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11 early warning signs in Raiders defensive collapse vs Steelers

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The warning signs were there. In the first quarter, the Defense was doing ok, but there were some clues that the defense was having some major difficulties with the Steelers' offensive scheme and personnel. This is a look at 11 of those warning signs.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On their first three drives, the Steelers only scored 3 points and it looked like the Raiders had a chance to have a decent defensive showing. But while the scoreboard favored Oakland's defense, early on there were some very significant warning signs that there would be major difficulties awaiting them later in the game.

Here are 11 early indicators from the first quarter.

1. Coverage Mix Up 1 : DJ Hayden v DeAngelo Williams

The Steelers' offense is a powerhouse unit led by two veteran superstars in Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, but who also have tremendous talent well into their reserves. Defensive mistakes are amplified against such a group. Any coverage mistakes / mixups / confusions are likely to be exploited and with the Steelers' speed and talent, the mistakes could result in big chunk plays.

This play is a prime example :

Play #3 (a) : Q1, 3-4-PIT 27 (14:15) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass short left to De.Williams pushed ob at OAK 40 for 33 yards (L.Asante)

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It looks like the Defense is set for a Cover 3 Zone, which calls for the outside corners and the single deep safety to play deep thirds, while the 4 underneath defenders (3 LBs + safety) play the shallow zones.

#31 Neiko Thorpe is playing RCB. #29 David Amerson is playing LCB. #24 Charles Woodson is playing single deep safety.

#25 DJ Hayden is playing the slot corner.

In this zone, it seems Hayden should be playing the underneath right flat area while Thorpe plays the deep third on that side.

But Hayden plays Man Coverage; when the slot WR darts inside, Hayden jumps to follow him.

With everyone else playing Zone, the right sideline is wide open for RB DeAngelo Williams to release into. Roethlisberger makes a 1 yard throw that goes for an additional 30+ yards.

2. Steelers OL 1 : Mack and Autry Stunt Game

On the same play, we see that the Raiders' defensive line may have some trouble against this Steelers front.

Play #3 (b) : Q1, 3-4-PIT 27 (14:15) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass short left to De.Williams pushed ob at OAK 40 for 33 yards (L.Asante)

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The defensive left side has #52 Mack lined up as the DE and #96 Denico Autry lined up as the DT.

On the snap, the Raiders run a game on that side, a Tackle / End Stunt. This stunt has the Defensive End attack first to clear the area for the Tackle to loop around.

Here, Mack takes a jab step upfield and then crashes down inside. The Steelers OL collapses 3 men onto Mack while Autry run free to the outside.

But then a couple of things :

  • Ben throws the ball well before Autry can get near him
  • The RT keeps his head up and sees Autry. He's ready to pick him up.

If Ben is able to throw quickly and if the Steelers OL is able to handle the line games as easily as this, it portends difficulties for the Raiders' defense. The defensive secondary is so outmatched that their major source of hope is for pressure on the QB to disrupt timing.

3. Interior Combat : Mario Edwards v Ramon Foster I

Same play, again.

On the opposite side of the line, there's another interesting battle going and the early look on it may give an idea to what may come later in the game.

Play #3 (c) : Q1, 3-4-PIT 27 (14:15) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass short left to De.Williams pushed ob at OAK 40 for 33 yards (L.Asante)

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Mario Edwards lined up opposite LG #73 Ramon Foster.

On this play, Mario makes a great swim move to get past Foster. Take a close look and you will see Mario take a move to his right side and "swim" over the top of Foster. For those particularly interested in line play, take note of Mario's very nice hand-fighting here. He gets a great right hand swipe right on top of Foster's left arm to clear the way; Mario then follows up by getting his left arm over the top of Foster.

Mario was getting past Foster to the outside and was set to turn the short corner and get to Ben. But Edwards can't quite clear Foster. He gets around him, but Foster is able to push and ride Edwards. Foster also hooks Mario with his left arm and keeps him from cutting to the inside.

This is both pleasant and worrisome.

It is very good to see Mario making such a great move and shows major progress since earlier this year. But the fact that he can't quite finish (yet) / get past the grab and that the referees didn't see / didn't call the hold means that it could be a long day for Mario and the Raiders' DTs on the inside battles.

This isn't about complaining about Non-Calls (this may have been an iffy call anyway); it's about what the refs were allowing (or not seeing) and how the Raiders' interior line was going to handle this level of blocking.

Young defenders are often surprised at the recovery ability in the NFL; even when a pass rusher wins on an initial move, it is hard to come completely free. Mario was going to be have a major battle each and every time. If he can adjust and finish, he looks like he could have an impact on the game, but if Foster is able to continue to work Mario even after being beaten, then it would be a tough time inside.

