ALAMEDA, Calif. − Only 13 men before him had recorded at least five sacks in an NFL game.
That information drew a “Whoo!” from linebacker Ben Heeney inside the Oakland Raiders’ locker room.
One stall away from Heeney sat the 14th man to do it since sacks became an official stat 33 years ago. But Khalil Mack said Thursday morning he had no idea how rare his performance was Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
“Wow,” Mack said, a gobsmacked smile crossing his lips. “God is good, man. That’s all I can say to that.”
Mack paused a few more seconds.
“I did not know that,” he mumbled. “That’s tight. Sheesh.”
Mack, the best player in University at Buffalo history, has been annihilating wannabe blockers. He vaulted into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation with Houston Texans pass-rusher J.J. Watt, Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman and ageless Raiders safety Charles Woodson.
Mack sacked Brock Osweiler five times Sunday and forced a fumble that turned into a safety.
“That poor offensive tackle,” former Raiders guard and assistant coach Steve Wisniewski said. “He’s going to need to visit a counselor to process through that.”
Mack blew past Broncos right tackle Michael Schofield four times and beat left tackle Ryan Harris once. Tight end Vernon Davis, trying to help out, was flagged for holding to prevent Mack from another takedown in the fourth quarter.
The Buffalo Bills don’t have a player with five sacks all season. Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams lead the Bills with four apiece.
Mack has nine sacks in his past three games. With three weeks left in the regular season, Mack leads the NFL with 14 sacks and needs three more to break the Raiders record. If he can record 2.5 sacks Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, he will break the NFL record for most over a four-game span.
The Buffalo News interviewed four men who played in five-sack games. When describing Mack’s performance, they dropped names of pass-rushing royalty.
Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas, Kevin Greene.
“Last year, I was comparing him to Derrick Thomas and LT,” Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck said.
“I’m very aware of what those guys meant to this league and did to this league. I’m very aware of what I’m saying.”
Tuck was with the New York Giants when Osi Umenyiora sacked Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb six times in 2007. Tuck, on Raiders injured reserve because of a torn pectoral muscle, lamented not being on the field with Mack on Sunday.
Mack’s performance was ultra-rare. All of his sacks came in the game’s final 24 minutes. Only two others have had at least five sacks in the second half. Packers defensive end Vonnie Holliday did it to Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe in 2002.
“It’s a byproduct of down-in, down-out effort and tenacity,” said Wisniewski, an eight-time Pro Bowler for the Los Angeles and Oakland Raiders. “When you play against Khalil Mack − like we did against guys like Reggie White, for example − you knew that every single snap you had to bring your A-game.
“Almost literally, you have to hit this guy with a two-by-four.”
Wisniewski didn’t line up directly across from Thomas but was part of an offensive line that allowed the Hall of Famer six sacks in 1988.
Thomas is the only player to have notched at least five sacks twice. He holds the NFL record with a seven-sack game against Seattle Seahawks quarterback Dave Krieg in 1990.
“You start to see ghosts,” said 1983 league MVP Joe Theismann, the only quarterback to be sacked at least five times twice. “When things are going well, nothing bothers you. You’re impervious to everything around you.
“But when you start to get knocked around, you start to see flashes that maybe aren’t there, a flash of color from the other team’s jersey, a hand that you think is closer than it really is.”
CBS analyst Steve Beuerlein has called two of Mack’s games this season and has been sacked five times in a game, too. Beuerlein was the L.A. Raiders’ quarterback in 1988, when L.A. Rams defensive end Gary Jeter had the game of his life.
“I could smell the guy’s breath,” Beuerlein said.
Opposing quarterbacks must be experiencing sensory overload against Mack these days.
Over the past four games, Mack has three more sacks than any other edge rusher. Pro Football Focus has graded him higher than any other edge rusher in that span − also against the run − and has charted him for 23 quarterback hurries, second most in the NFL.
Compared to reigning defensive MVP Watt the past four games, Mack has six more sacks, four more pressures and five more defensive stops.
“There’s nothing an offensive lineman can anticipate because he can do everything,” Beuerlein said. “Most guys have signature moves that an offensive lineman can prepare for. With Khalil, you have to prepare for a bull rush because he’s strong enough to do that, and you’ve got to prepare for all the speed moves he can make to get up the field.
“He’s a stud.”
Mack is one of the NFL’s great stories of perseverance. If not for assistant coach Robert Wimberly leaving Liberty University to join Turner Gill’s staff at UB, Mack wouldn’t have received a Division I scholarship offer.
Mack wasn’t recruited because he didn’t play football until his senior year at Westwood High in Fort Pierce, Fla.
Did he have a five-sack game in high school?
“Never in my life,” Mack said.
His best game at UB was three sacks against Miami (Ohio) as a senior.
Still, he flashed greatness. He was the Mid-American Conference’s defensive MVP, broke the national record for forced fumbles and tied the tackles-for-loss record. The Raiders drafted him fifth overall last year.
Mack has one less sack than the entire Atlanta Falcons team and two fewer than the Giants. The Bills have four more sacks than Mack does.
“It’s all about keeping that hunger. I’m hungry,” Mack said, a UB mini-helmet the centerpiece of his locker’s top shelf. “It’s like starving all winter, like a bear hibernating and then coming out of the cave to get some Elmo’s wings.”
Elmo’s in Getzville is Mack’s home away from home. When he’s not with the Raiders, he returns to the Northtowns to train and regularly consumes Elmo’s wings.
“I’ve been eating so much of that stuff; that’s all I got up here,” Mack said, pointing to his head.
Mack might want to import a barrel or two of Elmo’s wings to keep his Raiders teammates going.
The defense, under new head coach Jack Del Rio and coordinator Ken Norton Jr., has struggled. The Raiders rank 25th in total defense and are tied for 23rd in points allowed.
They’ve endured Tuck’s season-ending injury and defensive end Aldon Smith’s one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. When Smith was with the San Francisco 49ers three years ago, he sacked Chicago Bears quarterback Jason Campbell 5.5 times.
The Raiders are 6-7, two spots out of a wild-card playoff berth. Their final games are against the Packers, San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs.
“Playoffs, that’s the mission,” Mack said. “We just need a little push.
“It’s been a gritty season, man. We’re learning from our mistakes and our wins. We’ve been grinding it out.”
Tuck has been impressed with Mack’s daily approach. As Mack’s ignorance of his historical feat would underscore, Tuck said Mack’s attention isn’t on records but on how to defend Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Sunday.
Rodgers has been a five-sack victim, harassed by the Cincinnati Bengals’ Antwan Odom in 2009. Odom had eight sacks that season and only one more his entire career after that game because of an Achilles injury.
Mack doesn’t look like a one-hit wonder, and although defensive tackle Dan Williams told him after slaughtering the Broncos, “OK, now we’re expecting five every week,” Mack seems to be more interested in getting the Raiders one step closer to the postseason with a victory over the Packers.
“That’s important for a second-year guy to have that mindset,” Tuck said. “What he’s focused on is helping his team win football games.
“It’s almost to the point where you think it’s too good to be true, but that’s the kind of kid he is.”