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Oakland Raiders go into 2017 with defense again in question

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The Oakland Raiders addressed a lot of defensive needs in the draft this offseason but the unit is still in question going into 2017 Week 1.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Oakland Raiders Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Despite having 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack last year, the Oakland Raiders defense wasn’t very good.

Against the pass, they were ranked No. 26, giving up 7.9 yards per attempt. That was the second worse in the entire NFL to only the Green Bay Packers at 8.1. The Raiders were the absolute worst at pass plays over 20 yards given up with 61.

Against the run, the Raiders defense was ranked No. 23 while giving up 4.5 yards per attempt. That was good enough to tie them for the fourth worst average in the NFL. Big plays were also a problem as they gave up the second most plays over 40 yards (5).

At 24.1 points per game, the Raiders were ranked No. 20 in scoring defense. So you absolutely cannot call that a bend-but-don’t-break defense.

With those kinds of numbers, it’s easy to see that Mack needs help. Coaching, run defense, interior pass rush, edge rushing opposite Mack and coverage were problems. In the draft, the Raiders addressed all that but going into Week 1, the unit is still in question.

The tactics and communication appear to have improved over the last couple of preseason games. That could be because assistant head coach John Pagano has more authority over the defense now.

On “The Greg Papa Show” on 95.7 The Game last Monday, Bill Romanowski chatted with Papa about it.

He said, “Pagano will bring heat and I think he's going to have more influence if they don't start getting off the field on third down.”

And to that, Papa said, “I think he may have already started. You see him during the game broadcast, he’s doing all of the talking and Kenny [Ken Norton Jr.] is not.”

The Raiders also look like they could improve against the run, particularly inside. It all starts with nose tackle Justin Ellis, who looked like a man on a mission this preseason. I guess that’s what happens when a young man is in a contract year. It could also be the that NTs generally take a few years to develop.

At the inside linebacker position, it looked like the Raiders would be much improved. Cory James played at a high level this preseason as well as fellow ILB Jelani Jenkins. They just needed to get on the field together but they won’t get that chance now. Jenkins was put on injured reserve Saturday after inuring his knee in Dallas.

That will likely force fifth-round pick Marquel Lee into the starting lineup right away. He’s good against the inside run but iffy outside and bad in coverage. So I’ll just say I hope the Raiders didn’t lose Perry Riley Jr.’s number.

There wasn’t a whole lot of production from the interior pass rush this preseason but it could still be there. All the Raiders really needed was for Mario Edwards Jr. to stay healthy through the preseason. He has done that and third-round steal Eddie Vanderdoes is there with him. He flashed right away then started drawing double-teams.

Vanderdoes’s emergence is important because Mack got a sack because of it against the Los Angeles Rams. Seventh-round pick Treyvon Hester also looks like he figures into the equation as he had a sack against the Dallas Cowboys first-team offensive line.

The NFL world likes to mention Mack and Irvin when speaking of Raiders edge rushers. But Mack is really the only great edge rusher the Raiders have. Last year Irvin had 7.0 sacks against one-on-one blocking and a few of those took way longer than three seconds.

Irvin is a good football player that can play off the ball and cover, he just isn’t a great edge rusher. His best season was his rookie year with 8.0 sacks and he hasn’t done that since. So it’s time to stop treating him like a proven edge rusher and call him a question mark in that department.

Lee looks like he needs to come off the field in obvious passing situations. And the Raiders defense is still having problems with opposing tight ends after struggling with them last year. That’s where safety Obi Melifonwu was supposed to come in this year. He was made to cover big, athletic TE’s but he’s barely seen the field due to injury.

The cornerback position also needs help after getting abused by receivers last year. David Amerson appears to be back to his 2015 form but Sean Smith and T.J. Carrie still get charbroiled.

Meanwhile, free safety Reggie Nelson seems not to be able to get there in time to help. Karl Joseph, who’s healthy and playing SS right now, is another a bright spot for the Raiders secondary.

So they need Amerson to return quickly from concussion protocol and their first two picks in the draft to get healthy. That way a healthy second-round pick Melifonwu could bump Joseph to FS where he’s made to play. And first-round CB Gareon Conley needs to can get healthy enough soon because he’s already an upgrade over Carrie and Smith.

With QB Derek Carr and the offense, the Raiders don’t have to be the ‘85 Bears on defense. But they need to be decent to make their universally predicted date with the New England Patriots in AFC Championship Game. With the players and coaches they’ve added, they have improved but I’m not sure it’s enough.

So the unit is in question as is the Raiders’ date with the Patriots.