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Raiders defense: Versatility will be key

There are quality pieces in place for new Las Vegas defensive coordinator Patrick Graham

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC at AFC
Defensive end Maxx Crosby, center, who won the MVP honors at the Pro Bowl this past weekend, is a high-quality defender for new Las Vegas Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The concern of whether Maxx Crosby will be a hands-in-the-dirt or stand-up pass rusher in Patrick Graham’s incoming defensive scheme has merit. The Las Vegas Raiders defensive end has spent the vast majority of his football career as a DE in a 4-3 alignment and a shift could disrupt Crosby’s development and progress.

But similar to what I’ve written about the other coaching additions to new Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels’ staff in the desert, Graham isn’t obtuse when it comes to his defense. He’ll deploy a scheme that’s not only agile to combat today’s NFL offenses, but he’s going to put his defenders in the best possible position to succeed.

Crosby heard this from Vegas’ new defensive coordinator himself.

“I’ve been a 4-3 [alignment] guy since high school,” Crosby said after Pro Bowl practice, a game in which the Raiders edge rusher was named defensive MVP. “I want to be able to play 6-[technique] and 9-tech and Coach Graham, the first thing he said was, ‘Stop hearing all this noise about 3-4, 4-3. We’re going to put you in the right position.’ And that’s all it comes down to is just trust and obviously he wants me to succeed and help the team in any way he can. So that’s what I plan on doing — just continuing going on the right trajectory in my career.”

Syndication: The Record
Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, right, relied on the versatility of both his scheme and his players, like defensive back Logan Ryan (23).
Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Graham is a versatile defensive architect and he expects his players to be just as adaptable. So don’t be surprised to see Crosby deployed in multiple alignments (4-3, 3-4, 5-2, 4-2-5, 3-3-5, etc.) as the Raiders embark on the McDaniels’ era. There’s a lot to be determined as the team progresses this offseason. So, perhaps Crosby will be deployed in his preferred hands-in-the-dirt style. Or maybe we see him as a stand-up rusher, or potentially drop back in coverage.

What’s not in question is the fact Graham has quality pieces in place on the Raiders defense already. Crosby, who had eight sacks this past season, is one of them. Fellow pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue (team-leading 10 sacks in 2021) is another. Graham does have young pieces at all levels of the defense, too. Linebacker Divine Deablo heads into Year 2 after coming into his own this past season as a rookie. In the secondary, the Raiders boast a quality slot corner in Nate Hobbs and safety Tre’Von Moehrig (both are heading into their second year in the league).

And it’ll be very interesting to see how Graham views other components of the Raiders defense, such as hard-hitting safety Johnathan Abram. While he was picked on quite frequently this past season and the two years before since being taken No. 27th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, Abram’s ability to play closer to the line of scrimmage and be a hit-and-run type defender merits a solid look-see. In 14 games, he racked up 116 total tackles before a shoulder injury ended his 2021 campaign. Time will tell if Abram and Moehrig are near every-down-safeties (the duo accounted for 99 percent of the defensive snaps) like they were this past season for Graham this coming year.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers
How Patrick Graham deploys hard-hitting safety Johnathan Abram (24) in his Raiders defense bears watching.
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

But whether it’s Crosby, Ngakoue, Deablo, Hobbs, Moehrig, Abram or anyone else that sees the field for the Raiders defense in 2022, they need to be flexible. Graham’s New York Giants defense thrived because individual players were deployed in a variety of ways to keep the opposing offenses on their toes. Graham relied on veteran defensive back Logan Ryan when he was the G-Men defensive play-caller. Deployed as a deep safety and nickel defender, Ryan was called upon to do a variety of things such as cover the backend, cover the slot and even execute timely blitzes to ensure opposing offenses couldn’t call out or earmark what the Giants defense was doing in any given alignment.

Graham will play to his player’s strengths but also ask them to be multifaceted.

It was a lesson consistently harped on by Bill Belichick — move your best players around to make the opponent think more than they have to — and it’s something not only Graham but any coach who has passed through the New England Patriots’ system. Adjustments are both in-game and week-to-week and the disciples of Belichick impart that wherever they go.

It won’t be any different for Graham now. Versatility will be key for his Raiders defense. While the pieces may change now that he’s captaining the Silver & Black defense — free agency, the upcoming NFL Draft and potentially salary-cap conformity will shape the Raiders roster even further — the philosophy remains intact.