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What Raiders can expect from John Pagano as Defensive Coordinator

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A look at what changes the new coordinator will bring to the defense

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday the Raiders announced they had fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr and replaced him with defensive assistant John Pagano. From a purely statistical standpoint the move makes sense. The defense is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete an NFL worst 71.2% of their pass attempts, they have a historical 0 interceptions through 10 games, a league low 6 takeaways, and are tied for last in the NFL with only 13 sacks.

In his 5 years as Chargers defensive coordinator Pagano averaged 15th in the NFL in total defense. He ranked as high as 9th (twice) and as low as 23rd. He averaged 11th in passing defense including back to back seasons ranked 4th and 3rd in the NFL.

His rushing defense was equally was in a similar range, averaging 16th over his five seasons. He had three seasons in which his squad ranked 6th, 10th, and 12th overall. The stat that most likely got him his current position came last season in which his defense ranked 4th in takeaways.

The defense he takes over is certainly not stacked with talent but when you have a generational player in pass rusher Khalil Mack, the defense will be expected to produce pressure and force turnovers.

The question is; what will this change mean for the defense going forward? To find out, let’s take a look at how Pagano attacked the Raiders’ offense last season as the defensive coordinator of the Chargers.

It is difficult to know how much influence head coach Jack Del Rio has in the structure of the defensive game plan and play calling. Based on Pagano’s defense with the Chargers and how late it is in the season, do not expect wholesale changes. However, there will be tweaks that even the casual fan should notice.

The biggest change could be the amount of extra pass rushers the Raiders utilize. Under Norton the defense was hesitant to blitz and when they did it seemed like the offense saw it coming and picked it up. Pagano likes to bring extra rushers which should help to improve some of those defensive stats.

As seen here, Pagano brought a 6-man pass rush with Man-1 behind it. Fortunately for the Chargers they recognized the well timed screen and intercepted it. Pressure is the biggest contributor to interceptions. There is a correlation between the Raiders lack of sacks and lack of takeaways. Pagano will attempt to improve in both of those key categories.

It is worth noting that Pagano, and the NFL in general, ran a lot of single high safety looks. Don’t expect that to change this season. Improvement from that position may require a shakeup in personnel. Reggie Nelson has shown a lack of range and waiting in their opportunities are rookies Obi Melifonwu and Shalom Luani.

Another way Pagano will help with coverage as well as forcing some interceptions is his ability to confuse the opposing quarterback. When he was brought in the buzz word surrounding the hire was ‘disguise’. If you can use a quarterback’s keys to force him into a throw, while running a player into that zone, it can result in turnovers without having to put your secondary at risk.

Here the Chargers ran an ET stunt with a double buzz. Their pre-snap alignment led quarterback Derek Carr to believe that he would face a 5-man pass rush and have a throwing lane wide open for receiver Amari Coopers slant route.

Instead Pagano had his EDGE defenders drop into short zones taking those passing lanes away and almost coming up with a pick. To create a turnover with a 3 man pass rush is stealing for a defensive coordinator.

The Raiders face a young quarterback in Denver’s Paxton Lynch this week. He has had issues thus far in his career recognizing blitz pressures. Expect the defense to blitz as well as show blitz and attempt to jump short passing lanes.

Depending on how much of the defense’s tendency to play off-man was influenced by Del Rio, expect to see much more press-man. Pagano showed it quite often in his time with the Chargers.

Playing a more physical style of coverage would play into the hands of Oakland’s larger but less athletic cornerbacks. A professional coach who is expecting a defensive back to stay with some of the world class athletes in the NFL after giving them a free release borders on ineptitude. Especially given that this is most likely the first time in the history of the Raiders franchise that the team as a whole lacks speed.

It will be interesting to see how much of a difference Del Rio switching coordinators has in the defenses performance. Coaching matters. Much like a cheetah could never win a marathon, but is undefeated in a sprint, players need to be put into roles that fit their abilities. Time will tell if Pagano can do a better job of doing so or if this is the first in a series of coaching changes.


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