Raiders Quietly Building a Formidable Defensive Front

The Las Vegas Raiders struggled to get after the quarterback in 2019. Defensive end Maxx Crosby was the only bright spot on the defensive line with 10 sacks.

However, their pass rush should improve drastically in 2020. With the addition of former Dallas Cowboy Maliek Collins, and the emergence of Maurice Hurst Jr., the Raiders could have the best interior defensive line in the AFC West.

The 2019 Season

The Raiders were expecting a big leap from P.J. Hall last season. Through 12 starts, Hall only had two sacks and 23 pressures. Johnathan Hankins, who played next to Hall on the interior, had two sacks and 22 pressures last season––a very similar stat line to Hall’s––giving them a total of 45 combined pressures according to PFF.
In 2019, general manager Mike Mayock told reporters he was excited about Hall’s potential:

“P.J. is an explosive guy. He needs to take a big jump in Year 2,” said Mayock. Also, “We’re expecting a big jump in Year 2.” Hall didn’t have the improvement the team expected. For that reason, the Raiders brought in Collins to help boost a lackluster interior pass rush. According to PFF, Collins posted four sacks and 48 pressures with the Cowboys in 2019.
Hurst was the only source of consistent interior pass rush in 2019. According to Pro Football Focus, he had three and a half sacks and 38 pressures, but he only started four games.

To put that into perspective, Hurst and Collins had a combined 86 pressures last season. That production would make them one of the best interior pass rushing duos in the NFL. With Crosby on the edge and pass rushing capability on the interior, the Raiders have quietly formed a reputable defensive line that may shock the league.

Related: Raiders Have a Good Problem Moving Forward

The AFC West

According to PFF, The Chiefs had a combined 76 pressures up the middle with Chris Jones and Derrick Nnadi. As a team, the Chiefs had 45 sacks in 2019, and expect to build upon that with the addition of Taco Charlton opposite of Frank Clark.
The Denver Broncos had a combined 70 pressures between Derek Wolfe, Mike Purcell and Shelby Harris in their 3-4 defensive scheme. With contributions from Von Miller and company, the Broncos generated 40 sacks in 2019. After losing Wolfe and trading for Jurrell Casey in the offseason, the Broncos defense is expected to be even better.
Casey, who had five sacks and 33 pressures last season with The Tennessee Titans, is regarded as a top 10 interior defensive lineman in the NFL.

The Los Angeles Chargers have Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram III on the edge. Nevertheless, the duo only posted 30 sacks in 2019. With the addition of Linval Joseph and the potential emergence of Jerry Tillery, the Chargers interior pass rush is promising but unknown up to this point. Injuries derailed their 2019 plans, causing them to shuffle interior defensive linemen Tillery, Justin Jones, Brandon Mebane and Damion Square. The group as a whole combined for a total of 40 pressures up the middle. If Tillery doesn’t emerge as an impact player, the Chargers will have to rely on Joseph alone up the middle.

Going Forward

Pressuring a quarterback from the interior is an absolute necessity in today’s NFL, and it is even more critical in a division with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Raiders must get after Mahomes and provide a consistent pass rush from the inside and outside going forward.

“Over the years I’ve talked to almost every top quarterback in the NFL and I’ve asked them all the same question, ‘What bothers you the most?’” said Mayock. “And almost every top flight quarterback says, ‘Immediate pressure up the middle.’”
With six defensive tackles on roster, it’s hard to tell what the Raiders plans are for the upcoming season. Hankins was awarded a two-year contract extension in 2019, but based off last years numbers, he’s a notable run stopper, not a pass rushing specialist. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to see Hankins lose snaps to Collins or Hurst in 2020. On paper, the combination of Hurst and Collins looks to be a recipe for success.

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Top Photo: Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal

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