Nature vs. Nurture: Who’s Responsible For Raiders Defensive Struggles?

Ken Norton Jr. (Cary Edmonson/USA TODAY Sports

What about the Raiders’ defensive coordinators?

Looking at the past two Raiders defensive coordinators, you almost have to point at the coaching. It’s frustrating to look around the league and see coordinators make an instant impact. Wade Phillips has done it a few times, and love him or hate him for his dirty antics, Gregg Williams always seems to generate a pass rush. Meanwhile, Ken Norton Jr. and Paul Guenther have been consistent disappointments for the team.

Ken Norton Jr.

Norton constantly tried to force square pegs into round holes. He forced lanky zone corner Sean Smith to play man coverage against receivers much faster than him. In the same manner, he asked edge defender Bruce Irvin to cover receivers in the slot. When the Raiders brought Norton over, they assumed they’d be getting a flashy version of the Seahawks defense. They could have been even better, considering they had freak athlete Khalil Mack disrupting the passing game regardless of what scheme he was in. Trying to get Irvin to be an every-down 4-3 pass rusher was a mistake too. Norton had coached Irvin as a linebacker before and knew what he had in him. Nevertheless, he tried to unsuccessfully turn him into an every-down player.

Can we absolutely point the finger at Norton? Even after he left Oakland, the struggles continued. The Raiders currently have the same problems they had in Oakland. Guys are constantly out of position, there frequently blow coverages, and nobody on the defense seems to be communicating. Norton is not an NFL caliber defensive coordinator, and Jack Del Rio kept him way, way too long.

Related: Why Raiders HC Jon Gruden Refuses to Hold DC Paul Guenther Accountable

Paul Guenther

Unfortunately, history seems to be repeating itself. Jack Del Rio kept his former teammate, Norton, on the staff then. Now, Jon Gruden seems content to keep his buddy Paul Guenther employed as well. The Raiders haven’t been able to create a pass rush. They’ve given up big plays through the air year after year, and they’re not reliable tacklers. His own players have come out and said as much, with Cory Littleton, a highly paid free agent, saying “The only thing I can do is do what is coached to me and try to put on the best performance I can. So far, it hasn’t been that great.”

Meanwhile, former Raiders players such as Karl Joseph, Denico Autry, P.J. Hall, Benson Mayowa, and yes, even Bruce Irvin, have experienced more success elsewhere. It goes without saying that Khalil Mack was going to succeed regardless of the circumstances around him. When the Raiders hired Norton, they hoped they would get Seattle’s defense. They fell into the same trap when they thought they would get Mike Zimmer’s Minnesota/Cincinnati defense with Guenther at the helm, which hasn’t been the case.

Rod Marinelli might be the next man up should Gruden decide to let Guenther go. Hopefully, he’ll be able to make an improvement, but I think a lot of Raider Nation would’ve preferred that Gruden made that move in the offseason, retaining the services of Brentson Buckner, the defensive line coach that managed to get a lot of production from a mixed bag of talent in 2019.

What can the Raiders do moving forward?

Sadly, the answer is probably a bit of both. Bad defensive coordinators trying to get the best out of largely mediocre rosters. Bad luck finding corners and pass rushers, and complete apathy towards finding a suitable linebacker have hurt. However, the Raiders have had the coaches capable of getting the best out of young superstars anyway either. The Raiders need a coaching change on defense. They also need their young players to develop quickly. Finally, they need to start hitting on picks and free agents.

Sadly, 2020 looks like another year of bad defensive football for the Raiders. The upside is that Gruden will have to eventually make adjustments, if for no other reason than to deflect blame off of himself.

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