Right now, the Oakland Raiders are rightfully known for their high scoring offense. It looks like the only thing they need to be concerned about is the defense. They don’t exactly need the ‘85 Chicago Bears defense with the offense they have. But they can’t allow opposing offenses to keep up from week to week.
Last year, the defense made a lot of timely stops and turnovers to help the team go 12-4. The Raiders still need that but don’t need to leave games to chance so often. If the team excels on defense this year, they have as good a chance as anyone to win the Super Bowl. After a horrible preseason, the defense hasn’t been overly impressive two games into the regular season.
But they have some things and-or players bringing it together so the unit could be on the way.
The Front Seven
The Raiders went into this offseason needing to improve the defensive front seven. Last year, they were ranked dead last in sacks, and got no pressure on quarterbacks. Therefore, they gave them the time to complete more passes over 20 yards and 40 yards on them than any other defense in 2016. They were also ranked No. 23 against the run.
Pass rusher Khalil Mack, the 2016 Defensive Player of the year, did his part but didn’t have much help. This year, he does with Mario Edwards Jr., who was injured most of last year. As of now, the problem is solved as Edwards leads the team with 2.0 sacks while also playing the run well. Rookie Eddie Vanderdoes has played well beyond his third round draft position. He’s already taking double-teams as he plays the run and rushes the passer well.
As far as the inside linebackers go, things haven’t worked out as planned. Marquel Lee has done okay against the run but the Raiders have to keep him off the field on passing downs. And preseason hero Corey James hasn’t been the same guy since the regular season started. But the Raiders appear to have found a new gem in Nicholas Morrow.
The undrafted free agent has been the highest graded ILB the Raiders have according to Pro Football Focus. While solving the Raiders’ problem covering tight ends, he hasn’t been bad against the run. So the team will probably give him a bigger role in the defense.
With all the additions the Raiders made this offseason, they aren’t doing so so well statistically overall against the run. But opposing teams aren’t just handing the ball off to their running backs and controlling the game. Opposing teams were helped by their quarterbacks averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
Compared to last year, the Raiders secondary is off to a really good start. After two games last year, the Raiders had already given up a historically bad 819 yards and seven touchdowns passing. This year, the Raiders have given up only 372 yards and two TDs.
That’s because they’re playing much better, not giving up so many plays over 20 and 40 yards. Right now, they’re in the middle of the pack in pass plays given up over 20 yards and have yet to give one up over 40 yards.
But the Raiders didn’t play their first two games against the New Orlean Saints and the Atlanta Falcons this year. It was the Tennessee Titans and the New York Jets, who don’t have great passing games. But at the same time, the Raiders even made QB Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars’ passing game look decent last year.
One big difference was cornerback Sean Smith, who had a good Week 1 after a horrible season last year. Then he was injured last week for the Titans and should be back Sunday. This week should be a good week to see where he is with his skill and injury.
Another big difference is strong safety Karl Joseph, who’s doing everything well right now. He’s defending passes to save TDs like he did in Tennessee, making runs stuffs, and bringing heat to QBs on blitzes like he did against the Jets. If he continues to play at this pace, there could be a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro selection waiting for him.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. is getting the credit for the blitzing Joseph is doing but I don’t buy it. He barely calls for linebackers to blitz, preferring to rush four and sit back in a Cover-3 zone.
All the blitzing, particularly with safeties, has assistant head coach John Pagano’s fingerprints all over it. You can also see his fingerprints all over the Cover-2 man the Raiders have been playing more of.
And along with it, there have been no miscommunications that lead to receivers running down the field wide open or wasted timeouts from not getting the call in. However, there was a time that the Jets were in trips and the Raiders only sent two CBs to that side but Smith made a great play.
It’s early in the season but the team appears to be getting some key problems solved on defense. The interior pass rush looks much better along with the outside coverage improving. And with the increased role of Morrow, the Raiders are covering TEs better. Their run defense has also improved a bit as long as QBs aren’t running.
The Raiders haven’t exactly played a juggernaut yet but these teams would have done better against last year’s defense. And Sunday night, they will get a little progression test against Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins. If the Raiders play well on defense in that game, they could be onto something.