The Raiders season has been over for two weeks now, but the NFL playoffs march on, and now only four teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi trophy.
In an effort to look at what the Raiders can learn from the last teams standing, we’ll be discussing a few lessons that can be learned regarding how each franchise found themselves one game away from a Super Bowl appearance.
The San Francisco 49ers were the NFL’s most improved team this season, and one of the biggest reasons for their turnaround from No. 2 overall draft slot to NFC Championship game host is their commitment to building a modern front seven.
As the Raiders aim for a similar ascension, they should try to mimic the way their former (wow, that’s bizarre) Bay Area rival built a front that’s as well-equipped to thwart many modern offenses.
With an absurd amount of talent along the defensive line and perhaps the fastest linebacker trio in the league, San Francisco allowed the the least yards per play of any team in the NFL. And despite a thrilling 48-46 win over the Saints inflating their points allowed per game mark, they still finished No. 5 in the league in said category.
The Raiders, meanwhile, finished No. 26 in points allowed per game this season, but considering that the 49ers finished at No. 28 in that category in 2018, there’s some hope that the Raiders could follow suit in the coming years if they push the correct buttons.
Keep in mind, though that John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan walked into a situation with a few high-potential, versatile defensive linemen in tow, while the cupboard was complete barren for the Jon Gruden’s Raiders after the Khalil Mack trade. The biggest reason for the 49ers effectiveness on defense is their array of depth along the defensive line, and that’s an area the Raiders must continue improving upon.
Between Arik Armstead (No. 17 overall), Deforest Buckner (No. 7 overall), Solomon Thomas (No. 3 overall), and Nick Bosa (No. 2 overall), the 49ers spent four first round draft picks on defensive linemen across five seasons. To top it off, they pulled off a trade for Dee Ford this past offseason, grabbing another former first-round pick for the cost of a 2020 second-rounder to solidify a unit with versatility, high-end talent, and depth.
In addition to those high-end talents, the 49ers were able to coax strong showings out of defensive end Ronald Blair (a major sleeper in this year’s free agency class) and nose tackle D.J. Jones. That duo both player at a starter-caliber level this season before suffering season-ending injuries.
With the 49ers committing so much to their pass rush, they’ve adopted a Wide-9 scheme this season to put their players in more advantageous pass rushing situations, and even employ a coach whose lone title is “pass rush specialist.”
The Raiders have accrued some depth up front over the past few seasons. Thus far, they’ve unearthed one man who looks to have star potential (Maxx Crosby), a few promising young guys (Maurice Hurst and Clelin Ferrell), and some good rotation pieces (Arden Key, P.J. Hall, Johnathan Hankins), but that shouldn’t stop them from bolstering the collection. In fact,
With the monsters that San Francisco rotates on their front four constantly occupying opposing linemen, the 49ers speedy linebackers are free to roam from sideline-to-sideline and make clean plays on the ball. Team speed on defense is always important, but it’s become especially paramount in the NFL lately with teams emphasizing outside zone runs, short passes, and designed quarterback runs.
The 49ers triumvirate of Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw bring a ridiculous amount of speed to the table and were considered to be coverage-first linebackers prior to joining Robert Saleh’s defense. Warner lined up a ton in the slot in college while playing the “star” linebacker for BYU, while Greenlaw came to the position as a safety convert.
The biggest knock on each of them entering the draft was their lack of physicality, with some questioning whether or not they’d be able to shed blocks effectively enough at the NFL level to properly utilize their speed. But with their powerful front four soaking up all of the attention from opposing linemen, the 49ers linebackers have been able to play to their strengths. Even with their linebackers ability to roam, the 49ers defense still gave up the eighth most rushing yards of any defense in the NFL, which didn’t hinder their overall production because they were so good defending the pass.
There are a few different speedy linebackers in the draft who the Raiders could be eyeing that might just be the next Warner or Greenlaw, including Oregon’s Troy Dye, Texas Tech’s Jordyn Brooks, and Appalachian State’s Akeem Davis-Gaither. But none of these speedy, yet undersized linebacker prospects would be able to duplicate the results of the 49ers’ youthful linebacker pair for the Raiders if Gruden and Mike Mayock fail to fortify the front line.
With a plethora of cap space to burn and some solid free agent options on the table (Yannick Ngakoue, Chris Jones, and Armstead, to name a few), they’ll certainly have that opportunity.
The Raiders obviously need to upgrade all areas of their defense, but it’s interesting to note that despite many considering cornerback and safety to be the 49ers’ biggest weaknesses, they’ve still maintained an elite defense.
Perhaps the 49ers are proof that a strong pass rush is more important than good coverage? Or maybe they’ve just set the precedent that coverage linebackers are more important than classic run stoppers in the new-age, analytics driven, pass-happy NFL.