Khalil Mack has had an absurdly dominant season for the Chicago Bears, who, thanks in large part to his contributions, will be hosting a playoff game on Sunday for the first time since 2010.
Zero offensive tackles this year have been able to neutralize Mack’s game. He’s won with speed around the edge, two-handed chops, swims, spins, bull rushes, and occasionally he will pick up 320-pound human beings with one hand and throw them to the ground.
Mack has tackled – figuratively and literally – every challenge he has faced in 2018, so it’s somewhat poetic that the last tackle to successfully limit Mack’s impact on a football game just so happens to be riding into Soldier Field for Wild Card Weekend.
For my money, Philly’s Lane Johnson is the best right tackle in football right now. In Week 16 of 2017, he limited Mack to zero sacks, despite facing him one-on-one for most of the night (normally a suicide mission). I counted only three times where he got close enough to Nick Foles to affect his throw.
This morning, before the Bears take on the Eagles, I thought I’d take a look at how Johnson his last matchup with the titanic edge rusher, and how Mack can defeat him today.
How Johnson won
Lane Johnson’s plan to attack Mack had everything to do with footwork. Throughout the game, the one constant in his pass pro sets were that his feet were constantly moving. That way when Mack tried to work his finesse-oriented counter moves, like the stutter-step/swim/spin attempt below, Johnson always had the edge.
Watch Johnson’s feet. He takes his first two steps at a lightning-like pace, making sure he gets to the point of attack faster than Mack. This takes away any opportunity at an outside speed rush. When Mack tried to work his subtle fakes and counter moves, the feet kept moving. Every time 52 in white tried to change direction, 65 in black was able to stay with him and hold him off, creating a clean pocket.
Here, Johnson was able to fight off the speed rush and wash Mack around the pocket, again because of the footwork. The key here is that Johnson was able to avoid turning his shoulders until Mack fully committed to trying to get the edge. Tackles who try to cheat and become perpendicular to the line of scrimmage usually receive the long arm and end up on the ground.
Once Mack committed, he was able to stay with him and keep him a safe distance (about two yards) behind his signal caller. This is because his feet were continually moving. If at any point they stopped, Mack would have blown past him because that’s what he does to flat-footed tackles. Johnson kept them chopping and was able to win the battle.
Once again, Johnson beat Mack with his first couple steps. He was making a conscious effort to close the physical gap between himself and Mack, making sure Mack couldn’t build up enough speed to long-arm him into Foles’s lap. Most tackles are rightly scared to do this because of how Mack tends to burn them with a swim or other finesse move, but as we saw before, Johnson has the footwork to handle it.
Mack tries the long-arm at the end here, but he can’t because Johnson played it perfectly. Even though his shoulders turned, he was able to get his hands on Mack to prevent what is usually inevitable, thanks to the lack of distance between them, which was made possible by – again – footwork.
You may notice that on that last one, the protection scheme actually slid away from Mack, leaving Johnson on an island. This created a massive gap between the guard and the tackle, which is something Mack usually exploits in order to destroy offenses.
Well, Mack noticed it as well, and it’s something that frequently happens with Johnson because his first two steps are so significant. Mack saw it on film and tried to work an inside move early, like the one he used for a strip sack against the Rams. In fact, he tried one on the first Foles pass of the game. To my surprise, it did not work:
Johnson was so light on his feet on that night that he was able to stop even that sharp of a direction change from Mack. He got his hands on Mack’s outside shoulder and shoved him off-balance and leaning away from Foles, rendering his inside move ineffective. His short, choppy steps made it so that he didn’t lose his balance when hit with Mack’s inside cut, which is something I have almost never seen before against Khalil Mack.
He tried it only once later in the game, and again it failed. One of the first rules of OL play is “take him where he wants to go” and Johnson did just that, washing Mack across Foles’s face and out of harm’s way:
He used the exact same footwork technique and hand placement, and it worked perfectly. Once Mack realized that his inside move wasn’t working, and that he couldn’t use it as a set-up for his speed rushes, he knew that Johnson had stopped his game plan in its tracks.
How Mack can win today
Earlier, I said that I counted three times where Mack effected Nick Foles’s throw after winning a one-on-one with Lane Johnson. He used the same move for each of them: the bull rush.
He was able to get Johnson backpedaling towards Foles on each occasion and was able to peel off and chase him down, get a hand in his face and force an errant pass, or force Johnson to grab his jersey and draw an obvious hold.
After I watched this game’s film, I thought back to something that three-time pro bowl tackle Taylor Lewan once said about how difficult it is to stop Khalil Mack:
“He’s got the unique power that you always have to be aware against, so you’re a little more heavy-footed, but then there’s the speed, so you have to be a little more light-footed. It’s kind of like pick your poison.”
This quote applies perfectly to Johnson’s strategy for stopping Mack. He chose to be as light-footed as he possibly could, not only because it plays more into his own strengths as a player but because he thought it would be the best way to stop Mack. Sure, it would get him a few losses here and there against the bull rush, but it would ensure that Mack’s signature outside-in, long-arm, speed, and finesse moves would be much easier to stop.
Surely, Mack has figured this out as well. That’s why I think he’s going to work the bull rush early and often against Johnson and see if he can’t force Foles into his arms or the arms of his teammates. If he does it enough, Johnson could be forced to keep his feet on the ground a bit more.
To be clear, Mack won’t face Johnson nearly as much as he did last season. He’s obviously on a different team and in a different scheme. Last year, Mack lined up on the defense’s left, in front of the right tackle, for the vast majority of his reps. This year, it’s pretty much split down the middle.
Mack will take on left tackle Jason Peters (who in his prime was arguably the best tackle in the league, but who is 36 years old and injury prone) many times this afternoon, and he should have more success there than against Johnson.
But when 52 and 65 face off, Mack will go in with a much different plan of attack than he had on Christmas night, 2017. He’ll force him to quit moving his feet as rapidly as he wants to with the bull rush, and when his cleats start to slow down…
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