The last 15 seasons have been rough for the Oakland Raiders, to say the least. When the offense is up, the defense is down. When the defense is firing, the offense is floundering.
Recently, Raider Nation has been calling desperately for defenders to fill the holes left by Charles Woodson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Rod Woodson, Kirk Morrison, and Tyvon Branch, to name a few of the most notable defenders this century thus far. Those guys were are pretty darn good, and gaps were left that desperately needed to be filled. Reggie McKenzie has tried relentlessly to fill the secondary with good players, which is in a holding pattern at the moment.
But what about the pass rush? Why is that so important, you may ask. Well, it’s the first line of defense, as it were, and without a good start, it’s not often the plays come to a good end.
There have been a few key players that the Raiders have been lucky enough to acquire recently, either via the draft or free agency. But holes remain and so do the screams to the front office to fill them. For several recent drafts, fans have been begging for defense. In three of his six drafts with the Raiders, Reggie McKenzie has chosen defensive backs in the first round. The other three first-rounders consisted of a tackle, a wide receiver, and one very important outside linebacker/edge rusher. The bottom line here is that talent is left on the board; talent that could certainly jive with the Raiders.
Those of you who have watched the drafts seem to range from, “wow, we caught lightning in a bottle!” to, “what the *&$# are you doing?!” when the Raiders make their pick. The choices look good when you analyze them on paper, and a strong secondary is a huge difference-maker in a game, but defense starts up front.
The front seven is perhaps the most important part of the defense. If you don’t believe that, here are some points for consideration. A quarterback on his back can’t throw a ball. A running back with no holes goes nowhere. And no matter how good a receiver is, none of them can catch a ball that hasn’t been thrown to him.
Doesn’t the secondary take care of this?
No. Don’t be silly. Three of the top five teams leading the interception tallies weren’t even in the top nine in total defense. Baltimore landed barely in the top ten because they had a great secondary this year that made up for their more-than-mediocre defensive front. They ended up 12th in sacks. CJ Mosely, their monster ILB, was 8th in the league in tackles, and of course, Terrell Suggs jacked up his stats with another 11-sack season. Other than that, it was largely missing.
Detroit’s cornerback Darius Slay led the league both in interceptions and passes defended, but the team, despite 12 sacks from Ezekiel Ansah, ended 27th in total defense. Most of the other teams can safely say that their own pass rush sucked.
A fierce pass rush is the meat and potatoes of a solid defense
Sure, most great defenses have strong defensive backfields, but the best start with the line and go back from there. Without that front line, it takes incredibly special talent in the secondary to keep scoring to a minimum. We’re talking two lockdown corners and renaissance safeties on the field every play.
For a little perspective, three of the top eight sack leaders in 2017 came from the top two defenses, Jacksonville and Minnesota. Jaguars’ Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue tallied 26.5 between the two of them, and their top three pass rushers accounted for more than the bottom third of the remaining teams. They both had amazing secondaries as well, but those players don’t make plays that they aren’t set up for. A quarterback facing a 250-pound monster whispering in his ear will make a mistake. He’ll throw a reckless ball into the waiting arms of a stellar defensive back. Even a mediocre DB can make big plays off a bad throw.
The Raiders’ defense ranked around 20th in the league, depending on the list you follow. Irrespective of which info you use, the team didn’t succeed in any facet. There was really only one bright spot and no surprise to anyone, it was Khalil Mack. Oakland was 24th in sacks. They were able to rack up 31 team sacks, but 10.5 of those were from Mack. Another 1/3 of them were from Bruce Irvin with eight, then six other players round out the total with five or less.
This didn’t have to happen, and it doesn’t have to continue. Irvin had a rough year and didn’t start rolling until halfway through the season. Only two sacks were logged through Week 8. He started running through people in Week 9 when he logged half a sack, which was enough to get him hungry for more. He sacked in half of the remaining games and all four of his forced fumbles were in the last half of the season. If he played that high a level for the whole season, he could have rivaled some of the Top 5 sack leaders.
One very important point to consider is that Irvin and Mack often bookend the edges in hopes of meeting at the quarterback and making a wish. If not, they’re coming full force, one after another, to wreak havoc on the O-line. This is often times when sacks happen. It seems fair to assume that Irvin was able to apply his skills more after Week 8 after NaVorro Bowman joined the team.
So what changed? Why did it make such a difference? It’s all about the amount of attention the offensive line has to pay to each of these men. Watch how much time and real estate Mack occupies and you’ll see double and triple-teams galore. So when Bruce Irvin starts slow, Mack takes it all; he’s the only remaining threat.
Once Bowman was picked up and gelled with his team, he started garnering more attention. He made the middle of the front seven dangerous and players like Mack, Irvin, and even Denico Autry benefited heavily from that. Autry, for example, as a defensive lineman, was able to rack up four of his five sacks in the last half of the season, even one against the world champs’ first-team All-Pro center Jason Kelce. There’s certainly something to be said for spreading it around.
The Raiders need to stop this secondary nonsense and focus on beefing up that line. Strike some deals early in the draft to pick up the BPA in the front seven positions, and round out the draft with depth talent. Even better, find a strong free agent… after signing Bowman to a solid contract to keep him in Oakland. This year’s free agent list is rather light on defense, so the Raiders may have to pony up some sizeable dough to get someone worth having, but it would be money very well spent, especially when they see that defense rocket to top ten.