The ongoing concern of many Oakland fans and pundits since the end of last season has been the Raiders’ porous defense.
The defensive concerns are certainly not unfounded as the team’s defensive squad finished a dismal 20th in the league in overall defense, 25th in defending the pass and 17th in rushing. In spite of these disappointing numbers, the Raiders managed to finish the season 12-4 overall, mainly due to their potent offense led by the brilliant young rock slinger, Derek Carr.
The hope of many entering the 2017 draft was that GM Reggie McKenzie would use the draft to bolster the Raiders’ weak secondary and depleted linebacker core. Moreover, he did that, just not to the extent many felt was needed. The team used their first round pick to secure Ohio State standout corner Gareon Conley and picked up safety Obi Melifonwu in the 2nd round.
Even so, many fans have complained that the Raiders’ secondary is still suspect and that signing these two rookies are not going to heal a defensive backfield that gave up big play after big play last year.
Even more upsetting to most fans was the Raiders’ lackluster effort to draft or sign a decent middle linebacker; the position most felt was the team’s Achilles Heel last season.
In spite of the dire predictions of a complete defensive meltdown, this season there is some reason to be cautiously optimistic about the Raiders defensive squad.
In January, the Raiders hired former Defensive Coordinator for the Chargers John Pagano as Assistant Head Coach-Defense. Pagano was recruited to help defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. who has been under fire with many fans calling for his head. His role was supposed to be to help build better communication in the backfield, but watching him work the sidelines in pre-season, Pagano seemed to be hands on with the whole squad.
In addition to hiring Pagano, the Raiders fired defensive backs coach Marcus Roberts, promoting assistant DB coach and former Raiders star cornerback/safety, Rod Woodson. These moves indicate a keen awareness by Raiders management that their defensive backfield was weak at best. The moves also suggest that the Raiders feel that the problems they had covering receivers last year had more to do with coaching than talent.
When questioned about the play of our defensive backs, both players and coaches have consistently maintained that the problems in our backfield are primarily communication issues that can be corrected. Moreover, let’s remember; the Raiders management and coaching staff are paid professionals in the NFL; the best of the best. It seems that sometimes fans forget that the coaches are keenly aware of what the team needs to strengthen the defense. Let them earn their money. After all, the team has not even played a regular season game yet!
As mentioned, the Raiders picked up Gareon Conley in the first round of the draft. Conley has the speed and technique to allow him to become an NFL starter and hopefully a shut-down corner with some more practice and mentoring.
Sadly, Melifonwu suffered an injury in the pre-season and was placed on injured reserve and won’t be able to play for at least eight weeks. The good news is that the team’s 7th round draft pick, safety Shalom Luani had a fantastic pre-season, showing great instinct and delivering big hits. Luani finished the pre-season with 12 tackles, two assists, and an interception. More importantly, Luani has a nose for the ball and natural instincts that make him look like a seasoned vet rather than a long-shot rookie 7th round draft pick.
Another stand out in the pre-season was linebacker Marquel Lee. Lee has speed and great natural ability. Granted, he is green and needs to be coached up, but he is also a quick learner and should help shore up a weak linebacker core.
2017 is the third year that the Raiders will be playing under the leadership of Del Rio and Norton. Playing good defense in the NFL does require a team to have talented players, but more importantly, the defense has to play as one unit which requires discipline and a keen understanding of complicated schemes and play design.
Will to Win
The Raiders are on a mission. The veterans on the team are determined to win a championship before the team moves to their new home in Las Vegas. In football, as in life, many times the most successful teams and individuals are those with the greatest desire. In short, attitude is everything. If the defense plays with swagger, pride, and confidence, they can turn it around. When questioned about the overall defense, Raiders cornerback, David Amerson said in a recent interview, “It’s a whole new beat… I feel like we are going to shock a lot of people.”
Most Raiders fans have expressed grave doubts about the defense’s ability to improve upon last year’s dismal performance. While this view is somewhat understandable, it is certainly not the time to throw in the towel. As a matter of fact, the 2017 Oakland Raiders defensive squad may actually “shock” some people. Let’s hope so.