For the first time all season, the Raiders were able to gut out a win despite the offense sputtering. The defense played the biggest role in this victory, constantly putting the pressure on Philip Rivers and capitalizing on the mistakes that came as a result of.
Pass rush and pass coverage work hand-in-hand. Neither one is more important than the other, a veritable chicken or the egg dilemma of pass defense. Great coverage will make the QB hold the ball longer. A great pass rush will make the QB get rid of the ball sooner. When these two components are humming at a high level, the result will be like what we saw on Thursday: 5 sacks, 3 interceptions and forcing Philip Rivers to a season low 57.5 passer rating. Let’s see how the Raiders did it.
Notice how Rivers is patting the ball and looking around frantically as the pass rush closes in? That means the coverage is too tight, even for the gun slinger to get a pass off.
The Raiders execute a T-E stunt with Clelin Ferrel and Jonathan Hankins twisting their rush lanes. Ferrell throws the guard out of the way, giving him an open lane to sack Rivers combined with Maxx Crosby crashing in from the opposite edge.
The coverage that was confusing Rivers was some of the best the Raiders have played all season. Harris looks supremely comfortable in two-high safety looks that seamlessly mix zone and man principles to prevent the offense from getting into a rhythm for much of the game. In the clip above, the defense is disguising their coverage to look like Cover 2. Instead of pedaling out to his landmark, Harris takes a flat foot read, which allows him to jump this route combination as soon as he sees the outside receiver go underneath. Had the Raiders actually been in Cover 2, this would have been a perfect call. Harris takes this interception to the house, putting the Raiders up 10-0.
In the third quarter, the pass rush continued to get home. This time, there were no frills, just first round rookie DE Clelin Ferrell silencing the critics and beating the left tackle around the corner to notch another sack. If you argued that Ferrell hasn’t been an impactful rusher this season, you wouldn’t be wrong. But contrary to popular belief, Ferrell hasn’t even really been a rusher at all. This is one of the few opportunities the DE has had this season to actually rush he passer from the edge this season. When Ferrell can pin his ears back, he’s not too shabby.
The secondary gets the stop on the very next play. The Raiders played more 2-Man in the recent weeks. Oakland couldn’t live in this coverage in the past because QBs like Patrick Mahomes, Jacoby Brissett, Deshaun Watson, and even Rodgers are threats to take off with the ball when all five underneath defenders have their backs turned to the QB. Rivers, on the other hand, is no such threat, and the Raiders called this coverage early and often.
2-Man is a defensive back’s dream because it gives them the freedom to be aggressive and not worry about getting beat deep. Mullen gets a pass break up (his second of the game) because the coverage allows him to undercut this route.
Later in the third quarter, the Raiders defense gets a three-and-out due to a great effort from DE Benson Mayowa. Mayowa is still used as a third down specialist and has totaled 7 sacks on the year in this capacity. The Raiders re-tread went for the strip sack earlier in the game and was rewarded for his effort on this rep. The Raiders third down package uses DEs Crosby and Mayowa on either edge, DT Maurice Hurst in the middle, and special teams ace LB Kyle Wilbur as a stand-up rusher in place of Arden Key, who was placed on IR after the Lions game.
To cap it off, a great defensive effort by the Raiders defense sealed the win with another interception. Again, the defense is in 2-man coverage and Joseph is staying over the top of the vertical route up the right sideline. The pass rush features another T-E twist, but this time it’s rookie DE Maxx Crosby who closes in and prevents Rivers from stepping into this throw. It is quite fitting that the final play was an example of coverage and pass rush working together.
A huge departure from weeks past was the Paul Guenther foregoing run first defensive calls in favor of pass rushing and pass coverage. There were run plays that the Chargers ran that gashed the defense, but it looked like Guenther was willing to allow that while continuing to send pressure after Rivers.
The defense wasn’t perfect, allowing a deep pass to WR Mike Williams with Trayvon Mullen in coverage and a blown coverage in the redzone to allow TE Hunter Henry to score. This brand of football that focuses on takeaways and pass rush (as opposed to bend but don’t break) might be more suited to the talents on this defense.