In an offseason highlighted by change, it’s time for Raider Nation to become prepared for some radical changes on the defensive side of the ball.
Paul Guenther, the new defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders, comes from a defensive school that is significantly different from what fans saw from Ken Norton Jr. One of the first things that will be noticed is the tendency for Guenther to play in nickel defenses. Not only do I expect him to continue this trend with the Raiders for the next several seasons, but I believe he will be the tip of the spear in changing how NFL fans perceive five defensive back formations.
Before I jump into the merits of the 425 system specifically, there is some basic groundwork that needs to be addressed. Firstly, nickel defense at its most basic is simply any defense with five defensive backs on the field. Over the last few seasons, the Raiders were one of the teams with the least amount of defensive snaps in nickel formations. They tried to use their base defense to handle three wide receiver sets regularly. Late in games or in passing situations, they would switch to dime (six defensive backs), but there was a stubbornness to play nickel.
There is a good reason for that admittedly. Many teams would use three wide receiver sets to force a defense to only have six men in the box and the offense would then have a leg up in numbers when running the ball. The Peyton Manning led Colts with Edgerrin James did this masterfully. This causes teams to consider what they could do to counter that type of approach and it leads to “big nickel”. Big nickel is simply a nickel package but with a safety in the slot, not a cornerback. A safety in the slot gave the defense a better ability to stop the run, although it made them slightly more predictable on defense due to the fact the slot defender generally could not keep up man to man versus the third wide receiver.
Several years ago Texas Christian University, famous for producing LaDainian Tomlinson, began to run a 425 defense. TCU realized that a big nickel approach limited what one could do defensively, so they abandoned all traditional rules on defense and focused on writing new ones. At the same time, the Arizona Cardinals were toying around with 335 defensive looks and saw a ton of success with the blitz-heavy defense.
To boil the 425 down to its most basic elements, what this approach allows defenses to do is skirt the line between a traditional base defense and how it defends the run, while simultaneously unleashing tons of athletic talent on the field at any given time. This type of defense will be best served by the play of its safeties more than the cornerbacks. Specifically, both strong safeties that travel into the box and the free safety that is many times left alone in order to confuse a quarterback, have to be physical freaks and playmakers.
Varied and Vicious
The most appealing aspect of the 425 defense is the aggressive nature that it breeds. Due to the fact that the defense requires athletic freaks and highlights them at all times, it drives defensive coordinators to push the limits for what they can draw up and create. When you are lining up two 6’4″, 215-plus pound safeties outside of two thumping linebackers with a traditional four-man front, there are no limitations for creativity.
What plagued many defensive coordinators when in a big nickel was the lack of creativity they could have with the blitzes due to the old-fashioned rules that governed how the defense was implemented. The 425 rejects those rules and encourages defensive minds to move those safeties all over the field. The key to remember is that this defense is all about the safety play. Yes, having quality cornerbacks is helpful, but it is the safeties lining up between the hashes and what they do after the snap that makes this approach exciting.
One play you could line all three safeties deep in order to defend against a potential deep passing play. The next you could make your defensive front resemble an old school 44 defense and use those strong safeties that are undersized outside linebackers. On the next play when the offensive coordinator comes out and stacks his receivers to one side, you can line up your safeties to ensure you have a man to man look, but then play zone because those three safeties have a natural ability to cover receivers in the zone.
The real kicker here is not only can you do all that, but you can also incorporate exotic blitzes to achieve it. This was where the Cardinals truly made their mark in the world of three safety base defenses. James Bettcher used the combination of Tyrann Mathieu, Rashaad Johnson, and Tony Jefferson with destructive efficiency and created an extremely feared defense.
Where the 425 defense shows a significant amount of similarities with more traditional forms of defense such as the traditional 43, is the defensive line. Just like a traditional 43 that was originally invented in the 1950’s to highlight the middle linebacker, the 425 uses a four-man front with traditional skill set prototypes. Raider fans were given a big hint to what the Raiders planned on doing with the defense when Bruce Irvin Tweeted that he would no longer be asked to cover.
This is a big giveaway that not only will Irvin be a defensive end, but he will also likely be the weakside defensive end. The distinction between weakside and strongside is important. Because the strong side of the defense is where the inline tight end lines up, it requires a defensive end that can handle that double team against the run. For the Raiders there is no better run defender than Khalil Mack.
Furthermore, the strongside defensive end lines up between the offensive tackle and the tight end. Where this defense can break with tradition is where it can line up the defensive tackles. Traditionally in a 43 the three-technique, the Warren Sapp guy, would line up over the guard on the strong side which placed the nose tackle between the center and guard on the opposite side. However, in this case, due to the fact the Raiders would want to line up Irvin unusually wide to isolate his offensive tackle in a one on one matchup, the Raiders could instead place the three-tech on the weak side.
