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How Khalil Mack has been stealing the show on Chargers’ defense

Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack gets ready before a snap against the Atlanta Falcons.
Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack was in the middle of plenty of action against the Atlanta Falcons last week.
(Butch Dill / Associated Press)
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The drive was approaching five minutes Sunday, Atlanta’s offense moving from its 32-yard line to inside the Chargers’ 10.

The Falcons had rattled off nine plays, one of which — a 38-yard touchdown run — was wiped out by penalty.

Huffing and puffing on the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Chargers needed a break, both literally and figuratively.

So Khalil Mack took matters — and the football — into his own hands.

“I saw a long drive by them get turned into something that was great,” defensive lineman Christian Covington said. “We were all dog tired on that play. Just to see Khalil Mack do what Khalil Mack does, we were all energized.”

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After dropping into pass coverage, one of the NFL’s top edge rushers of his era closed on Atlanta wide receiver Drake London and simply took the ball from the rookie.

Mack turned and headed in the opposite direction, teammate Sebastian Joseph-Day joking Wednesday that Mack was so exhausted he looked like a player in the Madden NFL video game running out of gas.

“Khalil was probably so sick of it,” Joseph-Day said. “ ‘Man, gotta end this somehow.’ It was a nightmare out there. He took it into his own hands. Love it. That’s why he’s elite.”

Joseph-Day was rushing Falcons’ quarterback Marcus Mariota on the play and said he didn’t realize what Mack had done until seeing a replay on the overhead video board at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“I just heard people screaming,” Joseph-Day said. “I didn’t know what had happened. I looked and he was running down the sidelines. It was just, ‘Thank you.’ That stuff was painful. We were out there grinding.”

Chargers defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day, right, pursues  Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84).
Chargers defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day, right, pursues Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84).
(John Bazemore / Associated Press)
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Mack hit London immediately after the snap before taking a step toward the middle of the field. After receiving the pass in the left flat, London turned upfield and encountered cornerback Michael Davis.

As London and Davis battled near the Chargers’ five-yard line, Mack swooped in for the swipe.

Covington said he had seen such a cold-blooded takeaway in the NFL only in highlights. Linebacker Drue Tranquill suggested after the game that it had been quite a while since he’d witnessed anything like it.

“I think the last time I saw somebody just strip the ball in the open field and go the other way was probably little league,” he said, smiling. “This guy’s a freak. Just an unbelievable play by him.”

For a defense trying to emphasize turnovers, Mack’s play came at an ideal time and place, Atlanta on the verge of scoring what would have been a go-ahead touchdown early in the second half.

The moment also marked another highlight for Mack, who has been the Chargers’ second-best overall defender through eight games, according to Pro Football Focus.

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He leads the team with 23 pressures and six sacks and has the defense’s only two fumble recoveries.

Coming off a season in which he sat out 10 games because of a foot injury, Mack has played the fifth-most snaps among Chargers’ defenders.

Asked what he has thought of Mack, who is in his first season with the Chargers, Covington said, “The brother comes as advertised.”

The Chargers acquired Mack in a trade with Chicago in March, the deal the first step in head coach Brandon Staley rebuilding his defense. Although the unit as a whole has broken down at times, Mack has remained solid.

Entering this season, he was facing questions about what he had left at age 31 and approaching his ninth NFL season.

“In this league, the older you get, people are going to say you’re slowing down,” Joseph-Day said. “But the greats are great, you know. No offense, but I think sometimes people get bored and they look for things to say. This man has plenty left.”

Etc.

  • Right tackle Trey Pipkins III was among the Chargers who didn’t practice Wednesday as he continues to deal with a left knee injury that he aggravated against Atlanta. Staley said Pipkins and reserve edge rusher Chris Rumph II (knee) is each likely “a game-time decision” for Sunday night at San Francisco.
  • The Chargers will be without wide receiver Mike Williams (ankle) this weekend, and fellow receiver Keenan Allen (hamstring) also isn’t expected to play.
  • Staley said the Chargers are planning on having Cameron Dicker kick against the 49ers as Dustin Hopkins (hamstring) remains out.
  • Defensive lineman Jerry Tillery did not practice Wednesday because of a personal matter, according to the Chargers’ injury report.
  • The Chargers signed defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko to their active roster and put Austin Johnson (knee) on the injured reserve list. Johnson will sit out the rest of the season.
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