ALAMEDA — Rookie offensive coordinator Todd Downing has been preparing for the unenviable task of facing off against Von Miller, the Denver Broncos’ five-time Pro Bowler, ever since the Oakland Raiders first assembled for offseason practices in the spring.
That’s because every time Downing’s offense takes the field at the club’s headquarters in Alameda, they go up against the silver and black version of Miller: Khalil Mack.
“We have a luxury in that department in that we have No. 52 on our team who gives us a pretty darn good look at that stuff throughout training camp and OTAs,” Downing explained.
Miller and Mack are two of the NFL’s premier game-wreckers who haunt offensive coordinators as they draw up their schemes.
They both possess a knack for popping up in key moments with a momentum-shifting play. It was that attribute that propelled Mack to the Defensive Player of the Year honor last season.
Asked about Miller, his fellow edge-rushing monster, Mack spoke in glowing terms of the Super Bowl 50 MVP.
“Real cool dude. Real proud of the guy,” Mack told reporters on Wednesday. “Hell of a player. Great person. Just watching on film these past few years has taught me a lot about rushing the passer.”
Over the summer, Mack had the chance to do more than just watch the tape. The Raiders star was among the crew of NFL defenders who attended Miller’s “pass rush summit” at Stanford in July.
Initially, it sounds strange that Mack and Miller, the defensive centerpieces of a pair of historic AFC West rivals, would train together in the offseason.
Even if the NFL is an ultra competitive world, Ken Norton Jr., now the Raiders defensive coordinator and a three-time Super Bowl champ as a player, sees nothing untoward about the setup.
“At that point in the offseason, it’s not opponents,” Norton said. “It’s just really good, highly talented, skilled players and people getting together, sharing notes, learning from one another. The only way you get better is to continue to learn and grow and progress.”
Back when Norton starred for the Dallas Cowboys and later the San Francisco 49ers, he frequently spent his offseasons working out with local NFL rivals.
“It’s just hats off to how competitive they are that they’re as good as they are — at the top of their game — Khalil Mack and these top rushers are at the top of their game and still trying to get better,” Norton continued.
In the Week 4 matchup at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the task of stopping — or at least corralling Mack’s summertime colleague — falls to Downing, the NFL’s most-expensive offensive line and the Raiders’ corps of running backs.
Jalen Richard, a member of the backfield trio that also features Marshawn Lynch and DeAndre Washington, will, on occasion, draw the unfortunate assignment as final sentinel between Mack and Derek Carr.
“We always have to have our eyes on 58,” Richard told reporters on Wednesday, offering up the most obvious statement of the week.
Now in his second season as a Raider, Richard knows exactly what makes Miller such an effective QB hunter.
“I think his biggest thing is just his speed,” Washington explained. “What he lacks in size he definitely picks it up with speed, so that’s his biggest thing. You have to get on him fast because if not, in a blink of an eye he can be in your backfield disrupting the play. You have to neutralize him as soon as possible.”
Last Sunday at FedExField, the Raiders failed to neutralize the Washington pass rush, surrendering four sacks — the most since 2015.
Even amid that backdrop, Miller hasn’t hesitated to pay his respects to the Raiders, most notably the players paid to protect Carr.
“I really felt like the Raiders, they really are put together to be the best offensive line. That’s just my opinion,” Miller said on a midweek conference call. “Up in Dallas, they have a great, arguably the best offensive line, but my opinion, I’ve always thought that the Raiders had the best offensive line. From tackle to tackle, they’re great.”
Unsurprisingly, Carr, the Raiders ever-effusive leader, returned the favor.
“He’s a heck of a player,” the quarterback said during his Wednesday press conference. “Again, he’s another player that knows how I feel about him. I think he’s one of the best to ever play the game. Not just in the game now. We all know that. He’s one of the best to ever play.”
At Mile High, the lauded line will meet Miller. Mack meanwhile will confront the Broncos offensive linemen. Those two battles will go a long way in determining which AFC clubs closes the opening quarter of the season at 3-1 and which drops to 2-2.