Paul Guenther has become a polarizing figure as the chieftain of the Raiders’ woebegone defense over the past two seasons.
Since Guenther was handpicked from Cincinnati by head coach Jon Gruden to man the defense, he’s been at the helm of a unit that ranked dead last in opponent scoring in 2018 and places at No. 29 in said category this season. Many want him fired, some want him to be retained and a few don’t even know what to make of the situation considering the lack of talent he has to work with.
At Monday’s press conference, Gruden suggested that major changes could be coming to the defensive side of the ball:
“You gotta force a three-and-out, and we weren’t able to do that yesterday, from the jump. Very, very concerned about it,” he said. “We’re going to make some changes and get it right.
“We’ve got to play better, and we’re going to play better. There will be changes. There will be changes. What happened yesterday will not happen again. I can’t allow it.”
It seems that Gruden is finally fed up with the defensive output and might ultimately be considering replacing Guenther.
With that said, let’s examine the case for and against retaining the much maligned defensive coordinator and look at a few potential replacements:
The Case For Guenther
To put it frankly, Guenther entered a bleak situation in 2018. The Raiders employed exactly zero productive pass rushers after the Khalil Mack trade and the lack of a pass rush permeated throughout the rest of the defense.
When starting with as bare of a cabinet as Guenther had in 2018, it’s almost hard to not throw the results out of the window entirely. Below is the list of first- and second-team defenders available for the Raiders on Dec. 1, 2018, per Ourlads.
Asking any coach to spin shit into gold with that stable of players is an exercise in futility.
It may be tough to judge his talent in 2019 as well, considering that the Raiders are dealing with injuries to potential contributors Johnathan Abram, Karl Joseph and Arden Key. Not to mention the Vontaze Burfict season-ending suspension that occurred after Week 4.
When examining some of the NFL’s best defenses, one of the keys that sticks out is systemic continuity. Consider that the 49ers fanbase was ablaze last year with torches and pitchforks calling for Robert Saleh’s head on a stake. Fast forward to this season and he’s one of the hottest head coaching candidates, captaining a defense that has turned things around entirely.
The main reasons for the turnaround in Santa Clara? An influx of defensive talent (particularly on the defensive line), linear progression from young players, and defensive continuity. In the third year of Saleh’s system, things began to click for many of the young players.
Gruden has gone on record saying that he believes PG has what it takes to be a head coach at some point. That’s quite a ringing endorsement. It’s far-fetched, but perhaps with a talent boost and another year at the helm, he could be next year’s Saleh?
The Case Against Guenther
As the 2019 season has progressed, Guenther’s defense has deteriorated. Opposing offenses are lighting them up recently. Without context, you’d think the Raiders just faced the three best offenses in the NFL over their three game losing streak.
Now, the Chiefs do have one of the best offenses in the league with Andy Reid calling the shots for Patrick Mahomes, the league’s best young quarterback. But getting eviscerated by a shaky Sam Darnold and allowing Ryan Tannehill to have the best game of his career?
Neither the Jets or Titans were forced to punt the ball until the second half. And neither of those offenses are world-beaters.
One of the reasons for the porous defensive output is Guenther’s pass rush predictability. The Raiders pass rush plan is quite vanilla. They almost never blitz, opting to rush four on nearly every play. Occasionally, they’ll throw in some inside-out defensive line stunts, but opponents know those are coming since the Raiders almost never switch things up. When Oakland does blitz, they typically opt for Guenther’s favorite double-A gap blitz, rarely bringing any type of exoticism to play.
This may have something to do with his lack of trust in his secondary to play Cover 0. But as I’ve suggested previously, Cover 0 blitzes are often more effective than Cover 1, the coverage Guenther calls primarily.
Currently, the Raiders are No. 25 in the NFL in sacks with 27 on the season. That number is quite low, but looks great compared to their historically poor 13 sack performance in 2018. Even with as bad as the 2018 team was, 13 sacks is unacceptable.
Over the past three games, the Raiders pass rush has regressed, ranking No. 32 in the NFL with a 2.3 percent pressure rate. Is that because of a lack of talent on the defensive line? Surely not.
We all know how talented and disruptive Maxx Crosby has been this season. Clelin Ferrell has been rather disappointing for the No. 4 overall selection, but he should shouldn’t be getting completely blanked.
Add in the fact that Maurice Hurst has the 10th best interior pass rush grade from Pro Football Focus and the presence of Dion Jordan and Benson Mayowa and it’s pretty clear that the Raiders are no longer barren of pass rushers. The pieces Guenther has to work with in 2019 are far superior to his 2018 arsenal, but the results haven’t been there.