At this point what the defense has done is force the weak side of the offensive line to fan out wide in one on one matchups, and on the strong side, the nose tackle will preoccupy the center and guard. This forces the offense to either double team with the tight end or leave Mack in a one on one matchup with a potential chip at best. That is a matchup I will take any day.
Other than the legend that is Drew Carey and the masterpiece that is the Major League movies, I do not credit Ohio for much. The great state of Ohio did produce one of the more interesting defensive coaching trees in the last decade of the NFL though. Marvin Lewis was groomed in the Steelers defense in the early 1990’s and then, he was one of the principal creators of the historic early 2000’s Baltimore Raven defenses. Those teams were defined by large defensive tackles inside, limited blitzing, and creative coverages.
In 2008 the Bengals introduced a new defensive coordinator named Mike Zimmer. Paul Guenther had been on staff since 2005 and now got to learn at the feet of a master that at the time was wildly underappreciated. Between 2008 and 2014 Zimmer won NFL Assistant Coach of the Year once and created one of the most intriguing defenses in the NFL. In 2014 Zimmer left the Bengals to be the head coach of the Vikings and has put his complex, blitz/coverage exotic defense to another level.
In the three seasons that Guenther was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals, they were not the most blitz-heavy team. That is counter-intuitive with Zimmer’s nature but is more reflective of Marvin Lewis than anything. What they did with ruthless efficiency was develop a capable and formidable defense that was in five defensive backs 70% of the time.
Recently, the Bengals invited former 49ers safety Eric Reid to town for a visit and it was reportedly because they wanted to develop more three safety sets. I realize that Guenther is currently no longer coaching in Cincinnati, but his replacement Teryl Austin has also been lauded in recent seasons for being a forward-thinking defensive mind. It seems to me that in this case these young defensive coordinators see the value in developing the proper five defensive back base defense and are seeking to implement it.
Ansley, Derrick (and Others)
Another vital person to make this sort of transition possible is the addition of defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley. He was most recently the defensive backs coach at Alabama after impressing the college coaching ranks while coaching at Kansas. What is more important to note with Ansley is the approach that Nick Saban has at Alabama. Similarly to Bill Belichick, Saban does not necessarily differentiate between cornerbacks and safeties in his mentality. Instead, he treats everyone as a defensive back and applies their skill set where it can best be used.
This shows when one watches Alabama and you see a variety of talented corners and safeties who in many respects are similarly built, performing in coverage, run defending, and blitzing. Now take these principles and apply it to the NFL where you have access to only the best players in the world. You can now take an approach that is truly revolutionary and add athletic freaks to every level.
A second important addition to the defensive staff was Jim O’Neil. As a Senior Defensive Assistant, it will be his job to learn every aspect of the defense inside and out so he can assist any aspect of it. O’Neil’s history is interesting. He coached under Mike Pettine with the Cleveland Browns and also was a defensive coordinator for the 49ers. For those who do not know much about Mike Pettine, he comes from the Rex Ryan school and is very blitz happy. His ability to help design blitzes could be a crucial addition to help Guenther develop his own flavor of defense.
Soul Patrol 2.0
For those who have followed me for any amount of time on Twitter, you will know that I am a huge advocate for Karl Joseph, Gareon Conley, and Obi Melifonwu. All three of these guys were players I was high on from day one in the draft process and have full faith in because I have watched them produce. With this defensive staff and the kind of approach I believe the Raiders will establish, these players will finally be put into a position to succeed.
The issue at hand is the last two defensive back spots. The Raiders signed Rashaan Melvin and Marcus Gilchrist to one-year deals. Melvin is a quality boundary cornerback and signing him to a one year deal is very odd. The Raiders do not have much long-term debt against the cap and could have easily given him a second-year roster bonus bump to satisfy his contractual demands.
Gilchrist is an odd fit on its face. Guenther has always paired a smaller deep free safety type with a bigger athletic freak at strong safety. That would tell us that the combination of Joseph and Obi would be a perfect fit. To me the answer is obvious, Gilchrist was signed to be the slot defender and third safety in a 425 base system. Obi will line on the tight end side and Gilchrist on the weak side so he can have a clear shot at the running backs or quarterback.
Long term I do not believe the Raiders plan on having Gilchrist or Melvin on the roster beyond one year. If both players play extremely well and get good contracts next offseason the Raiders will be in line for compensatory picks and this draft has a ton of talent at the positions they desire. If the Raiders could get either Derwin James or Minkah Fitzpatrick in round one and any of the other Alabama defensive backs in the following rounds, they could easily have two brand new starters next year and not miss a beat. In my mind, the ideal additions would be Fitzpatrick at 10 overall and either Ronnie Harrison in round two or Tony Brown in rounds 2-4. It really depends how he is viewed by the organization.
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