Historically, the Oakland Raiders have boasted a 4-3, strength-against-weakness base defense. While Silver and Black traditions die hard, nearly all of defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr's starting packages are hybrids.
Take for instance the front seven of what the Raiders consider their 4-3 base. Khalil Mack mirrors the classic hybrid skill set of the great Lawrence Taylor. He rushes the passer, plays stout run defense and can successfully drop into coverage. So, by definition, whether Mack puts his hand down or stands up, the Raiders have a 4-3 and 3-4 personnel package when he's on the field, with presumptive starters Malcolm Smith, Ben Heeney and Bruce Irvin involved. The AP was justified in naming him All Pro at defensive and linebacker because he plays both positions at the highest level.
The 4-in-1 package
The introduction of Irvin and 2016 draft pick Shilique Calhoun blur notions about cookie-cutter alignments even further.
Should Norton kick defensive end Mario Edwards Jr in to tackle and integrate Irvin as a standing end, the defense has four legitimate packages on the field simultaneously. Obviously the 4-3 and 3-4, but also a potential 5-2, or 2-5 with Neiron Ball or rookie Shilique Calhoun manning an outside linebacker post.
Mack and Irvin both possess astute pass coverage skills and can drop into zone or play man-to-man. Irvin's elite speed gives him the ability to run with wide receivers or shut down tight ends. Simpler still, the bookends can just flatten quarterbacks off the edge. Linebacker Malcolm Smith agrees that Irvin brings a lot to the table.
"I mean, obviously a lot of speed and a lot of athleticism, but hunger on third down rushing the quarterback," he said during the first day of minicamp. "(Irvin has) stuff he wants to prove and I'm happy to see him here."
Smith also sees a nuanced role for the Raiders linebacker corps.
"A lot of times, if I'm not blitzing, I consider myself part of the secondary," he said. "So, we need to be able to cover and give those guys time up front to get to the quarterback. Same thing for us, we need them to get there as soon as possible. It all goes hand in hand."
Likewise, shuffling Calhoun — the versatile, two-time Ted Hendricks Award finalist — in at end puts five "linebackers" on the field — Smith, Irvin, Heeney, Mack and the rookie. Three of them can seamlessly double as defensive ends and packages should have heads spinning on the other side of the ball.
The Return of The Smith
The traditional thinking about defensive formations gets even murkier when Aldon Smith returns from suspension. The expectation seems to be that he will take over at defensive end or at least split time with Edwards late in the season.
In 2012 — Smith's last 16-game season — he dropped 19.5 sacks and 50 tackles on opponents as a Mack-like hybrid. Should he return to form and get the starting nod as a 4-3 end/linebacker, that package would have five linebackers on the field at all times, two of whom have posted double-digit sack seasons earning them Pro Bowl honors, and two sporting Super Bowl rings. All of these guys are tough against the run, able to drop into coverage or rush the passer. It's an offensive coordinator's worst nightmare.
Putting Smith as Mack's bookend may be the team's most advantageous package because it removes the ability of opposing offenses to scheme against Mack and force him into coverage. That technique was employed last season against Mack as it was often used to neutralize the NY Giants' Hall of Fame linebacker.
To be, or not to be an elite D, that is the question
All this talent and potential begs the question: Can the Raiders emerge as a top tier defense? The answer may rest squarely in the brain of second-year middle linebacker Heeney.
Putting the right guys in the right position may come down to Heeney's football intelligence. Though well-known for his high-energy effort, Heeney is also said to be a voracious film-study guy and uses that information to anticipate plays. He has an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time.
"Ben Heeney does not out play everyone with his athletic ability but certainly gets the job done with his high football IQ. He certainly reads his keys and seems to always find the football," according to a Draft Scouting Report by Tyler Baddick of Profootballspot.com, among others. And fellow Raiders linebacker Malcolm Smith sees off-season improvement.
"He's definitely grown a lot," Smith said. "He's communicating well and he's open. We're spending a lot of time together off the field and in the building, so it will be good for us."
If Heeney and Norton can communicate well and move the pieces of this intricate chess board into position to match offensive scheming, the Raiders may just find a place among the NFL's elite defenses.
Editor's note: Levi Damien contributed to this article.