Here’s a question that must be asked and answered when the Oakland Raiders convene for their first staff/personnel meeting: “Paul, what do you need to make this defense sound?”
That Paul would be new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Brought over from the Cincinnati Bengals by new head coach Jon Gruden, Guenther built a reputation as a solid play-caller and motivator.
Cutting his teeth as a linebacker’s coach under then-Bengals DC Mike Zimmer (now Minnesota Vikings head honcho), Guenther captained a harrier of a Cincy defense which yielded a quarterback rating of 82.9 and ranked 11th in sacks (41) and 20th in interceptions (11). In comparison, Oakland allowed a 101.8 rating and ranked 24th in sacks (31) and last in picks (5) under the combination of Ken Norton Jr., John Pagano and Jack Del Rio.
Like the Raiders, Guenther saw injuries whittle away his Bengals roster, yet his defense ranked 16th in the league in points allowed (349) and average (21.8) this past season. Before that, the Bengals sported the No. 8 (2016), 2 and 12 ranked scoring defense.
“I met Paul Guenther when my brother was the offensive coordinator with the Bengals,” Gruden said at his introductory press conference this past Tuesday. “I loved the way the Bengals play defense, up the field, single gap, get after it … (Bengals linebacker) Vontaze Burfict, undrafted out of Arizona State, became a star player. (Guenther) can coach coaches. He can coach a lot of different situations. That’s what I love.”
Deploying a 4-3 alignment with a four-man front that relied on natural pressure, Guenther deviated from Zimmer’s aggressive blitz defense. Cincinnati’s penchant to send additional rushers was less than Oakland’s this past season, believe it or not, but generated more QB takedowns. This could be a byproduct of Marvin Lewis’ (a defensive-minded head coach) want rather than Guenther’s. Time will most definitely tell. On the backend, the Bengals applied press-man concepts intermixed with zone.
Whether or not Guenther installs a versatile alignment along with a creative blitz scheme akin to his mentor, the Raiders are in dire need of talent influx. A competent secondary is a required component as is a heady middle linebacker and a terrorizing interior defensive tackle. Oakland isn’t close to any of those prerequisites.
Continued development of 2017 draft picks Gareon Conley (cornerback), Obi Melifonwu (safety), Eddie Vanderdoes (defensive tackle), Marquel Lee (middle linebacker), Shalom Luani (safety) and Treyvon Hester (DT) is key. As is a decision on free agent NaVorro Bowman coupled with free agency additions and 2018 draft selections.
Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie must give the defense as much if not more consideration.
McKenzie approached the 2017 offseason with the belief Oakland’s offense would be so good that even a mediocre to porous defense would do. Throw that mindset in the garbage and burn it. The Raiders need to aim for a respectable and downright intimidating defense. And Guenther has the know-how to make that happen. If he’s given the right tools and talent.
The offense is generating a lot of attention — and deservedly so — with the addition of Gruden. But lest we not forget the other side of the ball.
Without question how Gruden elevates Derek Carr’s game needs to be under a microscope. After all, No. 4 is the $125-million man.
But soon enough, there will be another $100-plus million man on the opposite line of scrimmage — No. 52, Khalil Mack. How Guenther gets Mack to ascend to new heights will be under as much scrutiny as the Gruden-Carr Connection.