The Kansas City Chiefs are the reigning Super Bowl champions and to have a chance at beating them, Jon Gruden and the Las Vegas Raiders must build a contender.
The Raiders may never have Patrick Mahomes or a quarterback of his caliber under center. They might not even have the offensive fire power to go shot for shot, but, going old school with a modernized West Coast Offense and a rock-solid defense could be the answer.
Salt and Pepper
The nickname fits the bill as Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby had an immediate impact as rookies.
Crosby was a defensive rookie of the year snub and earned his way from an afterthought to starter in five weeks. He started 10 games, and in those, he had equal and/or better stats than 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa. Crosby played like a seasoned vet in a rookie’s body and with added strength and a little more weight to anchor him down in 2020,the sky is the limit.
On the other hand, Ferrell was a playmaker of a different sort and for the majority of the season, he did the dirty work in the trenches. He didn’t garner much accolades for his pass rushing prowess, nor did he flash any eye-popping stats, but he was a run stopping containment animal.
The Raiders, throughout the majority of the season,were a Top 10 rushing defense. The rub is that their secondary was so porous that other teams wouldn’t even consider running the ball. Putting that aside, the Raiders were very sound in their gap assignments and were tackling well and in gangs. A lot of that had to do with the play of Ferrell on the strong side setting the edge and squeezing plays back into the help.
Ferrell also showed versatility when sliding down the line of scrimmage and playing defensive tackle at times. Quickness and strength are areas which strike me out as places to improve his game, but a lot of it could also be him trying to make the adjustment from college to the pros. The defensive end is a special talent and he just needs some time to grow.
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Air Traffic without control
Opponents enjoyed far too much success throwing the football against the Raiders in 2019. It can’t be explained any better than that. A myriad of factors go into unsuccessful defenses and statistically, the Raiders were among the worst last season. Consistent pass rush, skill of the quarterback, time in the pocket and speed and agility of the receivers. All of these factors seemed to work against the them.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Raiders currently need good corners and more safeties. Johnathan Abram was drafted last year to man up against tight ends and be the enforcer the Silver and Black has been lacking on the back end. For two quarters against the Broncos in Week 1, he was looking as advertised but suddenly tore his labrum, which effectively ended his season. The safety could very well be the hammer and the stud his mouth says he is. The question is how good his number one ability will be, his availability that is.
Lamarcus Joyner was a liability in the slot, a good tackler and a hard hitter, but he generally looked like a little kid playing against his older brother. He should be moved back to safety, and while you can’t measure the size of the fight in the dog, this one ain’t measuring up in the fight. His dead cap number is $11.75 million should they decide to move on from him, so most likely, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is going to have to find a better use for him than the one that wasn’t working.
Trayvon Mullen, Erik Harris, and Keisean Nixon are bright spots in this secondary and pieces to build around. Harris continues to improve at safety and has flashed on numerous occasions. Mullen is going to get interceptions, he closed on too many passes getting his hands on quite a few last season. With experience in the defense under his belt, he will be able to pick his spots much better and I expect him to convert those opportunities.
Meanwhile, Nixon was constantly engaged in skin-tight coverage on his man. The team re-signed Nevin Lawson, who did some good things for the defense and his versatility allowed him to lineup out wide and inside as a slot corner. With that being said, he still has no interceptions to his name due to a set of stone hands he was born with.
Right up in the guts of the Raiders defense lies the biggest opportunities for improvement. Their linebacker corps have been an area of need for since the turn of the century and it still is. Guenther suggested that linebacker wasn’t a position worth investing a high draft pick in. If he really believes that, the coordinator needs to have his head examined and undergo an evaluation for being under the influence.
The Raiders linebackers have inhabited the happy zone for opposing teams far more than the defensive backs. Tight ends in the intermediate passing game and running backs coming out of the backfield on screens, swings, flats and angle routes have converted third and longs for nearly two decades. There has been no thumper at the position, and no blitzer that strikes fear into the heart of the offense. While the run defense was better this past year, Las Vegas needs to solidify the middle.
Defensive tackle has been a point of contention for the Raiders as well. During training camp, I saw the Raiders go against an offensive line that made them look undersized. Johnathan Hankins, was the most solidly built and he was a monster against the run.
Maurice Hurst has a great first step and explodes out of his stance. However, during his second and third steps, the offensive lineman recovered and was able to stymie him at the line and/or keep him off the quarterback. P.J. Hall was second-round pick two years ago and while he is a violent bowling ball of a lineman, he hasn’t created the pressure we expected after a promising rookie season.
Complimentary football is what wins games in the NFL nowadays. You can’t get the job done with only offense or defense. The Raiders as a team only scored 20 points in the third quarter all season long, which left the defense on the field for a long time.
Watching the Chiefs and the 49ers in the Super Bowl, it’s obvious quarterbacks can’t stand pressure up the middle. The Raiders aren’t generating enough of it, and that is affecting the defense’s overall performance as collapsing the pocket is key to defending the pass and forcing turnovers.
Teams with good defenses have intelligence, speed, and size at the linebacker position; players who can cover like defensive backs and leave ball carriers black and blue when they hit them. Until the Raiders address these concerns/issues, their defense will never be great and will struggle to be average.
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