Last season for the Raiders didn’t inspire much confidence in the makeup of the Raiders. So, once again a major overhaul was coming at nearly every position. That was especially true with regard to the defense.
The main issue was in the lack of a pass rush. Gone were sack leaders Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin and there was no one to to step up and fill in for the loss of their production. There was also a carousel at linebacker and defensive back because the positions were not properly addressed in the offseason. Basically everything but the interior defensive line needed a makeover.
This meant defensive coordinator Paul Guenther went shopping. He picked up a few new pieces in free agency and several more in the draft. He’s a pretty happy man today, especially compared with what he was given to work with last season. The team’s second preseason game turned into his own game of show-and-tell. Namely blitzing, blitzing, and more blitzing.
“Those are some plays that we’ll run during the season,” Guenther said of the team’s many successful blitz packages deployed against the Cardinals. “If you notice some of the guys who were blitzing; it was [Lamarcus] Joyner, [Johnathan] Abram, Brandon Marshall, [Vontaze] Burfict, they’re all new toys for me. So, those are the guys I wanted to see blitz a little bit instead of sit back in coverage all day.”
Guenther added that he wanted to see how his new players communicate on the field and the results kind of speak for themselves – zero point and 12 net yards allowed with two sacks, and a safety for the Raiders defense versus the Cardinals first team offense.
Pressure was coming from different places on different plays. Arden Key got back there around the edge, Lamarcus Joyner got the sack for the safety, the linebackers were coming up the middle on double A gap blitzes, you name it.
Veterans like Joyner, Marshall, and Burfict make the defense smarter. While rookies like Abram and Clelin Ferrell add some athleticism and young talent. Guenther is downright giddy finally having players he feels can run all his plays.
“It was fun,” Guenther said. “There was a lot more speed on the field. We can cover, I got guys that can blitz, guys that can play the run, so I think I told the players you kind of know what it’s supposed to look like when it’s right. We added some blitz to that the other night. So, we continue to get better and understand the details of everything that we’re doing.”
The “straw that stirs the drink” as Gruden put it, is Vontaze Burfict. The veteran linebacker takes Guenther’s scheme and communicates it to the rest of the defense.
“I was his linebackers coach and then his defensive coordinator so I kind of raised him from a puppy,” Guenther said of Burfict. “He’s so smart, he alerts guys, he’s a great communicator, he knows the defense inside and out, he knows the corners, the safeties, the D-line, he knows it all, we can get in and out of different defenses at the line of scrimmage, so it’s like having your quarterback you’ve coached for years running your system.”
Even still, Burfict can’t do it alone. During camp, he was regularly seen yelling for his fellow defenders to talk to him. He’s feeling like he’s getting the open line of communication he wants and it’s making his job easier.
“It’s great,” said Burfict. “We have so many leaders on our defense so there’s not too much stuff on my plate than I can handle because I got Lamarcus, I got Tahir [Whitehead], I got Karl [Joseph], I got Abram behind me. It’s exciting, obviously less stress on my plate, I can just go out there and do my job an execute and make sure I’m running the defense.”
Rookie safety Johnathan Abram’s name gets brought up a lot. He stepped into the starting safety role in OTA’s and is making a strong early impression on his veteran teammates. Of all the new toys Guenther has to play with now, Abram is having the most immediate impact. As much or more so than the new veterans.
“He has extreme confidence,” Burfict said of Abram. “I love it though. He shows it in the film room and in film study. Like today we had a play and he opened his mouth up and said something in front of the defense that kind of gave me the chills. I don’t want to say because it’s kind of in-house study, but he’s going to be a great player for us.”
Abram is one of what figures to be six new defensive starters this season for the Raiders along with fellow rookie first round pick Clelin Ferrell, and veteran additions Burfict, Marshall, Joyner, and Josh Mauro. And this time it’s not a stretch to say they’re all upgrades from what the Raiders fielded at those positions last season.