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‘Sacks don’t just fall off trees’: Raiders have to earn the right to rush the passer by stopping the run

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Bringing up that sack total will take more than adding pass rushers.

Oakland Raiders

Football is a complex game. Some would call it the ultimate team sport. The more you learn about it, the more you realize you don’t know. But it can often seem simpler than it is. For instance, pass rush. It seems simple enough. Go get the quarterback. Make sure you have pass rushers who can do it.

The Raiders didn’t have many players who could rush the passer last season. That’s no secret. They have arguably the best pass rusher in the NFL and traded him away just before the season started.

With all that Khalil Mack did from a pass rush standpoint, it can be easy to forget just how good he was against the run as well. He’s a truly rare talent in that he never had to leave the field in any situation.

Without him, people focused on the hole that was left from a pass rushing perspective, without realizing that he earned his pass rushing reps with his stout run stopping ability. And no one replaced that production last season.

This offseason, the only free agent defensive lineman the Raiders signed was Josh Mauro. He of 3.0 sacks in five NFL seasons. That isn’t the pass rush productivity anyone was expecting.

Mauro is a run defender. He also fiercely defends what players like him bring to a team that goes unnoticed and misunderstood.

“I do my job,” said Mauro. “On first and second down, I stop the run on the edge or anywhere across the line and then on third down if I get the opportunity to move inside and rush and collapse the pocket a little bit.”

Mauro is a former undrafted free agent out of Stanford who has quietly made a career in the NFL as a stout run defender, often playing the edge on first and second down and moving inside on third down. That’s what Gruden wants from him as well. Just stop the run and set up the edge rushers to get the glory.

There won’t be any glory to be had if the dirty work isn’t done first. The Raiders didn’t do that much last season, further proof that perhaps rushing the passer starts there.

“They were 29th against the run last year, no one talks about that, everyone wants to talk about 13 sacks,” said Mauro. “If you don’t stop the run, you don’t get to rush the passer. And if things aren’t going well, offensively and defensively in games, you’re not in a position to rush the passer.”

The emphasis on stopping the run to set up the pass rush comes mostly from new defensive line coach, Brentson Buckner. The longtime former NFL player had a very similar skillset to that of Mauro. He was a run stopping defensive lineman who bounced between defensive end and interior defensive lineman just as Mauro does.

“Buck is not a cliche coach. He’s not one of those guys that gives you coach talk,” Mauro said of Buckner. “He played 12 years in the league and he was on a Super Bowl team. So, guys that are around football, guys that watch film, guys that are invested and really know the game, they know that sacks don’t just fall off trees, they don’t just happen by luck, you know.”

There’s a reason Mauro has been lining up with the first team since day one this offseason. Even while we talk about Arden Key and Maxx Crosby and Benson Mayowa and what they can bring in terms of pressures and sacks, here’s Mauro preparing to see more snaps than any of them. And getting discussed as if he’s a camp body or something.

No, he’s a 6th year veteran with 30 starts under his belt, 24 of which came in Arizona with Buckner as his defensive line coach. He and other interior linemen like Jonathan Hankins and second year players PJ Hall and Maurice Hurst will be focusing on trying to put offenses in third and long situations so the likes of top pick Clelin Ferrell and the other situational pass rushers can sic the quarterback.

It’s a tried and true formula for success. Just perhaps not as glamorous in the making of it.