Watching Aaron Donald in the second half of the Super Bowl was like watching “Stone Cold” Steve Austin hit the ring after the glass shattered during his entrance music to signal an ass-whoopin’ was incoming. Hopefully, the Las Vegas Raiders paid attention.
The Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle opened up a can of whoop-ass on the Cincinnati Bengals that helped L.A. drop the cats from Ohio 23-20 this past Sunday. The only things Donald was missing were the patented Austin leather jacket and beers, as the defensive tackle left Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow stunned–pun intended. On Cincinnati’s second possession of the third quarter, Donald sacked Burrow twice, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. L.A.’s defense was back on the field after a Matthew Stafford interception, and the Rams were on their heels because, on the drive prior, Burrow hooked up with Tee Higgins for a 75-yard touchdown dart.
When the glass shattered…
Instead, the glass shattered, and out came a determined Donald. All in all, led by their uncanny defensive tackle, the Rams’ defense got to Burrow a total of seven times. Cincy’s prized quarterback was out there looking like The Rock, selling Austin’s Stone Cold Stunner.
It was only fitting that on Cincy’s last-gasp play during that 4th-and-1 with 43 seconds left in the game, Donald was the one to break through and force Burrow to fling a desperation toss that hit the SoFi Stadium turf.
“When it was fourth down, you could see that they got into the shotgun, and they were probably not going to run the football.” I said, “Aaron is going to close the game out right here,” Sean McVay said. “He is the effing man.”
The final tally shows how bad the group that was supposed to protect Burrow was: 19 sacks in the playoffs. That’s on top of the league-leading 51 sacks Burrow sustained behind that Bengals offensive line in the regular season. The O-line had the strength and fortitude of a pro wrestling referee taking a bump.
Hopefully the Raiders were paying attention!Â
I truly hope the Raiders were paying attention. The Rams’ Super Bowl win showed the football-watching world that games are either won, or lost, in the trenches. Not even Burrow, with his Kevin McAllister looks, could elude the danger presented by Donald and that formidable Rams’ defensive line and defense as a whole.
All that harkens to what the Raiders must do in 2022: get themselves an interior pass rusher and field a quality offensive line.
First, let’s hit the inside pass rush. This past season, Quinton Jefferson had the most sacks of any defensive tackle in Vegas with 4.5. He’s followed by Solomon Thomas, who racked up 3.5 QB takedowns. And both are unrestricted free agents this offseason.
Generating a pass rush from the defensive tackle position is one of the tremendous areas of opportunity for the Raiders this offseason and in the 2022 campaign. New general manager Dave Zeigler, along with new head coach Josh McDaniels and new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, have that task ahead of them. Not to mention whoever is named the defensive line coach to take the now-retired Rod Marinelli’s place.
Las Vegas must improve their pass rush in 2022
Whether it’s the upcoming NFL draft or free agency before it, Las Vegas must get more bite out of the interior pass rush. Graham already has two quality edge rushers at his disposal in Yannick Ngakoue, who had a team-leading 10 sacks this past season, and Maxx Crosby, with eight sacks. But opposing quarterbacks were able to swivel their hips (like Dak Prescott’s pre-game ritual) and climb the pocket to avoid danger. That must change.
A must-account-for defensive tackle changes that tactic and results in a no-safe-place panic mode for the signal caller. Not since the likes of Darrell Russell, Grady Jackson, or Rod Coleman have the Raiders boasted a ferocious inside presence. As compatriot Dalton Blackman told me, “I’d settle for Tommy Kelly”. That’s how dire the need is, folks.
Then there’s the Raiders’ own offensive line. McDaniels poached the Patriots’ coaching staff and is taking Carmen Bricillo with him to the desert to coach the O-line. Bricillo is a disciple of the ways of Scar (renowned offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia) and has been shown to be equally as adaptable and agile as the Raiders’ new head honcho. McDaniels preaches being able to adjustâ€”on the fly if need beâ€”and Bricillo will likely do plenty of that with his new O-line group in Vegas.
What will Carmen Bricillo bring to the Raiders?Â
It’s unclear yet what kind of changes will come as a result of Bricillo’s arrival, but what’s in the Raiders’ favor is that the incoming boss is scheme-versatile and can teach and deploy different sets. Vegas began to run the ball better, focused on the outside zone runs, and that likely stays in the playbook. Shoring up a group that struggled to run block for large portions of the season will be vital, as will keeping quarterback Derek Carr upright. The Raiders finished 21st in sacks allowed (40), but that was partly due to Carr’s being more aggressive and looking for the deep shot–which means hanging onto the football longer.
Bricillo’s unit in New England kept rookie signal-caller Mac Jones relatively clean (28 sacks) while paving the way to the eighth-ranked run game in terms of attempts (489) and yards (2,151) and the second-most touchdowns (24). Past success doesn’t always mean future success–especially if you’re going from a well-oiled machine that is run well (New England)–but the history is there for Bricillo and McDaniels to build something good in Vegas. \
Time will tell.
*Top Photo: AP Photo/Isaac Brekken