They may be opening the season in Los Angeles but the Las Vegas Raiders are looking to be pocket aces against the Chargers this Sunday. In particular, the Silver & Black defense acing the test of caging Bolts quarterback Justin Herbert in a collapsing pocket.
That’s because in order to defend, stop, or marginally disrupt the Chargers’ offense, Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham notes it starts with Herbert. Las Vegas’ new defensive architect and play caller gets an excellent litmus test to see exactly the progress his defenders and coaching staff have made (or how much more they have to make) in the season opener. It’s easier said than done.
“He’s such an impressive quarterback back there in the pocket and then on top of that having the athletic ability and also have the athletic ability and be able to have the vision down the field,” Graham said of Herbert. “So, that’s probably the first thing you talk about because there’s explosive plays that are planned and explosive plays that are off schedule.”
This is where the cage comes into play. The edge rushers and interior linemen working in unison to compact the pocket to make it both unbearable for the quarterback and leaving no escape. Eventually the collapse will result in quarterback sacks and/or mistakes. There’s a bit of nuances in what that entails so let’s have Graham break it down.
“So, I’ll get technical a little bit. Now this goes to day one install before we talk about even who the quarterback is — you’re trying to cage the quarterback,” Graham began. “So usually let’s start with the assumption you have four people rushing. You’ve got contain rush on both sides, and then someone has to control the middle of the pocket, and then there’s like what we talk about in terms of B gap control. So, what you’re trying to do is just crush the pocket around the quarterback. So, there’s really four elements of it on a normal play, then you add a fifth rusher, or you take away a rusher and you have a third rusher.
“You’re really trying to control those two things: The contain on the outside, the middle push who’s in front of the quarterback and the B gap, that’s when you look at passers.”
Graham’s philosophy is inherently key as Herbert’s shown a penchant to get out of the danger zone and throw dimes outside the pocket. The Chargers’ signal caller has a plethora of targets at his disposal, namely wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, as well as do-it-all running back Austin Ekeler.
But it’s not like the Chargers’ signal caller is untouchable — especially against the Raiders. In the win-or-go-home Week 18 matchup last season, Las Vegas’ defense harassed Herbert and dropped him three times for sacks. In the Week 4 win by the Chargers, the Raiders sacked Herbert twice. In his rookie campaign in 2020, the Raiders sacked the University of Oregon product a total of three times in the two divisional games. So the opportunity is there.
Still, one can’t ignore the fact Herbert has thrown 10 touchdowns to just one interception in four career games against the Raiders for 1,245 yards and completing 109 of 176 passes (61.93 percent).
Graham was queried about having edge rushers Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones at his disposal — two quarterback hunters who use multiple moves in their toolbox en route to opposing signal callers. So much so, the word “freelance” was dropped due to the duo’s improvisational skills.
“Again, we have some guys that have had a lot of success in this league because their skilled and they work hard,” Graham said. “Pass rush to me, and I’ve been fortunate, I’ve had some really good pass rushers around me in my career — part of its effort, part of it is understanding the principles and understanding how to crush the pocket for the quarterback. Again, there’s certain elements to the pass rush, people get caught up in the fancy stuff that sort of shows up on TV and stuff like that.
“The best pass rushers I’ve been around, they understand how the pocket moves, how it’s fluid in there. And we try to make a point of them understanding the basic mechanics of a pocket and how we’ve got to try to affect the quarterback. So, I don’t use the term freelance, I see skill there, and they have a pretty good understanding.”
Displaying all-important discipline — whether it’s maintaining the edge, contain, walling off run lanes or in-coverage — goes a long way to proving “understanding”. The pass rush goes hand-in-hand with the back-end coverage, especially with a re-tooled cornerback room.
“Everybody has a role,” Graham lamented. “That’s the unique thing about defense in my opinion. There’s a lot of grass behind us and we have to find a way to defend it, and everybody has a role, whether it’s in the run, the pass. Even the deep ball, the D-line has a role in that, too, you’ve got to keep him in the pocket.”
Just like head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler, Graham is well-aware the ultimate validation for the Silver & Black arrives in the form of wins. For Graham’s unit to be considered successful — or the Raiders a whole, for that matter — Las Vegas must be victorious on game days.
“We’ve got to win. That’s how we judge success around here — win,” Graham said. “That’s the most important thing. Thankfully, we’ve got our first game this week and we got to go out there and compete and try to win this game. We always talk about practice; execution becomes game reality. When we get better at practice, when we keep working on our techniques, the fundamentals, and then it shows up on Sunday and we play well, that’s what success is judged on in my opinion.”