Khalil Mack helps revamped Chargers sack Raiders in opener

This is what good investments look like — at least for one game — Khalil Mack sledgehammering loose the football and bringing down a quarterback and, with him, an entire opposing team.

Eight months after the Chargers’ defense famously couldn’t stop Las Vegas, Mack and a rebuilt unit stymied the Raiders on the game’s most decisive play Sunday, clinching a 24-19 season-opening victory at SoFi Stadium.

“They put the stamp on what we expected from them,” center Corey Linsley said. “There’s a bunch of dudes up there. … That was very reassuring. It was awesome. But it was nothing that we didn’t expect.”

The Chargers lost at Las Vegas in Week 18 of the 2021 season, that Sunday night in January ending when the Raiders gained just enough real estate to kick a winning field goal on the final play of overtime.

The loss knocked the Chargers from playoff contention and ignited an overhaul of the defense in which ownership OKd a trade for Mack and free-agent deals worth up to slightly more than $200 million.

The first dividends arrived immediately, Mack finishing with three sacks, another quarterback hit and six tackles total, his final stop coming on fourth down as Las Vegas’ hopes crumbled right there along with quarterback Derek Carr.

“It’s definitely satisfying when the defense can finish it,” safety Derwin James Jr. said. “Your offense going out there to knee the ball, there’s no better feeling as a defensive player.”

After picking up one first down, quarterback Justin Herbert indeed kneeled out the win, which was fitting and ironic because Herbert stood tallest for the Chargers on offense.

He finished 26 for 34 for 279 yards and each of his team’s three touchdowns on an afternoon when the Chargers rushed for only 76 yards and lost Pro Bowl wide receiver Keenan Allen late in the second quarter because of a hamstring injury.

Herbert guided his team to a 17-3 halftime lead, the edge remaining two touchdowns — 24-10 — deep into the third quarter.

Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) is tackled by Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (26) in the first first half.

Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) is tackled by Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (26). Allen injured his hamstring in the first half and did not return.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

But a field goal, a touchdown and a failed two-point conversion brought the Raiders to within five points in the game’s final minutes.

Las Vegas took over at its 21-yard line for what would be its last chance with 3:30 remaining. Three passes later, the Raiders had third and three at their 40.

That’s when Joey Bosa and Morgan Fox — another free-agent addition — combined to sack Carr, Bosa causing a fumble that Las Vegas recovered. After the two-minute warning, the Raiders were facing fourth and eight.

Davante Adams already had burned the Chargers for 10 receptions and 141 yards and a touchdown. Chargers coach Brandon Staley called a scheme that had James and fellow defensive back Nasir Adderley doubling Adams.

That vice took Adams out of the play and left Carr fidgeting as Mack and his mates swarmed. The veteran quarterback stepped forward to avoid Bosa and looked toward Adams as linebacker Kyle Van Noy — yet another free-agent signing — flew at him.

Finally, Mack closed and — despite the desperate clutching of Kolton Miller, Las Vegas’ left tackle — sacked Carr, causing him to fumble again and, effectively, end the game.

“It’s team ball, man,” Mack said. “It’s all team ball. The coverage guys were doing an excellent job. They did a lot.”

Beginning his ninth year in the NFL, Mack, 31, is coming off a season in which he was limited to seven games for the Chicago Bears because of a foot injury. He had surgery and hadn’t played since Oct. 24.

None of that was apparent as he dominated at times in his Chargers debut, playing against his original team, the Raiders having drafted Mack fifth overall in 2014.

“I’ve been around special players my whole career, and now he’s one of them,” Fox said. “He’s one of those guys that when he plays, you’re like, ‘All right, he’s a dude.’ He’s just elite at everything he does.”

Asked what he thought of Mack, James said: “Bro, did you watch the game? Three sacks. Like, come on, bro.”

Another newcomer, slot corner Bryce Callahan, had one of the Chargers’ three interceptions. Linebacker Drue Tranquill and cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. also picked off Carr.

Samuel matched up repeatedly with Adams, as the defense was forced to play without Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson, who is out while recovering from a surgical procedure he had on his right foot Aug. 23.

“I felt like I did all right,” Samuel said. “I gave up some passes. He’s a great player. He’s a great receiver. I’m just glad that the coaches wanted me to handle that assignment.”

After the Raiders opened the game by converting three third downs, the Chargers stopped them on six of eight the rest of the way. Carr was sacked six times. Though they recovered each, the Raiders also fumbled three times.

All of which looked and felt quite different from what the Chargers’ 2021 defense typically produced each week.

“I walk out on the field, and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m playing with all-stars,’ ” Tranquill said. “You just look at the personnel and you have total confidence that, ‘Holy smokes, something good is about to happen.’ I think we had that belief today.”

The Chargers had that belief. They also had Khalil Mack. Both made a difference.

Etc.

Allen said he did not believe his hamstring injury is serious, though it seems unlikely that he will be able to play Thursday night when the Chargers visit Kansas City. … Jackson worked out before the game and appeared to be moving well. Staley said Jackson “maybe” could have played Sunday. Jackson’s status for Thursday is uncertain.

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