Through the first five weeks of the 2019 NFL season, the Raiders defense has improved each game. By week five, Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther’s unit hardly resembles the one that ranked dead last in sacks and gave up 2249 yards rushing in 2018. Let’s take a deep dive into how the defense is being implemented in year 2 of Guenther’s tenure.
82% nickel would have been good for the second highest amount in the NFL last season. One reason for this uptick in the usage of 5 defensive backs is the addition of slot corner LaMarcus Joyner this off-season. Joyner signed a 4-year, $42 million deal this spring and it makes sense to keep a player making that money on the field.
Primary coverages used
The above chart shows the coverages the Raiders defense plays primarily.
Also known as Cover 1. Man Free has 5 defenders in man coverage with 2 free defenders in the middle of the field—one deep safety, one low hole player.
Zone defense where two safeties play deep half coverage. The remaining 5 defenders play short zones spread out across the field 12-18 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Split Field Quarters
“Split field” means one side of the defense will play one coverage while the other side of the defense will play another. Usually this is some combination of Cover 4 Match, Quarters, or Cover 2.
Single High Blitz
The Raiders most used blitz coverage by far. It resembles Man Free with a deep safety and man coverage on the outside, but Paul Guenther will send linebackers and safeties on blitzes and at time replace them in coverage with defensive linemen.
The Raiders of course will use additional coverages; Cover 3, Cover 0, 2-Man, Prevent, and blitz coverages that don’t easily fall into a coverage category. The above coverages however make up the majority of the calls they play on a down to down basis.
The above numbers reflect how well each coverage does against the run. Split Field Quarters is the Raiders favorite coverage call on 1st and 10 helping the defense rank in the top 10 against the run across all NFL rating services.
The clip above shows why Split Field Quarters is a great run support call. Single High safety coverages like Man Free and Cover 3 have often been used to get 8 men in the box. Split Field Quarters ups the ante by allowing 9 defenders to get in the run fit. Notice Karl Joseph near the bottom hash. At the snap he chops his feet which tells us he is in quarters coverage reading the release of the number 2 receiver. Because he doesn’t gain any ground going backwards Joseph is able to run the alley and get in on the tackle.
Man free has also been an excellent run call for the Raiders this year, Guenther prefers to call this defense in short yardage situations. Like mentioned above, the single high coverage allows for 8 men in the box. Unlike Split Field Quarters however, it simplifies things for the two linebackers. The four defensive backs in man coverage adjust to motions and shifts, allowing the linebackers to focus their attention on the running back. Tahir Whitehead has excelled stopping the run in this coverage, he is tied for run stops while in cover 1 with Johnathan Hankins and Karl Joseph—each have 3.
Individual run stops
There is a stark contrast in pass coverage efficiency when comparing Single High coverages (Man Free, Single High Blitz) against 2 High coverages (Cover 2, Split Field Quarters).
The problem the Raiders have defending the pass when playing either Man Free (true Cover 1) or Cover 1 Blitz are the defenders they have in man coverage. LaMarcus Joyner and Karl Joseph are two physical players in the secondary. However their talents against the run haven’t translated against the pass and both have been pretty bad in man coverage this season.
While in man coverage, the pair have given up 14 catches on 21 targets for 236 yards, 9 first downs and 4 defensive penalties. Each has given up their only touchdown this season while in man coverage. Opposing QBs passer rating when targeting both Joyner and Joseph in man coverage is 136.21.
One reason Cover 2 has been a solid pass coverage for the Raiders defense is because Guenther has called it sparingly. The Raiders have only been in Cover 2 on 30 passing plays this year and it is a good call when the opposing offense has a long distance to convert a first down. The point of Cover 2 is to keep everything in front of the safeties and force the QB to make throws into tight windows.
The other reason this coverage has been effective is the emergence of Erik Harris at safety. Harris has the range and ball skills to disrupt receivers like this clip above making TE Eric Ebron flinch and dropping the pass.
Individual defenders in coverage
This charting breaks down the numbers for each Raider defender who has been targeted in coverage this season. LaMarcus Joyner has been a relative disappointment in coverage so far this season giving up a first down on 44% of passes thrown into his coverage.
Gareon Conley has also struggled at times giving up 3 touchdowns on the year. Conley has played well while the defense is in Man Free coverage but has looked unsure of himself while executing the Split Field Quarters coverages which are far more varied than strict man coverage and the technique, leverage can change with every snap. Two of the touchdowns Conley has given up has been in this type of coverage.
Daryl Worley was named as a player that the coaching staff would like to give more responsibility as a hybrid defensive back who may move inside and cover the bigger wide-receivers that Joyner and Joseph have struggled to lock down. Worley has been the best full time DB in coverage this year allowing a catch on 48% of passes thrown into his coverage.