It’s no secret that the Oakland Raiders defense the past two weeks has been easier on the eyes since John Pagano was promoted to defensive play calling duties.
The eyes alone suggest that the players are simply playing faster, that they’re flying to the football. We’re seeing multiple instances where multiple defenders are swarming the ball. The numbers don’t show a whole lot of schematic changes, so one has to ask where has this level of play been for the past few months?
Unleashing the pass rush
The Raiders have not been able to generate enough pressure on the quarterback this season. The last two weeks; however, has been a different story. Rather, it’s been the story many of us anticipated this season to look like on the defensive side of the ball.
After getting just 14 sacks through the first 10 games of the year, the Raiders pass rush has exploded for eight sacks in the past two games.
John Pagano was touted as having a number of exotic blitz packages – some of which would be installed these past two weeks. Of the eight sacks though, only one has come when the defense has sent five or more rushers at the quarterback.
In fact, the past two games have seen limited usage and success with blitz packages. Pagano has dialled up a blitz just two percent more than predecessor Ken Norton Jr, and has recorded a pressure on just 36.3% of those snaps (a three percent drop in comparison to Ken Norton).
The big spike in improvement along the pass rush comes down to generating more pressure with the front four, in which the past two games has seen a 9.24% improvement compared to the first 10 games of the season. Denico Autry’s play in particular has spiked the past two weeks. He’s had three sacks and has become Oakland’s top interior pass rusher in terms of productivity, replacing Mario Edwards Jr.
Jack Del Rio has consistently said that pass rush and coverage are connected. So it should be no surprise to see an improvement on the backend, notably the play of Dexter McDonald. After being ranked one of the worst cornerbacks in coverage earlier this year, McDonald has really upped his play the past three games, giving up just the second least amount of yards by CBs playing 50+ snaps in the NFL.
Return of the Slash Bros
The Slash Bros Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin are well and truly back. After averaging just 6.2 QB pressures between them under Norton, they have more than doubled their production the past two games, averaging 13 QB pressures between them. These pressures have culminated in two sacks for Mack and three for Irvin. Per PFF, Mack and Irvin were the top two edge pass rushers this past week. When the Slash Bros are on song, it hurries up the offense and creates errors, which in turn creates turnovers. Speaking of which…
Winning the turnover and third down battle
The 2016 Raiders on defense were not very good (putting it nicely), but they had a knack for creating a turnover at the right time, be it a strip sack, a timely pick or a third down stop forcing a punt. Its opportunistic nature made up for numerous long touchdown drives it would give up.
This season, the long touchdown drives have remained, but unfortunately, the turnovers and third down stops have been few and far between. Under Pagano, the numbers in these areas have significantly improved. The past two weeks have seen the Raiders allow just 35.7% of 3rd down opportunities for opposing offenses. By comparison, the only week they kept an offense under 40% 3rd down conversion under Norton this year was in Week 4 at Denver. Getting off the field on third down results in the Raiders offense not only getting better field position but also it gives the offense more drives (and hence opportunities) to score points.
The Raiders are also beginning to generate turnovers. In the past two weeks, they’ve forced three fumbles (recovered two) and had one interception. All three turnovers have occurred when the opposing offense is within 30 yards of paydirt.
Being able to generate turnovers when defending near your end zone minimises the effect that long drives have on the scoreboard. It can be easy to say, but if the Raiders don’t generate those turnovers, the opposition likely get a touchdown (given two turnovers came in ‘goal to go’ situations), and we would be likely turning our attention to the upcoming off-season.
It’s hard to pinpoint any single area that definitively explains the improvements on defense for the Raiders. Whatever it is though, it’s working. Their star players are playing at a higher level than previously and it’s beginning to unlock the potential of a defense that very well could be leaned on for the Raiders to be in the playoffs.