Coming into the season there were questions about Paul Guenther’s defense. The 2018 unit couldn’t stop the run or the pass and at times looked elementary compared to other NFL defenses.
The beginning of this season it looked as though not much had changed, each week however there has been an innovative adjustment made that culminated in a win this past weekend for the Raiders.
The defense had two turnovers and held the Colts to 81 yards rushing, making them one dimensional on offense. Forcing Jacoby Brissett to put the game with his arm was a winning strategy in week 4. Let’s take a look at how Guenther’s unit is turning into a modern NFL defense.
Tweaking the run defense
Stopping the run is the top priority for Paul Guenther. The Raiders defensive coordinator will deploy his defensive ends in techniques inside of the tackle in order to close gaps in the run game. Signing LaMarcus Joyner, a 5-8 slot corner, also poses a problem of how to stop the run in a lighter personnel grouping. Guenther seems to be starting to figure that out.
This is a common gap exchange between the open side defensive end—Josh Mauro and the B-gap linebacker, Vontaze Burfict. This gap exchange was originally used by college football teams in the early 2000’s to defend the zone read. Nowadays it is being used to take away the RPO by protecting the linebacker from an inside run fit while defending the backside slant.
Guenther makes this call at the perfect time and it’s obvious the right tackle was not expecting Mauro to slant inside. Mauro beats the tackle easily and takes the running back down for a loss.
LaMarcus Joyner wasn’t happy about personnel groupings dictating his playing time last week in a loss against the Vikings. Guenther vowed to fix this problem and this play is the likely result of it. Two things are happening here that are run first adjustments.
First check out the alignment of Maxx Crosby, who is lined up at 3 technique on the outside shoulder of the right guard. This alignment is usually reserved for defensive tackles, but, as stated above, Guenther likes to put his defensive ends in this position, especially on obvious run downs. This front is called the Bear Front and it will help the Raiders stop the run despite being in Nickel on almost every play.
The other adjustment is the blitz from Joyner. Joyner is in man coverage on the receiver who goes in motion. This type of motion is called “Jet” and has been used more and more often in the NFL to supplement the run game. When Joyner sees the Jet motion, instead of running all the way across the formation, he converts his coverage into a blitz. This wrinkle is one way for Joyner to make an impact on run downs.
Stopping the run with a young defensive line can be tough. Having players with attitude however is proving to be helpful. The wrinkle on this play above is DE Arden Key lining up in an inside technique over the center. This is a pass first alignment and Guenther has moved Key around in the past. This game Key was asked to rush from the interior.
On paper this should be an easy alignment to run against. A light personnel grouping (3 DE’s 1 DT) and 2 rookie defensive linemen. Not so fast. First watch as Key bench presses the center into the backfield creating a muddy read for the running back. Second, marvel at Crosby throwing TE Jack Doyle to the ground and making a run stop for no gain.
Adding layers in pass coverage
The Raiders pass coverage hasn’t been great this season. The team has been in primarily man coverage and there have been times when a mismatch has created a problem for just about every defensive back. Guenther’s defense is starting to evolve into a multiple look coverage team on the back end and this turned into the difference in the game.
On the Colts’ first drive, the Raiders disguised their usual Cover 1 look with an unusual coverage called Cover 2 Invert or Cover 2 Robber. Like a normal Cover 2 there are 2 deep players and 5 underneath defenders all playing zone. But in a usual Cover 2, the deep players are safeties. In the clip above it is CB’s Gareon Conley and Daryl Worley who bail into the deep half coverage.
Lamarcus Joyner assumes the role of the flat defender in this coverage at the top of the screen. Joyner recognizes the corner route from TE Eric Ebron and puts himself in a position to play the back shoulder. Joyner gets a pass breakup on this play, in a coverage that the Raiders have only ran once this year.
As mentioned several times by now, the Raiders are a primarily Cover 1 team. Cover 1 means all 5 eligible receivers are covered man to man with 1 safety playing deep and 1 defender playing the hole underneath. The hole player for the Raiders has almost exclusively been a linebacker which means Karl Joseph has been in man coverage.
When Joseph has been in man coverage on a tight end this year, the results have not been great. Joseph for all his physicality has struggled to compete with the size of NFL TE’s who have routinely out-reached him for jump balls throughout his career.
In the above clip the Raiders instead have opted to put LB Nicholas Morrow in man coverage on the TE which frees up Joseph to be the hole player in this cover 1 defense. This is a role that really suits Joseph who remains in the box against the run or he can break on inside throws. Joseph throwing bone crunching tackles like this one above will be a factor in the pass game.
The Erik Harris interception return for a touchdown also came on an adjustment to the Raiders usual cover 1 defense. Erik Harris is the down safety at the top of the screen this time and surely the QB sees his alignment pre-snap and thinks he’s in man coverage.
Brissett would only be half right, Harris is actually in bracket coverage on TE Ebron. Harris will take any route outside and vertical while Morrow takes all inside routes. When Ebron runs inside it frees up Harris to rob the curl of the outside receiver to his side. Paul Guenther likely noticed a tendency and made this call at the perfect moment to get Harris into the throwing lane.
The run defense continues to be a strong point for the Raiders who are using their defensive linemen in creative ways to stop the run. These schematic adjustments however hinder their ability to rush the passer. This group needs to continue to grow before they can put consistent pressure on the quarterback.
With Vontaze Burfict out, Morrow comes in and adds an element to the defense that Burfict couldn’t: athleticism. Morrow’s deployment will help the safeties change their techniques and fool opposing quarterbacks.
Despite the positive plays made by Lamarcus Joyner in the clips above, he continued to struggle in man coverage. Joyner has been picked on so far this season and in 4 targets in man coverage against the Colts he gave up 3 catches, 36 yards, 1 first down, and a touchdown.