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Raiders vs. Jaguars: Area of Concern

Opponents exploit Las Vegas’ soft underbelly of defense far too much this season

NFL: New York Giants at Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne Jr. could be the latest tailback to exploit the Las Vegas Raiders soft middle defense.
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Referring to the middle of the Las Vegas Raiders defense as the “soft underbelly” is putting it nicely. One could easily refer to it as “the void” and be correct, since often, the middle is often devoid of Raider defenders.

The opposition attacking the center of Patrick Graham’s Silver & Black defense is frequent this season with last Sunday’s 24-0 loss to the New Orleans Saints the latest example of teams exploiting the middle.

It got so blatant the TV broadcast crew during the game and media providing updates via social media, alike, began to openly question if the Raiders defense lost track of Saints running back Alvin Kamara or simply forgot about it. Ditto for receivers and tight ends that went over or to the middle of easy uncontested catches.

During Graham’s mid-week media session, the topic of the middle of the field obviously came up. And the answer to the query isn’t an inspiring one for a team that’s 2-5.

“So, the middle of the field, I think for the quarterbacks it’s usually the easier throw,” Graham began. “It’s hard in this league to throw it out on the perimeter consistently just because the time, the spacing in terms of getting the ball out there and taking a risk with corners could be trapping out there and just the reaction time. But anytime you are talking about the pass game, the easiest throws are straight ahead, and we got to do a better job of defending that and just understanding that’s a big part of how the passing game plays out in the league.”

The better job speak should be something reserved for preseason tilts or within the first four games of the season — not heading into Week 9. But such is the case for Las Vegas. Perhaps what compounded the Raiders issue last Sunday was deploying linebacker Blake Martinez more in the lineup instead of the three-safety look Graham put on the field previously (not like the safety group of Johnathan Abram (close to line of scrimmage) and deep safeties Duron Harmon and Tre’Von Moehrig made the middle a no-fly zone). But like Denzel Perryman, Martinez is more renowned for run-stopping ability than coverage as plodding linebackers.

No matter the personnel alignments and usage Graham can and will deploy, he’s well-aware that Jacksonville boss Doug Pederson is a master technician in terms of exploiting matchups. And Graham expects no less this coming Sunday.

“And then in terms of just personnel, we try to do what we think is best for that week or that given plan,” Graham noted. “Everything is reevaluated the following week and we try to put together a plan for Jacksonville, a team that presents a lot of challenges in terms of their skill, the people they have blocking, and just the overall the scheme that Coach (Doug) Pederson has put in having gone against him several times when I was with the (New York) Giants, and also when I was at Miami (Dolphins). He presents some challenges, especially for that middle part of the field.”

The biggest piece of that central challenge is Jaguars running back Travis Etienne, an agile and fast tailback who can burn defenses running the ball or catching it out of the backfield. He’s broken out the last two games as a ballcarrier with 270 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries. And while his receiving numbers were paltry in comparison (four catches for 11 yards), Las Vegas’ inability to secure the middle is a juicy matchup for Etienne and Pederson. Especially after what Kamara did to Graham’s unit last Sunday.

“It’s the dilemma, the run-pass dilemma, just in terms of when you have a guy that can run the ball, then you play defense for the run and then all of a sudden, now they’re involved in the passing game,” Graham said of tailbacks like Kamara and Etienne. “It’s a tough matchup and you can see you the league goes in different…there’s always been backs that can catch the ball, there’s no question. But in my 14 years in the league, you saw at one point where it was, ‘Okay, let’s go with the two tight end system and try to get the tight ends more involved in the pass game.’ Then all of a sudden, it transitioned to now getting the backs more involved.

“It’s just the offensive coordinators being innovative, finding ways to get the backs in favorable positions and matchups, and it just becomes difficult because they do two things, they catch the ball and they run.”

Houston Texans v Las Vegas Raiders
Raiders linebacker Blake Martinez (54) has seen his snap counts go up since joining the team. However, he’s more run stopper than coverage linebacker.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

This definitely beckons for some creativity and innovation from Graham and his defensive coaches, no? Whether it’s going back to a three-safety look or using linebackers Martinez and Perryman on the field together, something has to differ or the Raiders soft underbelly will remain susceptible.

“You look at Jacksonville, they have some backs that can catch the ball, that are dynamic in the pass game and also dynamic in the run game, and it presents a challenge for this week,” Graham noted. “We got to figure out the plan and figure out the best way to take it away.”

Taking away options from opposing offenses has been few and far between for Graham’s much-maligned group, as evidenced by the Raiders win-loss record. But he has the players who can make a difference, namely edge rusher Maxx Crosby. He’s quick of the edge and can wreck plays in the backfield. Yet he’ll need help and if he doesn’t get any, the Jaguars can focus on Mad Maxx and render the rest of the Raiders defense moot. The drought of takeaways doesn’t help Las Vegas.

That portion of their game is drier than the shriveling Lake Mead.

“And same thing with turnovers as it would be with setting the edge, you’re finding ways to create opportunities for those guys to practice what’s going to come up in the game,” Graham said. “It starts with presenting them with the opportunities for turnovers, and then also trying to create schematically opportunities for turnovers. And then just looking to execute once we get to game day, but it all starts with practice.

“It starts with the film study, then with practice, and then you’re looking for game execution. So, that’s where that process goes.”