The Raiders struggled mightily with pass defense in 2016

The Oakland Raiders’ 2016 campaign was a success and it was fueled by one of the NFL’s most prolific and balanced offenses while leaning on the late game heroics of star quarterback Derek Carr but the pass defense was another story. While the offense is young, fast, and led by arguably the NFL’s best offensive line, the pass defense left a lot to be desired in 2016.

The Raiders were a huge disappointment after the expensive off-season signing deals of Sean Smith, David Amerson, Reggie Nelson and Bruce Irvin. In the draft, McKenzie didn’t stop addressing the defense as he used his first three draft picks on defenders Karl Joseph, Jihad Ward, and Shilique Calhoun. Considering the attention addressed to improve the personnel, the production never came to fruition.

The sad numbers

To spark some glaring statistical perspective into the defensive struggles: the Raiders high-powered offense scored 47 touchdowns and gained 5,973 yards while the defense surrendered 46 touchdowns and allowed 6,001 yards. Even with the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of The Year, Khalil Mack, the Raiders defense finished dead last in sacks with only 25. That 12-4 record is an amazing feat considering the oppositions offensive success.

There wasn’t a more obvious weakness on the Raiders defense than the inability to cover the opposing teams tight ends. Starting middle linebacker Ben Heeney, who won the staff over throughout camp and pre-season, struggled against the Atlanta Falcons in week two. Heeney was alone and looked lost in the open field, surrendering big plays to Jacob Tamme and Austin Hooper, respectively. It was clear he lacked the speed and athleticism needed in either zone or man coverage concepts to guard a tight end. After losing his season to injury, albeit for better or worse for the Raiders had other personnel issues in regards to tight end coverage.

The Malcolm Smith conundrum

Then there was Malcolm Smith, predominately an outside linebacker that drew the tight end match-up often and came up short often. It was clear that many opposing team’s offenses game planned against him, moving tight end personnel pre-snap to gain his defensive assignment and at times attacking him in consecutive plays with basic tight end route concepts. As the 2016 season wore on, it was as if the toaster was never unplugged, as he was burnt repeatedly in coverage, earning himself a ferry ride across the bay to join the San Francisco 49ers (albeit a profitable one).

A defensive bright spot

On the other hand, there was 2016 first round NFL draft pick Karl Joseph, a safety who partially lost the 2016 off season, and was brought along, recovering from a season ending injury that he sustained back in college. The promising rookie added a great dimension to the Raiders’ defensive toughness and downhill attack in the box. However, standing at 5’10 ” and weighing slightly over 200 pounds, he had issues physically matching up with the length & build of NFL tight ends. Joseph rode the hip of tight ends well in coverage but couldn’t make a play on the ball.

Considering that he gives up 8 inches of height and sixty pounds, and will guard the likes of players such as Travis Kelce and his incredible 6’6″ height and 260 lb. frame, Joseph projects to be a key piece in the Raiders future defensive progression. Furthermore, new assistant head coach and defensive mind John Pagano is expected to have a profound influence on Joseph. Likewise, Pagano might want Joseph to be utilized closer to the line of scrimmage pre-snap to use his speed, tackling, and hard-hitting to disrupt offenses. Perhaps, he’ll also be used as a nickel rusher as well, so you may be asking, where that leaves the 2017 tight end coverage duties?

Enter Obi Melifonwu

Meet the Raiders 2017 second round draft pick in safety Obi Melifonwu. If you dare to take a look at the opposing tight ends the Raiders face on their 2017 schedule, something needed to be done. Media rumblings had the Raiders nearly taking Melifonwu with the 24th overall pick, but he fell at a great value to them in the second round.

Melifonwu’s a raw player so while he lacks some instincts and positional polish at the safety position, he’s arguably the most impressive athletic specimen in the whole draft.  What about those big NFL tight ends you speak of? Melifonwu is every bit of 6’4″ and 224 lbs. while posting a 40-yard dash time of 4.40 seconds at the NFL combine and an NBA-like 44″ vertical and a 141″ broad jump. I suggest you get your measuring tape out your tool box to admire these measurables.

Melifonwu will find an immediate role on the defense in tight end man coverage concepts and quite frankly, that might be all that’s asked of him defensively in his developing rookie campaign.

Be sure to check out RaiderRamble.com’s Micah breaking down the Raiders’ second round draft pick Obi Melifonwu right here.

Melifonwu can run with anybody on the field (including a tight end) with size that demands a threat for disrupting pass plays in the seams. The tight end production explosion in the NFL makes players like him a rare luxury to acquire. The red-zone threat of a big physical tight end that wins the ball at the point of attack goes beyond scheme, it requires the size and frame to win the match-up. Moreover, Melifonwu will help generate a pass rush by checking off the tight end assignment. Finally, he might find a special teams role as a punt gunner, seemingly bringing an end to the Taiwan Jones-era and could lead to him truly having a special “immediate impact”.

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Written by Sean Hildebrandt

Spilling my drinks & thoughts on my Raiders addiction. Proud Father - Family man living in beautiful Honolulu, HI BA - English & Creative Writing - University of Hawaii at Manoa

1 comment

  1. Sean, Point taken on the TE/Height/Coverage situation. Melifonwu 6’4 or 6’3 as he’s listed on the current Raiders Roster, vs. Joseph at 5’10. Joseph is 210 lbs. Not a shade over 200. He is actually thicker frame wise than Melifonwu. 7 lbs. for an additional 5 inches, if you reference the roster. Neiron Ball would have been a good cover LB, but was hurt. The defense was misemployed in my admittedly non-profit opinion. Sean Smith should have played up more versus back, to utilize his size and strength. Plus, it shouldn’t be overlooked how lack of interior D line pressure influenced coverage. Decent article, and I get the height factor. But, several other equally important variables exist.

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