4. TE Edge Blocking : Benson Mayowa v Heath Miller

Heath Miller is one of the really great blocking tight ends in the game. What is so impressive is that he (along with Dallas' Jason Witten) is a veteran player who approaches his blocking duties as if he were an Undrafted Rookie trying to make a team. He gives full effort all the time and he's so technically proficient and strong that it's a tough matchup and he's fun to watch (as long as it is not against the Raiders).

Here's an play against Benson Mayowa :

Play #5 (a) : Q1, 2-10-OAK 40 (13:44) De.Williams up the middle to OAK 34 for 6 yards (L.Asante, D.Williams).

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On the offensive right side, Miller matches up with Benson Mayowa and the result isn't pretty. Mayowa gets taken to the ground in spectacular fashion. The block itself is not as earth-shattering as the results may show; the main reason that Mayowa is thrown into the air like that is because he is tripped up over DT #92 Stacy McGee's left leg.

Miller did do a great job of just neutralizing Mayowa on the play which should cause some concern about the rest of the game.

Perhaps more important / crucial / worrisome is that Benson Mayowa was in the game for Khalil Mack so early in the game on a run-down. Mack had been battling a hamstring injury earlier in the week and this early substitution may indicate that Mack is not 100%; if Mack doesn't play the full game and if he isn't able to perform like himself when he does get into the game, the Raiders' run defense may have a worse showing than expected.

5. Interior Combat : Mario Edwards v Ramon Foster II

Same play but on the opposite side. Again, there's a battle inside between Mario and Ramon and the results are similar to the previous matchup.

Play #5 (b) : Q1, 2-10-OAK 40 (13:44) De.Williams up the middle to OAK 34 for 6 yards (L.Asante, D.Williams).

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This time Mario is initially pushed back off the line, as is the middle of the Raiders' defensive front.

As DeAngelo Williams takes the handoff and cuts into his OL's push, Mario adjusts and then explodes into and thru Foster's right side. Mario again uses a hand swipe (this time his left hand to Foster's right biceps / triceps area) and then gets an arm under to come clear.

Mario looks like he's going to hit DeAngelo just at cutback spot, but Foster gets a grab around Mario from behind. Mario is held and jerked back into the line. Unable to get to Williams, the RB is able to cut up and get a nice 6 yards.

Again, Mario is able to make the initial move to beat his blocker, but he can't fully get free / got held. If the referees aren't seeing these holds (in their defense, these holds on the interior are difficult to see, especially in real-time full speed) and if Mario can't fight thru and clear himself of these grabs, then Williams is set to have some nice runs.

6. CB / S Coverage 1 : Antonio Brown v David Amerson + DJ Hayden

We all know about Antonio Brown's huge day. Early in the game, even as Brown was not doing much, there were very scary indications that he was having his way with the defense.

Play #6 (a) : Q1, 3-4-OAK 34 (13:04) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete short left to D.Heyward-Bey (L.Asante).

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Raiders will drop into a Cover 3 zone. In this, David Amerson has over the top on the left side while DJ Hayden has the underneath flat area. These are the two major defenders that have duties on the side where Brown is, theoretically able to bracket him and take him out of the play. This may have been Ben's pre-snap read and the reason he didn't look for Brown on the play.

On the snap, Brown attacks downfield on Amerson and then gives a wicked move (which is actually routine for Brown) to get Amerson turned around. Brown shows a hard post-move and then snaps off the opposite way to an out route. Even though Amerson is running in a circle, he does a decent job of staying over the top.

Unfortunately, Hayden does not get very much depth on his zone drop. He has eyes on underneath receivers and so stays relatively shallow, leaving a huge gap between himself and Amerson, in which Brown could work.

When Brown cuts to the outside, he's wide open and if Ben had looked to him, it was an easy pitch-and-catch for 20+ yards.

The play went the opposite side to DHB who dropped the ball. So instead of a big gain, the Steelers had an incompletion. But the Steelers' offensive staff must have noticed this after the fact and recognized that there may be an issue with the Raiders' Cover 3 that Brown could exploit.

Interestingly, when the Broncos played the Raiders, they were able to suffocate both Crabtree and Cooper on the outsides. They did this with Cover 3; the main difference was that their underneath defenders would sink deep with the WRs giving bracket coverage.

When the underneath defender doesn't get depth, it leaves the deep defender with no help and can often result in very easy completions.

7. Coverage Mixup 2 : Larry Asante / Taylor Mays v DeAngelo Williams

Same play.

On the opposite side of the play, there was another Raiders' coverage mixup. Fortunately, Ben's progression took him away from the uncovered receiver.

Play #6 (b) : Q1, 3-4-OAK 34 (13:04) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete short left to D.Heyward-Bey (L.Asante).

