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Raiders defense showing new dimension in dialing up safety blitzes

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New York Jets v Oakland Raiders Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Last year the defensive secondary of Sean Smith, David Amerson, Reggie Nelson, and Karl Joseph (as well as DJ Hayden and TJ Carrie and some other fill-ins) had a very up-and-down year. They made some key plays but many of those were overshadowed with some egregiously poor plays, many of those stemming from lack of communication. It wasn't necessarily that they were PHYSICALLY bad, but that one or more were just out of position and not quite sure where his help would be or was supposed to be.

This offseason, somehow GM Reggie McKenzie and HC Jack del Rio pulled off a major coup by getting veteran defensive coordinator John Pagano to ASSIST Ken Norton in handling the defense, while primarily working with the aforementioned defensive secondary.

If Pagano can get the communication and responsibilities straightened out, there would be a huge cascading effect felt all over the defense. Good secondary play could give the pass rushers an additional 1/2 to full second to get to the passer.

Pagano has publicly stated that one of his major missions is to help the secondary with how they DISGUISE their intentions (coverage or otherwise) and that may have been one of the more exciting tidbits that came out of OTAs. The defensive backfield’s communications and assignments already look better than they have at any time last year, including the fantastic first half of the Indianapolis game. They look like a group that is comfortable with each other and understanding the scheme. That’s a HUGE load of our collective minds and an indicator that maybe this defense can be a really good one.

Perhaps the most surprising—and fantastic—aspects of this past game was how often the Raiders were blitzing their defensive backs. By my count, I saw Karl Joseph blitzing 7 times, Reggie Nelson blitzing 4 times, and TJ Carrie blitzing once. Here's a link to a video compilation of them :

Typically a defensive back blitz is a Corner blitz using the slot DB, because he is lined up in a favorable position. However, the Raiders' blitzes only saw that happen once (TJ Carrie). Otherwise, they were Strong Safety blitzes and many of them were "coming from depth", meaning that the safety was NOT lined up at the line of scrimmage but rather deeper into the field.

Most fans think that a blitz is designed so that the blitzer will get to the QB, either sacking or pressuring. That's not necessarily true. While a defense would really love to be always able to get a hit on the QB, a bit part of what they are trying to do is to dictate the offensive blocking assignments. If the defense can force the opposing offensive line to do execute in a specific manner, advantage: Defense.

For instance, let’s say a defense has a Defensive Superstar—a true D-MVP caliber player—wouldn’t you like to have him matched up 1-on-1?

So far this year, Khalil Mack has attracted 2 or 3 blockers on nearly every play and many times they have been effective and keeping Mack away from the QB. What if the Defense could line up and rush a certain way so that Khalil Mack gets an isolated one-on-one against the Right Guard? Is that something you would be interested in?

That is exactly what happens on one of Karl Joseph's blitzes.

On a play with no RB in the backfield, Joseph blitzes to outside of Mack; this forces the RT to fan out to pick up Joseph while the RG then has the task of blocking Mack with no help. Mack wins this 1-on-1 with relative ease; he grabs and tosses the RG aside with impunity and likely would have had another sack if QB Josh McCown wasn’t able to escape the pocket and scramble downfield.

Still, the point is made : the Blitzer does not have to get home to make for an effective blitz; the blitz design can allow for a playmaker to get a great matchup and the defense can win that way. It is pretty exciting to see some scheming to free up Mack so early in the season. It’s almost as if the Raiders’ Defensive leadership was planning for this...

Of course many blitzes are designed to get the blitzer coming free. And one of the most exciting defensive plays on Sunday was Karl Joseph blitzing and getting the strip sack that set up the Raiders' 6th and final TD of the day.

That was a definite thing of beauty.

Now, before getting so excited and saying this is a totally new invention, be advised that the Raiders' defense did show this a little bit last year. Remember Karl Joseph blitzing Joe Flacco three times in a row including one deflected pass? Or how about the Tampa Bay game when Reggie Nelson blitzed and helped scheme a Khalil Mack sack similar to the above one.

Having said that, in no game last year was the attack from the secondary as pronounced nor as impressive as this past week. It was a thing of beauty, even though there were some disappointing plays that resulted. It's giving the defense another dimension and it's forcing opposing offenses to prepare even more for this defense.

We all already know that Karl Joseph is a guided missile and that he loves to hit and so it’s no surprise he loves to blitz. He made some nice plays and naturally as any hungry competitor, Karl wants to get better.

“I should have definitely got more sacks than I did,” Joseph said of his blitzing in the win over the Jets. “I feel like I should have had three but you know I was happy to make that play.”

Joseph is fully healthy and taking the next step with his development. We're seeing some of those physical attributes that had GM Reggie McKenzie and his scouts sold on him. Joseph's explosion and accleration from downfield, his sense of timing, and his natural shiftiness really shine when he's blitzing. Also, his diminutive stature is actually a positive. When attacking in space, it is difficult for a blocker to reach down to him; standing straight up, Joseph is at Mack's dip move height!

Coach Jack Del Rio seems to be intent on getting the most out of Karl and as he sees Karl make plays, there’s going to be more and more reason to put Karl in those positions.

“That’s what he’s supposed to do,” Del Rio said of Joseph blitzing. “He’s supposed to make plays. He’s a guy we selected because we thought he’d be a guy that could come in and impact on our defense.”

Reading between the lines and I think that shows Del Rio, Ken Norton Jr, and John Pagano are ready to start assaulting opponents with the OTHER pocket rocket.

My (not-so) bold prediction : Karl will get a few more sacks this year and probably another strip.

There's a lot to be excited about here and it's also another nice little scheme element for Xs and Os guys to pay attention to.

We're not quite a "Mad Scientist" blitz team, but certainly these pressure packages should really aid the overall pass rush.