The NFL is evolving into more aerial theatrics and downfield fireworks as the game progresses year-by-year. However, there’s one old adage that remains emphatically true and it dates back to the inception of football: Games are won, or lost, in the trenches.
Super Bowl LVI proved no matter how far the game has come, if a team can’t cut the mustard at the line of scrimmage, said team is going to get the L when the scoreboard clock reads 0:00.
Behind an absolutely devastating and relentless pass rush — spearheaded by one of the best defensive tackles the NFL has seen in Aaron Donald — the Los Angeles Rams defensive line opened up a can of you-know-what on the Cincinnati Bengals this past Sunday. The Rams’ 23-20 victory was a key lesson for every NFL team but, particularly one for the Las Vegas Raiders.
If the Silver & Black are serious about expanding and improving upon its 10-7 record that culminated in an NFL Playoff appearance in 2021, the team must get more bite from its interior pass rush and showcase an offensive line that can not only protect quarterback Derek Carr, but pave the way for running back Josh Jacobs. Hoisting the Lombardi trophy demands both happen. New head coach and offensive play caller Josh McDaniels must have his offensive line humming while defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s defensive line must make the opposing quarterback panic and crumble.
If McDaniels and new offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo can’t keep Carr upright and protected, well ... you saw what happened to Joe Burrow. The calm, collected, and focused Bengals quarterback was anything but inside SoFi Stadium Sunday. And this isn’t a slight on “Joe Brrrr”. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for showing courage under fire as he took the snap after snap. But the offensive line in front of him couldn’t contain the heat brought upon by a fierce Rams front four. Burrow was left battered, bruised and hurt by L.A. as he was sacked seven times and hit a total of 11 times. The pressure was often and sometimes, immediate. Burrow as under constant duress, especially in the fourth quarter. Donald and edge rusher Vonn Miller paced the Rams pass rush with two sacks, apiece with Ernest Jones, A’Shawn Robinson, and Leonard Floyd each dropping Burrow once. Diamonds may be created under immense pressure, but that wasn’t the case for Burrow or the Bengals.
During the Bengals’ last-gasp on 4th-and-1 trailing 23-20, it was Donald who again pressured Burrow and forced the QB to fling a desperation toss that hit nothing but turf.
“When it was a fourth down, you could see that they got into the shotgun and they were probably not going to run the football, I said, ‘Aaron is going to close the game out right here,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said in the postgame press conference. “He is the effing man.”
In total, Cincy’s suspect offensive line allowed their prized quarterback to get dropped 21 times in the playoffs (not to mention the league-leading 51 times Burrow got sacked in the regular season). That’s not a winning recipe at any level of football.
Joe Burrow sacked 19 times in the playoffs. That's the most for any QB in a single postseason in at least the last 20 years.— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) February 14, 2022
And it's not close. No other QB was higher than 12.
Thus, Bricillo has a tremendous task ahead of him as the Raiders new offensive line boss. He inherits a unit that was charted for 40 sacks (tied for fifth most in the league this past season) and didn’t get fully in-sync run blocking unit the latter portion of the season. If past performance is indicative of future success, Bricillo did a good job last season in New England. Under Bricillo’s guidance and McDaniels play calling, the New England Patriots offensive line yielded 28 sacks of its rookie quarterback Mac Jones while the run game ranked eighth in the league in attempts and yards gained (489 and 2,151, respectively) and second in touchdowns (24).
While it’s unclear how Bricillo views the group he gets from previous OL coach Tom Cable, but chances are, the new trench teacher can adjust to what’s in place or provided to him in the future. A pupil of renowned offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia, Bricillo isn’t obtuse and adjusts his scheme to suit his players and is agile enough to adjust on the fly. (This is a trait that seemingly all of McDaniels’ coaches in Vegas share now).
Flip the script to the Raiders defense and Graham, too, has his work cut out for him. Veteran and respected defensive line boss Rod Marinelli has retired (a replacement has yet to be named), and Graham is now the defensive play caller instead of Gus Bradley (now with the Indianapolis Colts). This past season, Vegas ranked 21st in the league with 35 sacks. Edge rushers Yannick Ngakoue (10) and Maxx Crosby (8) paced the team in QB takedowns, however, the highest tally from an interior linemen came from defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson (4.5) with fellow tackle Solomon Thomas contributing 3.5.
The Raiders need to generate more pressure from the inside to complement their talented edge rushers. Opposing quarterbacks have been able to climb and step up in the pocket to avoid the frenzied nature of both Ngakoue and Crosby. For too long, there hasn’t been that presence on the inside to smother the signal caller when they were forced up the pocket.
Now does that mean Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler find and Graham develop an Aaron Donald-type defensive tackle? While that would be undoubtedly tremendous, generating consistent pressure from the defensive tackle position would suffice. Coincidentally, Vegas may see turnover at the DT position this offseason as not only are Jefferson and Thomas unrestricted free agents, so is nose tackle Johnathan Hankins and Darius Philon (who showed interior pass rush juice before getting hurt). So first will come free agency in March and the NFL Draft the following month. Plenty of time to gather the pieces of the puzzle.
The Raiders already have the duo to get to the quarterback from the edge. If it were to get an interior pass rusher to complement that, it’d go a long way to helping the defensive line become a well-rounded unit.