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Recall that this is a Cover 3 Zone defense, meaning that the defenders have specific areas of the field for which they are responsible.

Watch the defensive right side of the field.

Neiko Thorpe is the CB on that side and is the deep defender.

S Larry Asante is the underneath Flat defender and S Taylor Mays is the underneath right mid-field area (Hook to Curl) defender.

The WR on that side #11 Markus Wheaton immediately darts inside. He runs into Mays' zone and we can see that Taylor Mays matches up on him aggressively.

But we also see that Larry Asante jumps to cover him as well. It appears that Asante thinks it is Man coverage or that his underneath responsibilities have been vacated.

Unfortunately, the RB DeAngelo Williams wheels into the flat and is wide open.

The Steelers failed to convert this 3rd down. This led to the 4th down incompletion that turned the ball over to the Raiders, which was a huge victory for the defense.

But this victory was also a bit of a mirage; the defense failed miserably on multiple coverage fronts and were tremendously fortunate that Ben went to the only receiver that would not catch the ball here (DHB).

8. Coverage Mixup 3 : Curtis Lofton v Heath Miller

Coverage mixups would continue to haunt the Raiders and very soon, the Steelers would start to find the uncovered receivers. In this case it was Heath Miller :

Play #9 : Q1, 1-10-PIT 18 (12:05) B.Roethlisberger pass short middle to H.Miller to PIT 40 for 22 yards (C.Woodson). P2

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This time the Raiders blitz. It looks like a Fire Zone Blitz, a 5 man pass rush with a 3-3 zone (3 underneath defenders, 3 Deep defenders) behind it.

The Steelers run a "Waggle" play, a play action fake with a QB Bootleg to the opposite direction. They also have 3 receivers running to that side at 3 different levels, shallow, middle, and deep.

Curtis Lofton has underneath middle responsibilities.

The run action draws Lofton towards the line of scrimmage. On the QB bootleg action, Lofton sees the FB dragging underneath and then vacates his zone responsibilities to attack that receiver.

Lofton does not realize that TE Heath Miller is running a crosser behind him, right thru where Lofton's zone is.

This naturally leaves Miller wide open and is a very easy read and throw for Ben.

On this play, the middle deep defender is CWood. The play is in front of him and he has a choice to make and it's a tough one.

Antonio Brown is running deep against DJ Hayden.

Heath Miller is running intermediate against air.

If CWood jumps Miller, he has a chance to possibly breakup a potential throw to him.

BUT, Brown v Hayden 1-on-1 in the deep field is a scary though. If Antonio Brown runs a Post Route, Brown would be running away from Hayden with no inside help and may be open for a deep TD play.

9. CB / S Coverage 2 : Antonio Brown v DJ Hayden + Larry Asante

Everyone saw this play and it may have been the most obvious indication that the Raiders were not really prepared (either schematically or physically) to handle Antonio Brown.

Play #12 : Q1, 3-3-PIT 47 (10:13) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete deep right to A.Brown. Coverage by #25 Hayden.

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Raiders give a Cover 2 look.

On 3rd-and-3, Asante may have been cheating up either expecting run or on an explicit run call. It was NOT a rotation into a single deep (Cover 1) though. CWood drops into deep Half coverage, so clearly Asante is responsible for the other deep half.

2-Man is 2 Deep safeties and Man coverage underneath. This defense generally allows for bracket coverage on two receivers. The CB may play "trail" coverage meaning that they do not have to panic about keeping up with the WR, instead content to play 2-3 yards behind the receiver and watching for any in-cuts or out-cuts. The deep safety can sink to keep his cushion and play over-the-top, (theoretically) preventing the deep ball.

But in 2-Man, if the deep safety jumps an underneath route or otherwise loses deep contain, then this is a big play ready to happen.

10. Coverage Mixup 4 : Malcolm Smith v Jesse James

Another coverage assignment problem.

As of 8:55 in the 1st quarter, the Raiders had defended 9 pass plays and had coverage confusion / problems on 4 of them. This is the 4th one :

Play #15 : Q1, 1-10-PIT 41 (8:55) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass short middle to J.James to PIT 50 for 9 yards (B.Mayowa).

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Bunch formations are en vogue right now because they require a lot of effort and coordination to defend. There are natural traffic jams that can cause natural pick plays, but they are not generally designed to create confusion.

Steelers have Bunch Right in a tight split.

Raiders apparently have man coverage on them, meaning that each defender should know and see his receiver.

On the snap, the one goes out, one goes in, and one drives down the middle.

Raiders respond with two going out, one driving down the middle, leaving TE Jesse James all alone down the middle.

