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Chargers Film room: Khalil Mack and Tuli Tuipulotu’s partnership is thriving

The Chargers have found a pass-rushing duo that can take the league by storm as they proved against the Raiders in Week 4.

Los Angeles Chargers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The Chargers defense dominated the Raiders for most of their Week Four AFC West rivalry matchup. They ended the day with seven sacks and three turnovers on top of a 91 percent third-down success rate while holding the Raiders offense to 3.3 yards per rush. This level of production was dominated by one name: Khalil Mack. The outside linebacker had a historic day with six sacks which set the Chargers’ single-game franchise record en route to taking home the AFC Defensive Player of the Week honor.

However, it is Mack’s partnership with another player that has my attention when looking at the film and that player is surprisingly not named Joey Bosa, the man the Chargers signed to a 5-year $135-million contract in 2020. Instead, it has been the emergence of the Bolts’ second-round selection in the 2023 NFL draft, Tuli Tuipulotu out of USC. The rookie got his chance to start on the opposite side of Mack with Bosa being sidelined by a hamstring injury and he has not looked back. In four weeks, he’s created 14 pressures, five quarterback hits, four tackles for loss, and two sacks.

The bookend edge defenders of Mack and Tuli (yes, this nickname does sound like a cheesy 80s TV cop duo) have very similar styles using power and speed to overwhelm blockers with minimal wasted movements. I watched all their snaps from the Raiders game and found four plays that really showed off how they are working together.

Play #1 (10:05 - First Quarter) - 2nd & 5

The Chargers sit in a 3-4 Under look

The Raiders motion the fullback from right to left just before the snap and Mack (lined up on the far right of the above image) has his eyes on this straight away. From here he is able to quickly diagnose the pin and pull blocking concept as illustrated above. Seeing this, he crashes down with some serious force to blow up the play design forcing Josh Jacobs to bounce back outside behind his fullback who has been stopped in his tracks. This unexpected move requires him to slow his feet and so it gives Tuli time to bend round the left tackle, Kolton Miller, to scrape all the way across and pick up the tackle for loss.

The aftermath of Mack’s impact and Tuli is in position for the tackle

Play #2 (9:22 - First Quarter) - 3rd & 7

The same Overload front from the Titans game

On this third down Staley rolls out a really nice blitz design from a front that they teased in Week Two vs. the Titans where the Overload front (three defensive lineman to one side of the formation) resulted in Kenneth Murray being unblocked for a sack. The key is that both the walked-up linebackers aligned over the same guard and this has to draw some level of the pass protection. The challenge for the offense is knowing whether or not they will drop off. Staley is hardly the first coach to do this but it is how he has varied who rushes and who drops that is driving the success of this front so far this season, look out for more of this blitz package in the coming weeks.

How the Chargers varied this front to create a sack

This time Staley puts Mack and Tuli together on the opposite side to the mugged linebackers. The Raiders answer this front with a six-man fan protection to account for the extra rushers and this effectively created a two-on-two for the pass-rushing duo. They make the most of this by running a TON (Tackle over Nose) twist that got Tuli doing what he does best: powering through a gap to draw both lineman, and then Mack twisting back inside using his bend to carry his speed all the way to the quarterback for a sack.

I have enjoyed how Staley has moved Tuli around to create mismatches and overloads so far. He has even shown a solid ability to drop off and cover which gives even more freedom to the coaching staff to keep offenses guessing.

Play #3 (6:02 - Second Quarter) - 1st & 10

The offensive concept out of the power-I formation

Raiders are running Power out of an old school power-I formation with a lead-blocking full back and tight end. Their aiming to double Mack, but he shuts down the targeted D gap with a violent squeeze through both blockers pushing them into, and through, the left guard for good measure. This concept leaves the backside edge unblocked but that is not wise as Tuli is able to scrape all the way down the line once again to lasso the back down from behind for a minimal gain. It’s also worth pointing out how far Scott Matlock pushed his man back on this play. The rookie had some really nice reps last Sunday.

How Mack disrupted the blocking concept for Tuli to clean up from the backside.

Play #4 (12:15 - Fourth Quarter) - 2nd & 25

The Chargers’ Cover 6 look and the path the pass-rushing duo had to take to the QB

Raiders rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell thinks he has wideout Jakobi Meyers open up the seam but doesn’t see safety Dean Marlowe picking up this from his far hash quarter zone. This forces him to hold onto the ball long enough for both Mack and Tuli to win from their ultra wide 9-tech alignments. Both had to widen with late-leaking routes from the fullback and tight end before jumping inside them and then beat the offensive tackles using power and speed to fold the pocket around the rookie signal caller. Tuli spun inside the left tackle at the last moment and this kept the quarterback from escaping the pocket up the middle which gave Mack the time to get a big right paw onto the rookie’s jersey and whip him around for his sixth sack of the night.

Both Tuli Tuipulotu and Khalil Mack made individual plays but it was their ability to act as the hammer or the anvil for each other that caught my eye. Great pass-rushing duos are an excellent weapon for a defensive coordinator to have and these two are well on their way to being just that for Brandon Staley.

One of the keys to the duo’s success, as shown on the last play above, is their near-synchronized timing. It might seem counterintuitive, however, if one pass rusher gets into the backfield at a speed that his counterpart can’t match as it can leave an easy escape route to one side for the quarterback to sneak out of. Mack and Tuli play with the same power, speed, and intensity using very few moves that would slow them down. This puts them into position to be able to help each other make plays in a way that Mack and Bosa haven’t quite been able to in their games together so far.

I think the Chargers’ win over the Raiders is a sign of a bright future for this partnership and I would be keen to see how the coaching staff continues to put them in positions to make the most of their skills.