The common theme had been lifeless, disoriented, and uninspiring defensive play for the Las Vegas Raiders these past few years. Entering this season, Raider Nation braced for business as usual.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary this offseason with the hype surrounding new defensive coaches and players. However, newly hired defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, led this unit to surprise many around the league as they stunned the Baltimore Ravens, 33-27, in an overtime thriller. Throughout his career, including this Week 1 showdown, Bradley proved to have the secret recipe for slowing down and containing former MVP Lamar Jackson. Not only did Bradley come away victorious, but he also gave Raider Nation their first glimmer of hope for the defense in many, many years. We will take a deeper dive into who took the field and how they fared in the new system.
Knowing how poorly the Raiders’ defense has been in the past at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, Week 1 was a breath of fresh air. Maxx Crosby (62 snaps) led the way for this front, making it clear why he was named a 2021 captain. Logging five tackles, two sacks, five QB hits, and 13 pressures, Crosby had a career night going against Ronnie Stanley and Alejandro Villanueva. While Crosby was impressive, Yannick Ngakoue (33 snaps) made some noise in his Raiders debut. Unfortunately, he left the game early with an apparent hamstring injury. Alongside this explosive tandem, we saw Carl Nassib (30 snaps) make his presence felt by forcing a game-defining turnover in overtime.
While the defensive ends were the stars, we saw action from a solid rotation of interior lineman. Leading the way were Johnathan Hankins (46 snaps), Quinton Jefferson (43 snaps), Darius Philon (34 snaps), and Solomon Thomas (15 snaps). This rotation also featured Gerald McCoy (nine snaps) who was carted off the field during Monday’s game. This interior unit had a quality outing but surrendered 182 rushing yards. It was a tall task facing an elusive quarterback like Jackson. Getting gashed in the run game can be remedied as the season progresses.
Following the injury to Nicholas Morrow, the Raiders’ front office made it a point to create cap space and fill glaring holes at the linebacker position. They did so by trading for Denzel Perryman and signing K.J. Wright. Both have played for and found success under Gus Bradley and continued as such on Monday. Perryman (52 snaps) seemed very comfortable in Bradley’s system, appearing as though he’d been a Raider all offseason. Wright (37 snaps) looked comfortable as well but showed his age at times. Returning starter Cory Littleton (57 snaps) had an underwhelming night, including the surrender of a 35-yard touchdown run by running back Ty’Son Williams. In this play, Littleton overcommitted and put himself in a poor position to make a tackle.
Interestingly enough, we saw a reduced role for Nick Kwiatkoski (16 snaps). The 2020 free-agent signee saw his role reduced on Monday. He found himself behind Nicholas Morrow and now Denzel Perryman. Kwiatkoski surrendered a colossal 49-yard completion to Sammy Watkins, in which many will look to blame Bradley for allowing such a mismatch. Kwiatkoski will continue to contribute on special teams. Unfortunately, it seems as though we have located the odd man out in Bradley’s desired linebacker rotation.
The Raiders’ secondary, Bradley’s bread and butter, saw continuity and potential from their young unit. Trayvon Mullen (68 snaps), Tre’von Moehrig (68 snaps), Johnathan Abram (68 snaps), and Casey Hayward (67 snaps) played close to every defensive snap. Bradley is poised to lean on this crew to continue their upward trend. Each of these starters played exceptionally well.
Abram, however, seems to have taken the biggest leap. Playing far more under control, Abram saved his head-hunting playstyle for calculated moments and made the most of them; including a game-changing pass breakup on Mark Andrews. This group stepped up on primetime and will look to build on their successes going forward.
Outside of this core, rookie Nate Hobbs (34 snaps) held down the SLB role nicely as Nevin Lawson serves his suspension. Raider Nation also got a chance to see a familiar face in recently returning Dallin Leavitt (8 snaps). Looking confused pre-snap at times, Leavitt didn’t surrender any big plays. It’s all they can ask of him at this point.
Lastly, former first-round pick Damon Arnette (1 snap) was limited to a single snap on defense in relief for Casey Hayward. Is this a sign regarding Arnette’s role? I don’t believe so. The season is longer now and injuries are bound to happen. So, Arnette could very well find himself with a much higher snap count as the season progresses.
*Top Photo: Associated Press/Rick Scuteri