1. The run defense is as bad as we feared
With regard to the regular season, the issues with stopping the run were not a surprise. That surprise came in the preseason when it seemed to suddenly dawn on us that while we were all so focused on the pass rush and the secondary, the run defense kinda became the forgotten child.
That child is now a dysfunctional teenager and the Raiders have the worst run defense in the league, giving up 5.1 yards per carry. The 134.5 yards per game is second worst only to the 49ers.
Some blame goes to the linebackers, but much of it goes to the defensive line which consistently allows runners to get to the second level. They are the only team in the NFL giving up an average of over five yards per carry.
That means, on average, an opposing offense could just hand the ball off every play. Believe it or not, it could actually be worse, too. If it weren’t for the Raiders passing offense keeping opposing teams on their heels, and forcing them to put the ball in the air for quick points, they would just run out the clock.
2. Not properly addressing middle linebacker is showing
Heading into free agency and the draft, middle linebacker was at or near the top of the list of needs. At least it was for most who cover the team. Curtis Lofton was a disaster and was cut after one season. Malcolm Smith had taken over for Lofton by midseason, but it was obvious he was a better fit on the outside or as a tandem on the inside.
Free agency came and went with no additions, and essentially so did the draft. According to 2015 fifth round pick Ben Heeney, the team’s plan all along was to make him their middle linebacker heading into his second season. So, that that was the plan, with little in the way of a contingency plan. And that backfired really fast.
By week two, the team had already realized Heeney wasn’t going to work out and went with rookie sixth round pick, Cory James in instead (more on him in a moment). Some would like to think James WAS the Raiders contingency plan, but not really. He was drafted primarily as a special teams player, who they hoped could provide value as a reserve linebacker. They were pleasantly surprised he was able to mount such strong competition in camp. And at this point, they’re damn lucky he has, otherwise they would be completely lost. Especially with Heeney now headed to IR and Malcolm Smith injuring himself last week as well. The team added six-year veteran Perry Riley Jr to try and make up for the losses and at this rate, it wouldn’t be altogether unlikely for Riley to start right away.
3. Rookie duo making the difference
James is part of that rookie duo that is standing out in a big way of late. The other is Karl Joseph. After giving up an historic amount of points (69) and over 1000 yards to the Saints and Falcons in the first two weeks, the Raiders made some changes. While Del Rio seemed to suggest he was going to take a more active role in defensive play calling, he also switched out Ben Heeney for James and Keith McGill for Joseph.
Heeney starting we get – at least due to a seeming lack of better options – but starting McGill at strong safety was always a mystery. Nate Allen was the best looking safety on the team in preseason and Joseph was the team’s top pick at 14 overall. And yet for the first two weeks, Allen and Joseph were both relegated to special teams work; even while the defenses were getting torched.
After two weeks, Del Rio said it was time for Karl. The rookie safety who had spent ten months recovering from an ACL tear he suffered early in his senior season at West Virginia, was finally deemed ready to play. Or rather the team was ready for him to play.
Since entering, he has been fantastic. Covering tight ends well, making open field tackles, and being where he is supposed to be.
James has also helped with that tremendously. He has been fantastic in two starts at middle linebacker. It can be difficult to poke holes in his game, even when considering the usual rookie mistakes. He and Joseph have finished one and two in tackles in each of the past two games – both wins. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
4. This team misses Mario Edwards Jr a LOT
If you’ll recall, last season the defense was also quite bad early on. But right about midseason everything changed. Suddenly the defense was playing great football. Much of that can be attributed to the emergence of Edwards as the starting defensive end. And the lack of great defense in turn can be at least partially attributed to his being out with a hip injury.
One of the major differences we saw was in the pass rush. From Edwards, certainly, but not only him. Ten of Khalil Mack’s 15.0 sacks last season came in the latter half of the season. Much of the reason he was suddenly freed up to make those sacks was because opposing offenses had to account for the rush coming from Edwards.
Last week Mack had his first sack of the season. That’s slower than his early pace last season when he had two sacks after week three. Mack would need to average a sack per game to be at the same pace this season by the time Edwards is able to return from partial season injured reserve after week 8.
In Edwards’ stead, Jihad Ward has been starting. His progress has been slow going. Essentially he hasn’t made an visible impact. He hasn’t provided anything in the way of pass rush and often gets blown off the line in the run game. Denico Autry has had his moments, but he isn’t on the same level of Edwards. This goes for the aforementioned run defense as well.
5. After a rough start, the secondary is gelling
A sight that had already become familiar in the first two games was Reggie Nelson throwing his arms up in disgust wondering WTF was going on with the defense in front of him. That’s not to say Nelson was the victim of those around him. He played his part in the struggles as well. Struggles we haven’t seen as much of over the past two weeks.
It’s important to remember this is an entirely new starting secondary than the one that began last season. It’s not like there were one or two new pieces to work into the fold. All four starters were new. Amerson came aboard week three of last season and is the only returning starter. Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson were added in free agency. Keith McGill – who started the first two games – is transitioning from cornerback to safety and had all of one start even as a corner, and Karl Joseph was added in the draft.
Joseph has been an upgrade over McGill, but even had Joseph played the first two games, some gelling would have been needed. Joseph and Nelson both missed the entire offseason recovering from injuries. Joseph also played sparingly in the preseason.
These things don’t happen overnight. Last week’s performance against a tough receiving corps in Baltimore was a huge statement that they are finding their roles and coming together. Even DJ Hayden played his best football in the slot. Some very positive signs things are looking up for this group.