The Raiders swap safeties back and forth on a string on a play-to-play basis, asking each safety to play single-high at different points. In an ideal world, this backend system keeps the opponents guessing, but in actuality it puts a strain on the rest of the defense as most safeties don’t have the range to play single high and the size to play in the box on any given play.
That puts stress on the rest of the defense, because if a single high safety doesn’t have the range to effectively break on the ball and make plays, the defense may as well be playing with 10 men on the field.
Candidate No. 1: Kris Richard
Kris Richard is the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive backs coach, and he’s one of the leagues best young defensive minds.
At just 40 years old, Richard already has a wealth of experience helping defensive backfields get to the highest level as part of a 4-3, Cover 3-heavy scheme.
The former NFL defensive back coached at USC as a graduate assistant before following Pete Carroll to Seattle to take over as the secondary coach. With Seattle, Richard was an integral part in developing the illustrious “Legion of Boom,” one of the best collections of secondary talent that the NFL has ever seen.
After Seattle’s defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was hired as head coach for the Atlanta Falcons, Richard took over for a year as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator, with his defense finishing first in the NFL in points allowed.
Richard left Seattle in 2018 to take on the role of defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, and with Jason Garrett on the hot seat, he may be looking for a new challenge.
Richard has had a hand in helping cultivate the careers of Richard Sherman, Byron Jones, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and Chidobe Awuzie to name a few. He played for the Raiders in his last year as an NFL player in 2007, so returning to the team to invigorate a struggling defense might appeal to him.
Candidate No. 2: Ron Rivera
Riverboat Ron isn’t clear cut fit with the Raiders, but man oh man would it be fun to see him as the defensive coordinator.
One of the main issues with moving on from Guenther is that the Raiders have already invested draft capital and financial capital in defenders who fit a 4-3 front. Rivera was a 3-4 guy with the Panthers, but he played and coached in a 4-3 scheme for over 20 years.
Rivera was a second-round pick and an All-American linebacker out of Cal during his playing days and apparently grew up a Raiders fan, so if an NFL head coaching job doesn’t come calling, the Raiders could pique his interest.
He’s a linebacker savant who has coached up guys like Luke Kuechly, Brian Urlacher, Thomas Davis, Shaq Thompson, Shawne Merriman and more. He’s won two NFL coach of the year awards and would be the apple of any team’s eye looking for a defensive coordinator.
Rivera and Gruden coexisting as part of the same coaching staff may be tough. Gruden’s coordinator hires — Guenther and Greg Olson — are his buddies who won’t take away any of his spotlight. But if Gruden truly wants to win at the highest level and there’s an opportunity to grab Rivera, this would be a slam dunk hire.
Candidate No. 3: Bret Bielema
This one is a bit more outside the box, but it makes sense from a fit standpoint.
After fizzling out as the head coach at University of Arkansas (as Arkansas coaches tend to do), Bret Bielema took on a role as a consultant with the New England Patriots in 2018, before transitioning to a role as their defensive line coach this season.
Bielema coached some absolutely stacked defenses at Wisconsin, most notably turning J.J. Watt from walk-on tight end to a stud defensive end.
Bielema has experience coaching both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes and has honed his multiplicity as the Patriots defensive line coach, where he is a major contributor as part of the NFL’s best defense. Perhaps hiring Bielema could allow some of that secret New England sauce to rub off on the Raiders.
Candidate No. 4: Kris Kocurek
Lost in all the hoopla in San Francisco about Saleh’s defensive wizardry is the job that Kris Kocurek has done as the 49ers defensive line coach.
When Kocurek became available after the Miami Dolphins fired their coaching staff last year, the 49ers scrambled to fire incumbent defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina and hire Kocurek to install a Wide-9 scheme that has invigorated the pass rush.
He’s never held a defensive coordinator position before, working only as a defensive line coach in the NFL for the Detroit Lions from 2010-17 before working with the Dolphins in 2018.
Kocurek’s influence on the 49ers has been one of the major catalysts for their defensive ascension and he’s become an under-the-radar name who may likely be poached from the staff or promoted to the defensive coordinator role if Saleh leaves.
If Kocurek could recreate this magic as the Raiders defensive coordinator, a defensive line with a plethora of young pieces could start to realize their potential. Imagine Mad Maxx in a Wide-9 scheme?