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Arden Key was forced into three-down duties for Raiders last season, this season he could be earning it

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Arden Key was drafted as a third down pass rush specialist. But lately he’s been showing an every down skillset

Oakland Raiders v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We could get a heavy dose of Arden Key tonight in Winnipeg. Or if they’v seen enough from him, they could sit him out altogether. The second year edge rusher has been standing out as more than just as situational pass rusher through the first two preseason a games and the team would like to see if that can continue against Green Bay.

“I think he’s done a good job, both in the run and he’s been active in the rush,” Paul Guenther said this week of Key. “He looks a lot stronger to me. So, hopefully, again, he’s another guy who can keep getting better because he can play first, second, and third down now. So, it’s good to see.”

Speaking of Key as a player the team can use on first and second down is a major development. Last season as a rookie, he was thrust into an every down role after the team traded Khalil Mack and especially after they waived his mentor, Bruce Irvin at midseason. It was a tough leap for Key, but there was no choice in the matter. The Raiders were desperate.

“I just had to do it,” Key said of stepping into the fulltime role. “They didn’t want me to play first- and second-down last year. We had a plan last year just to play third down, then when it was time for me to play first- and second-down, every-down guy, I just stepped in and did what I could do the best as I could.”

Key struggled in that role as a 240-pound rookie speed rusher. He just couldn’t finish his sacks, leading to him putting up just one all season long.

Come season’s end, the Raiders wanted Key to focus on getting bigger and stronger. Like 20 pounds heavier. But that was just to be able to help him get to the quarterback as a pure defensive end. Not because they wanted him to be an every down end. Guenther said it plainly back in OTA’s in June.

“We drafted Arden to be a third-down rusher,” said Guenther. “That’s what it was. You don’t want to be a 260-pound slug out there. He knows exactly where we want him to be weight-wise, and his strength and conditioning is a progress thing for him right now.”

By minicamp, he was up to 260 and after the first week of camp, he had dropped some of the bad weight and was down to 255. Still a damn sight bigger than he played last season. But still the discussion was all about what he could bring as a pass rusher.

“Tackles feel my bull rush now,” Key said in training camp. “They feel the power rush. I didn’t realize how it opened up my arsenal because I’ve got a lot of pass rush move. But as long as I keep power rushing and power rushing and they’re scared of the power, then I can do my finesse.”

Where the surprise has come is in his run support. After all, it’s improving in that area that would have the team even considering putting him on the field on first or second down and short yardage situations.

When Guenther says Key can play the run now, it isn’t just lip service. You can see the proof in the tape of the first two games and the stats. Key is tied for second on the team with 3 run stops. He also has shown discipline to cut off the outside to force backs inside. Those plays don’t show up on the stat line, but the coaches notice. His newfound power allows him to do it.

Along with his run stops, he has not let anything get past him. Last season he had a problem with overpursuing which often allowed teams to bait him out of the lane for either a big run or a screen. It’s been just two preseason games, but there have been no sign of that lack of discipline show up yet in 58 defensive snaps so far.

One thing coach Brentson Buckner has been drilling into his defensive linemen is that the key to getting sacks is stopping the run. They signed Josh Mauro this offseason as the run stopping DE on first and second down and move inside for Arden Key on third down. If the team is limited to that rotation, it that allows for the defense to game plan around their faults. But if Key’s run defense is as good as it has been, they wouldn’t have to wait until obvious passing downs to put him in the game. That would be tremendous.

While we have talked at length about Key improving in his ability to finish sacks, his improved run stopping ability could be the bigger story here.