Raiders pick the wrong guy?
No. They’re using Mack incorrectly.
The Raiders ask him to do everything for them on defense. They ask him to be a run-stopping linebacker who also drops into pass coverage in the base defense on first and second down and a pass-rushing defensive end in the nickel defense on third down. Even veterans struggle to handle all of those assignments.
Why clutter a rookie’s mind with run defense and pass coverage assignments? Why not keep Mack mentally and physically fresh to rush the passer and fix the Raiders’ problems on third down?
Al Davis had a philosophy about rookies: Give them one thing to chew on at first and, when they’ve digested that, give them a little more. Don’t overload their plates.
That philosophy works. In 1983, the Raiders drafted Greg Townsend in the fourth round. He came off the bench as a pass rusher his first three seasons and had 27.5 sacks during that period. And in 1990, the Raiders drafted Aaron Wallace in the second round and he had nine sacks as a rusher off the bench.
Don’t the Raiders know their own history?
Don’t the Raiders study the 49ers’ recent success? The Niners drafted Aldon Smith with the seventh pick in 2011. Smith is better than Mack, but the Niners didn’t make Smith a starter his rookie year. Jim Harbaugh has the same philosophy about rookies as Al Davis. Harbaugh brought Smith off the bench as a pass-rushing specialist and Smith finished his rookie season with 14 sacks.
Raiders interim head coach Tony Sparano seemed on the verge of figuring out his mistake this past Sunday after the Raiders lost to the Cardinals. “We’ve got to look at scheme,” he told reporters at his postgame press conference. “When I say scheme, I mean did we put them in the right situation?”
No, you did not put them in the right situation, Tony. Not Mack. You’re so close to solving this puzzle.
A reporter asked Sparano another question about the Raiders’ third-down defense. “Listen, we’ve got to get off the field,” Sparano said. “The numbers are the numbers. You guys know them. I know them. Our coaches know them. We have to get off the field on third downs. I thought those kids at times in the game played really hard. But what is happening right now by not getting off the field, is it’s 36 minutes to 24 minutes at the end of the game. It’s hard to win football games like that.”
You’ve got it, Tony. Kids like Mack are playing hard only at times because they’re playing too much. You’re overworking the rookies.
“The most tiring thing to do in football is be an edge rusher,” Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said Thursday afternoon. “A lot of the time you’re 260, 270, 280 (pounds) going against 320 every snap. There is a bigger man leaning on you over and over and over. The best way for those guys is to roll them in.”
By “roll them in” he meant substitute. You’re right, Jason. Roll them in. Substitute. Don’t use Mack almost every play. Don’t let opposing offensive tackles wear him down. He weighs only 250.
It sounds like the Raiders figured out their mistake this week. It sounds like Mack will be a nickel pass rusher the rest of the season.
Isn’t that right, Tony?
“No,” he said Thursday afternoon, stone faced. “Haven’t considered that at all.”
“What I’ve considered is trying to figure out how to shave snaps for him over the course of the game so that we keep him a little bit fresher. That’s what I’m considering.”
Shave snaps on first and second down?
“Depends. But yes.”
Shave away, Tony.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.