Pass rushing has been a thorn in the side of the Raiders for a long time. To make matters worse Khalil Mack stayed away from the team this off-season during a contract holdout leading Jon Gruden to trade away the single most dominant edge rusher in the NFL.
As a result Paul Guenther’s unit is ranked at or near the bottom in every pass rush metric in the NFL by various stat makers. When asked about his team’s lack of pass rush Gruden has offered little hope for Raiders fans, only alluding to increasing the amount of blitzes from the defense.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther comes from Cinncinnati where they rarely blitzed and even in the absence of a consistent pass rush, he still continues to be conservative in his play calling. Guenther only calls blitzes on 3rd and long downs with the few outliers being a 2nd and 20+ situation. But when Paul Guenther does call a blitz they tend to be successful. Here’s a look at how they affect the passing game.
Double A Pressure
It was this blitz scheme that made Guenther an attractive hire for Gruden. “Double A” refers to both inside linebackers lining up on either side of the center showing blitz. This has proven to be an effective scheme in the NFL because of the combination of blitzes a coordinator can call out of the defensive alignment.
Week 1 against the Rams, Guenther dialed up a 5 man pressure out of this look and sent both linebackers after Jared Goff. LB Tahir Whitehead on the right side runs a twist with PJ Hall and is able to get his hand up in Goff’s passing lane for the deflection.
Notice DE Bruce Irvin backing off into coverage to fill the void left by the 2 blitzing linebackers. All the moving pieces in this play make for a tough read on QBs who have to get the ball out quick. The defense wins this rep and forces a punt.
Against Miami Guenther called blitzes much more frequently. This is a 6 man pressure with Reggie Nelson added to the call. Offensive coordinators around the NFL are having their RBs take the inside linebacker against this scheme. Guenther takes advantage of that adjustment and gets S Reggie Nelson a free run at the QB forcing Tannehill to get the ball out quickly into tight press man coverage.
This time it’s Arden Key who backs out into coverage from his defensive end position, just highlighting how complex and difficult to predict the Double A scheme is to attack.
The scheme does have weaknesses however. As pointed out before, Guenther comes from a conservative background and uses this safe pressure against Denver in Week 2. Both inside linebackers have what is called a “Mug Technique” where they will blitz only if their man pass protects.
This can be an effective call when the offense starts using backs in max protection to pick-up the blitz because the more blockers stay, the more blitzers come. But Oakland didn’t send enough pressures for Denver to respect the threat and is able to take advantage of the “Mug Technique”—sending both men in the backfield towards the line of scrimmage. The backfield action forces both Johnson and Whitehead to “read out” of their rush plans. Bill Musgrave calls the perfect play to attack the blitz and Case Keenum has the time to make a first down throw to Emmanuel Sanders.
Odd Front Pressure
Paul Guenther doesn’t only have blitzes drawn up out of the double A gap look. He’ll also use the “Odd Front” to disguise pressures and get Bruce Irvin into favorable positions.
The Odd Front means there is a nose tackle head up on the center and two defensive ends defending the gap outside the offensive tackle.
Guenther has an even better success rate with these “Odd Front” pressures and this is likely due to the the prevalence of the Double A gap scheme in the NFL right now. The Odd Front look is more novel, especially coming from a 4-3 team that bases out of an “Even Front.”
This play agains the Rams isn’t exactly a blitz even though there are multiple moving parts and rushers coming from different angles. A four man pressure is classified as a stunt and is a safe way to rush the passer without losing a man in coverage.
Guenther employs this Odd Front pressure against the Rams and puts both Irvin and DE Arden Key on the same side. This is an obvious clue that pressure is coming and the offensive line slants their protection towards Irvin’s side. In this case Goff was able to get the ball out without being hurried but the completion was short of the first down.
Against Denver in Week 2, Guenther realized he needs more than 4 rushers to get home with this look so he sends edge blitzes from Derrick Johnson and CB Leon Hall (lined up in the slot). Bruce Irvin is still standing up over the guard next to Arden Key and their presence holds the offensive lineman from picking up a blitzing Johnson around the right edge.
But the best part of this play happens on the left side where rookie DT Maurice Hurst is actually lined up as a defensive end. His job is to bull-rush the left tackle and allow Leon Hall to come free off the edge. The left guard however jumps outside to block Hall giving Hurst room to get off his block up the middle for a sack on Case Keenum.
By Week 3 Guenther is dialing the Odd Front blitz up another notch. The Raiders showed this look more often against the Dolphins and it usually meant Irvin was running a some kind of stunt similar to the first example against the Rams.
The offense thinks they are ready for the stunt and slants the protection to Irvin’s side except Irvin doesn’t rush. Instead Guenther sends the corner blitz from the opposite side knowing the RB will take Whitehead and Melvin will be a free rusher. Melvin doesn’t get home but is able to jump and deflect the pass—forcing 4th down.
This is a really smart blitz call because you’ll notice the left side of the line has 4 blockers against 2 rushers while the right side has 2 blockers against 3 rushers.
Guenther has shown he is adept at drawing up complex pressures that affect the passing game. Unfortunately they are called far too seldom. Guenther however has listened to Gruden’s plea for more blitzes and has called more and more each game.
Blitzing is fine as long as it gets home but they always come with a risk; the defense loses a man in coverage for each extra rusher. The Double A pressures are safer but because of their use around the league at this point, offensive coordinators are getting a better idea of how to beat them.
The Odd Front pressures on the other hand are unique to the Raiders as Paul Guenther has tailored the scheme to fit his personnel, specifically the abilities of Bruce Irvin. For this reason they have been more successful but carry more risk due to the defenses alignment with Bruce Irvin essentially playing 3 technique against a run play.
The Raiders pass rush is still a work in progress but the foundation for keeping the offense guessing is there. If the defensive line can start getting more pressure with only 4 rushers this defense will be able to turn the corner.