The 2019 season saw the Raiders make some progress on defense, namely against the run. Pass coverage remained a sore spot, however, especially when it came to linebackers in coverage. The Raiders linebackers didn’t make an impact in coverage or as pass rushers in Paul Guenther’s blitz packages.
Mike Mayock was candid about the need for improvement, and the Raiders GM didn’t disappoint in the early free agency period, adding two complementary starters who will instantly change the face of the Raiders pass defense.
Let’s take a dive into how Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski will fit into the Raiders defensive scheme:
The former Los Angeles Ram has carved out a niche for himself as an elite coverage linebacker over the last few years. The Rams trusted him with many coverage responsibilities that are uncommon for most NFL linebackers. He will make an instant impact and help lock down TEs and RBs unlike we’ve seen in recent years.
In the first clip the Raiders are running a Cover 2 match concept where the LB needs to carry the vertical of the 2 (or second receiver from the boundary). Nicholas Morrow was tasked with this coverage assignment, but as was often the case, he lacked the refined detail to consistently win these reps. Morrow allows the TE to push off and create separation at the last second.
Contrast that with Littleton’s rep carrying All-Pro WR Michael Thomas up the seam. Littleton get’s his head around and throws his hand out to swat away a potential push-off. Littleton’s presence will allow the Raiders to run more complex coverages and prove veteran savvy on the second level.
Tahir Whitehead received a lot of flack for his poor pass defense, but he was asked to do things he just wasn’t good at, like covering running backs out of the backfield. Littleton has superior speed and length which help him lock down even the best pass catching backs with regularity. When the Raiders need to cover Austin Ekeler and the Kansas City Chiefs passing attack, Littleton provides a weapon in the AFC West arms race.
The former Bears linebacker is an ascending talent who made a lot of money for himself on a great defense. He was the top reserve linebacker for Chicago for the last few seasons and proved worthy of a much larger role in 2020. The hope is that he joins a revamped defense in Vegas that has enough talent where Kwiatkoski can continue to play at the level he did late in 2019.
The first clip shows the Raiders in their favorite 3rd and long pass rushing front. Guenther will often ask his linebackers to both show as blitzers in order to get a favorable 1-on-1 or a free rush. The Raiders linebackers got pressure on only a paltry 10.6% of their blitzes in 2019. One of Kwiatkoski’s biggest strengths on film is his ability as a blitzer. He can win with finesse or brute strength and was able to create pressure on 27.3% of his blitzes, albeit in limited situations. His presence fills a dire need in Guenther’s defense.
Many of Guenther’s pressure packages are simulated pressures, where a number of defenders will show as blitzers and only a few actually rush while the rest drop back into coverage. After the departure of Vontaze Burfict the Raiders struggled in their underneath coverage on top of blitzes and were burned by many a TE on 3rd downs. Kwiatkoski showed the chops to take away passing lanes as an underneath defender. And while he’s not the same caliber of Littleton in this respect, he is clearly a better options than any of the linebackers in the Raiders rotation this past season.
The addition of these two linebackers will allow Paul Guenther to finally call his complete playbook without the need to constantly adjust for personnel deficiencies. They both provide speed on the second level, which is crucial for defending the offenses in the AFC West. This will be one less excuse for Guenther in 2020. The team’s biggest weakness in 2019 now appears to be a strength on paper.