Over the past couple weeks, the major concern that has emerged for the Raiders is their run defense. With the team making moves in the offseason to add pass rushers and secondary help, the issue of whether or not they could defend the run kind of snuck up on most of us.
Run defense wasn’t something that was a major concern after the team finished 13th in the league in the category last season, giving up an average of just over four yards per carry and 105 yards per game. But over the past couple weeks, it has jumped to the forefront of the discussion after all three teams they have faced this preseason have run all over them.
In week one, the Cardinals ran for 177 yards, with the top two backs David Johnson and Andre Ellington an even 12 yards per carry – rushing for 72 yards on just 6 carries. But it was the first game when the starters only played a couple series so we didn’t think much of it.
Then the Packers top two backs of Eddie Lacy and James Starks picked of 71 yards on 15 carries. That 4.7 yards per carry, which is sure better than 12 yards per carry, but still not great. Lacy also had a touchdown.
Last week the Titans top backs of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry had 89 yards on 20 carries, which seems like an improvement until you consider they each score rushing touchdowns as well and if you add what Marcus Mariota was able to do on the ground; rushing 3 times for 20 yards.
These performances have exposed what appears to be a gaping wound. One that the Raiders say won’t be a lingering issue.
“We’ve got a handle on it,” a confident Jack Del Rio said Monday of his team’s run defense. He also essentially said that these struggles are what the preseason is for, adding the team will be “ready to roll when the regular season gets here.”
Del Rio said following the loss to the Titans on Saturday that it was an issue of players trying too hard and there being ‘misfits’. He doesn’t mean the players are misfits, but rather they are not where they’re supposed to be in order to stop a run. Instead they are ‘trying to do too much’ and end up out of position.
“It hurts,” said defensive tackle Dan Williams. “Especially when you see a guy for the most part we’re always trying to fit everything perfect. Sometimes they mean well but sometimes it kinda hurts us, those guys just trying to jump around and do a little extra, but when we’re playing good backs like that, you can’t really take too many chances and jump out your gaps.”
Usually when you think of the guys who are most responsible for stopping the run, it’s the interior defensive linemen.
Williams himself is not immune to giving up runs through his position. He was pushed around quite a bit against the Titans. It was his first start this preseason, after being relegated to second team behind Justin Ellis throughout training camp and the first two weeks of the preseason.
“Dan has come along slower than ‘Jelly’ [Ellis] has,” said Del Rio. “I think Justin has really had a really strong camp, done a really nice job throughout, and Dan is coming on strong at the end here.”
The big veteran tackle says he took the demotion personally, and set forth to correct the issues that had him benched in the first place. Though he insists all the talk of this being about his weight or conditioning is simply not true.
“It was just some things that I needed to work on,” said Williams. . . “I just feel like it’s something that they want to see some things, so you know me just being a team guy, just make sure that I just play to the best of my ability and just get better each and every time I’m out there.”
Contributing to confusion is the addition of some new faces in the defensive front seven. Ben Heeney is the new starting middle linebacker, Bruce Irvin is now starting at outside linebacker across from Khalil Mack, and Jihad Ward was drafted in the second round. Williams insists it’s just a matter of this group gelling.
“Fits and corrections like we always do after every game and a lot of guys were talking about linebackers hitting the holes a bit faster and guys not jumping out. Us as defensive tackles shedding the blocks quicker.”
If you’re looking for reasons/excuses for why the run D could be floundering, along with reasons why they could improve, you can add the absence of Mario Edwards Jr. The second year defensive end has been out with an injured hip, but potentially be ready for the season opener, but could also miss the first couple weeks of the season.
“I think Mario, he’s a big key because he’s a good player for us.” Said Williams. “I mean, you saw before he got hurt he was stepping up, finally finding his groove, and playing well. Anytime you lose a guy like that, it hurts you regardless – rotation wise – but at the same time we have the next man up mentality. Guys have to step up and we can’t have a drop off. But I know we’re definitely going to happy when he comes back.”
We are sitting at 12 days until the Raiders open the season and no more preseason games with extensive reps for the first team. Can they get it together? Just as his coach said, Big Dan Williams thinks these issues will be fixed when it matters.
“There’s a lot that we have to do to help each other out all around on defense,” said Williams. “I think it’s just getting better communication. I think we’re definitely going to improve by the time we get to September 11th.”