Amazingly, Collins missed entire weeks of practice prior to the Cowboys' recent wins over the Redskins and Giants – which put him up against familiar pass rushers in Ryan Kerrigan and Jason Pierre-Paul.
La'el Collins did return to practice yesterday, which is of course an encouraging sign as he now gets set to face the most complete and dominant defensive end the game may offer.
La’el Collins draws Khalil Mack this weekend in Oakland, which is just the latest elite pass rusher he’s had to face this year.
— David Helman (@davidhelman_) December 13, 2017
Khalil Mack has recorded 8.5 sacks this season, with one in each of his last four games. It is already well-known that the Raiders' premier defensive end is one of the most all-around talented defenders in the NFL, and having sat down to formally study his tape I was blown away by his consistent ability to make an impact on the game.
There are not many things (if any) that Khalil Mack cannot do as a pass rusher, with the ability to run the arc and bend back to the quarterback seen in the clip above. Mack is always in position to finish at the football thanks to the many ways he can win with his hands. The power he shows through his upper body to pair with polished rush moves on the edge and adequate speed is unfair for even the best tackles.
Not only just immensely gifted, Mack is one of the smartest players I've studied this season. Mack simply refuses to stay blocked for long, using his length to keep his distance from blockers when needed while remaining in position to disengage.
Even trying to throw the ball over Mack to mitigate his rush ability didn't work for the Chiefs this last week, as this breakdown in their protection up front leads to Khalil hunting down Alex Smith for a huge loss.
To give this much praise to Khalil Mack and not La'el Collins would be unfair though, as Collins has improved with each rep – mentally and physically – taken at right tackle. The biggest thing Collins has learned is that mirroring rushers to keep them away from Dak Prescott is often more than enough, as opposed to his fan-favorite aggressive style at guard.
Collins' initial pass set in the above clip forces Oliver Vernon to rush wide against him, which he does nicely by dipping his shoulder and creating a small blocking surface area. As he does this, Collins gets his strong hands inside on Vernon, which keeps him from getting to Prescott through his edge rush.
La'el Collins uses a similar tactic against Vernon again here. What is a concern on this play is the lack of depth Collins gets away from the line of scrimmage on his initial drop.
Against Khalil Mack, Collins will have to be careful not to initiate contact early enough to allow Mack to simply overpower him. Getting depth and consistently playing with proper hand placement will be the only way to do this, as Mack's ability to flatten the corner is elite for his size and length.
Where Olivier Vernon is similar to Khalil Mack is in his ability to play the run with the willingness to ride blockers as needed. Vernon catches Collins with a wide base here (as James Hanna misses an opportunity to help his right tackle before going out in the pattern), and takes advantage by throwing Collins' hands off of him and getting in the face of Dak Prescott.
Collins is not going to win every snap against Mack, and the Cowboys will of course not ask him to, but there were enough positives on his tape from week 14 to expect him to hold his own at RT once again.
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This will be the last game the Cowboys play this season without Ezekiel Elliott at RB, and in his absence they have finally found ways to get both Alfred Morris and Rod Smith going. To ensure that Elliott's return to the field will matter though, the Cowboys need to go on the road Sunday night and run the football at a Raiders' defense featuring elite bookend DEs in Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.
The battle between La'el Collins and Khalil Mack is a remarkable one to watch this week, as Collins has earned a starting RT job that Dallas convinced everyone would not be his in the offseason. A culmination of every tough assignment La'el has faced thus far is coming his way in the “Black Hole” this weekend with Mack.