The ball was tipped by the DL on this play and the ball went high into the air; that's normally a scary proposition for the offense and a potential dream come true for the defense. But in this case, there are no Raiders nearby and so Jesse James comes down with the ball and turns upfield.

Malcolm Smith appears to have had duty on James and if he had understood that, this would not have been a difficult coverage for him.

11. Steelers OL 2 : A-Gap Mug, Taylor Mays + Malcolm Smith v Cody Wallace + DeAngelo Williams

The Raiders have not been able to get pressure on Ben so far and that would be crucial to how the defense performs. On this play, Ken Norton calls for a new blitz and this is what happens :

Play 22 : Q1, 3-4-OAK 16 (4:48) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete short left to M.Wheaton. Coverage by #29 Amerson.

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The "A Gap Mug" blitz (aka "Double A Gap Blitz") calls for two defenders to line up over the Center and rush up the middle, hopefully getting to the QB before he can make a throw. This defense has shown some the Mug a few times this season so far, but have not actually attacked with the Blitz, electing instead to drop into coverage.

This may be the very first time they have used the Mug Blitz, perhaps hoping to surprise the Offense with it, especially since the Steelers were playing without their stud Center Maurkice Pouncey.

LB Malcolm Smith and S Taylor Mays lined up over the A Gaps.

On the snap, the Raiders' bring 6, all 4 of the linemen rush, including Mack and Aldon Smith on the outsides. This is about as good a pressure package as the Raiders have, but the Steelers' protection has no problem picking it up.

C #72 Cody Wallace gives a major punch to Smith and knocks him into Mario Edwards. RB DeAngelo Williams picks up Taylor Mays and stones him at the line of scrimmage.

Ben quickly gets rid of the ball on a hot route but even as he does so, he's very comfortable in the pocket created and does not take a hit.

There is a communication issue between Ben and WR Markus Wheaton on the play so the ball falls incomplete.

This forces a Field Goal and so can be considered a win for the defense, but the concern here is that the pressure was so easily handled by the Steelers. If the Raiders cannot get pressure by rushing 4 and have to resort to various blitzes, then they have to get pressure with those blitzes. If the Steelers' OL is able to handle blitz pressure as well, it may be very dangerous for the defensive secondary.

This play foreshadows the 4th quarter. On the now-infamous Antonio Brown 57-yard catch-and-run play in the 4th quarter, what kind of blitz do you suppose Ken Norton called?

(it was actually not QUITE an A-Gap Mug, but the similar A-Gap Cross Dog and it was picked up as easily as this play was)

* * *

Finale

This year, especially since the Bye Week, the Raiders' Offense has taken a major step forward. In those 3 games against SD, NYJ, and PIT, Derek Carr has thrown for 923 yards (307 avg) and 11 TDs (3.8 avg) and only 1 Int for a Passer Rating of 119.3. The rushing attack adds 76 carries for 387 yards, 5.1 avg during that time. They are carrying the team and providing the Raider Nation with so much excitement.

But so far this year, the Defense has been struggling. They have lost starters and are plugging in players as they can. It's Year One of a new scheme and even before the injuries, the defense was set to have 5+ new starters; it always takes time for a unit to grow together. Week to week, it is easy to see new aspects of the defense being installed and implemented. The defense in Week 9 looks and feels substantially different from the one in Weeks 1 and 2.

All year, the team has struggled with their coverage assignments; it's highlighted by the production of RBs and TEs all year. Sometimes it was a case of a player outmatching a defender, like Tyler Eifert's play, but all too often Raider fans were left watching a player running uncovered thru the middle of the defense. That's the painful part.

That's also the natural growth part.

Zone defenses are conceptually easy; each man covers an area of the field and if a receiver comes into it, cover him. Yet they are also so very difficult to implement because there are so many variations and adjustments to make and that each defender has a huge reliance upon his adjacement zone defenders. That's the defensive chemistry that needs to be built and as yet it's a major work in progress.

Man coverages also require good coordination, particularly between CB and S and some man schemes require significant coverage skills from the safety. With the difficulties the CBs have been having with their man coverages, there's increasing need to help them somehow. Playing fundamentally sound and being assignment-solid will go a long way to improving this team's defensive play. Easier said than done and a lot of these coverage mishaps should eventually diminish with experience. There are a number of aspects for the defense to improve and perhaps the biggest area is to continue to improve the communication and the understanding so that the number of simple coverage breakdowns diminishes.

With the Offense performing so well, the Defense is going to be under fire and they won't soon be catching up, but the key will be to see if they can improve, take some steps forward and make some plays and start doing those things that they want to do. If that can happen by the end of the year, it sets the stage for a good offseason and into the next year.

This list of defensive concerns are worth keeping an eye on going into the next games. See how Ken Norton Jr and Jack Del Rio get the defense together and on track.