I can’t help but feel for Paul Guenther. The guy came here excited to work with Jon Gruden and try to improve this Raiders defense and now is probably asking himself what he got himself into. Normally you expect to take over a team and stick with what works and fix what didn’t. And by the season opener, the team was without their leading tackler (Navorro Bowman), sack leader (Khalil Mack), and top interior defensive lineman (Justin Ellis) from last season.
This left them with a defensive line that can’t stop the run, no pass rush to speak of, and a linebacking corps that can’t stop anything. The only thing after that was the secondary where Guenther has been rotating players all season trying to find the right mixture.
“I’ve really never been through anything like this before because when I took the job there were a lot of guys that were either up for free agency or that I thought were going to be on the roster,” said Guenther. “Obviously, there was a lot of changes. Guys got signed to other teams and we had to fill those spots in with some of the veterans with the cap money that we had. It’s been a challenge.”
For the first six weeks of the season, winning was the priority for Guenther. Hard to say if it Jon Gruden had the same priority considering he essentially gave up on the season before it started by trading Khalil Mack to Chicago.
The reason, I say six weeks is because that was the game in London against the Seahawks when, heading into the bye week, the team was 1-5 and the hard shift began. Of course Gruden isn’t going to say the team is no longer focused on winning. He responded directly to that question, insisting the rest of the season is not about “auditioning” guys.
The thing is though, it should be. And it would appear Guenther realizes this and knows the shift to the evaluation phase of this rebuild project is now in full effect.
“Having our vision was to bring in some young guys in the draft, we did that and they’re playing,” Guenther said Friday prior to Sunday’s game. “We’re going through some growing pains with the young guys. Hopefully the more and more snaps they get, the back end of the year here and going into year two we’re going to see massive improvements.”
Sunday the Raiders saw five rookies start and ten rookies play significant snaps. Half of those rookies were on the defensive side of the ball — Maurice Hurst, Arden Key, PJ Hall, Jason Cabinda, and Nick Nelson.
Other young players also saw extensive work as the team looks to see what they have in them. All with the aim of evaluating them over the final eight games of the season.
All season the Raiders have seen a whole host of rookies taking considerable snaps. They have no choice. Combining them with aging veteran castoffs has made this defense the worst in the NFL. That’s not something Guenther is used to. He has to remind himself there is a plan here.
“Every day,” Guenther said of how often he has to tell himself to be patient. “Every day, because obviously, I’ve been a part of and with a lot of good defenses in the past. There’s certain things and breakdowns that we’re having that we shouldn’t have – that I’m not used to seeing. And again, it is a patience thing, but I’m not the most patient guy and I want to get this stuff fixed quickly, because otherwise, that’s part of the evaluation process with the guys we have now moving forward in the last eight games to see what guys we want to keep here and what guys we want to move on with.”
That evaluation was kicked into another gear against the Chargers. Guenther gave undrafted rookie Jason Cabinda the start at middle linebacker and moved second year linebacker Marquel Lee to the strong side. Second year man Nicholas Morrow saw his most snaps of the season as well. Gruden liked what he saw with the changes at linebacker.
“I thought Marquel had the best game playing that position,” said Gruden. “Morrow, we’d like to see more and more from him. I thought Cabinda did some good things at the middle linebacker, too. I was pleased with a lot of things I saw from our young defense.”
Rookies Maurice Hurst and Arden Key started along the defensive line while rookie PJ Hall and third year man Shilique Calhoun saw significant minutes as well, nearly getting his first sack of the season.
Most notably he increased rookie cornerback Nick Nelson’s snaps and gave third year safety Karl Joseph his first start of the season. Nelson taking over the nickel corner for veteran Leon Hall is the natural transition that must take place at this point.
“Pretty good, pretty good. We like him,” Gruden said of Nelson. “He had five or six coverage opportunities yesterday. You saw for yourself what he’s capable of doing. He has some quickness and size and strength to play the nickel position. I think he played 25, close to 30 snaps, something like that. Leon Hall’s snaps were down at the nickel position, but for his debut I thought he played pretty good. I was excited about it.”
With the exception of Erik Harris, last Sunday the Raiders put every young hopeful they had on the field to get a long look at them. They have seven more games for that to continue and even increase. There won’t be many wins to come from that strategy — perhaps none at all — but as difficult as that might be for Guenther and the Raiders struggling defense, it’s the only way to proceed.