The end of the Rob Ryan Era in Oakland is now official and the search for the next defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders is already well underway. Many fans hold out hope that Al Davis will pull the trigger on a defensive coordinator with a more, shall we say, exotic defensive scheme in Oakland.
Since Al Davis took over in 1963, the Raiders have predominantly operated the same 4-3 base man-to-man defense that relied on the front four down lineman to pressure the quarterback without help from the blitz. With the exception of the late '70s and early 80's when the Raiders went to a 3-4 to mitigate injuries and take advantage of existing personnel.
Since that time, the Raiders have enjoyed some very good 4-3 teams, with defensive ends like Greg Townsend and Howie Long, defensive tackles like Darrel Russell, Chester McGlockton, Bob Golic, Jerry Ball to name a few. Since that time, the Raiders have struggled to find long-term solutions for the dline.
During the Raiders playoff run from 2000-2002, the team made due with one and two year stop gaps such as Trace Armstrong, Sam Adams, Reagan Upshaw, and John Parella, and foolishly let Rod Coleman and Grady Jackson escape in free agency.
Even during that period of time, over one-third of the Raiders sacks came from LB's, indicating a propensity to blitz to create pressure, which undoubtedly boosted the stats for the DT's (Coleman led the team in 2002 when the team tied for sixth in total sacks in the NFL with 11 sacks while the DE's accounted for only 11.5 between all of them) as edge pressure forced the QB's to step up in the pocket.
Although the Raiders could not get pressure with their front four alone, each d-lineman excelled at run defense as evidenced by the Raiders 3.8 yard given up per rush attempt, which tied for second in the league in 2002.
In stopping the run (and putting up points of course), those Raiders were able to generate more obvious passing situations which allowed the defensive to blitz with more regularity to compensate for the pass rushing weakness of the front four.
Presently, the Raiders have a personnel hodgepodge of players that are out of position both in terms of size and skill set that placed them at 13th in the NFL in Sacks and 27th in yards per rush allowed at 4.7. The run defense can be attributed to several factors.
First, Derrick Burgess is vastly undersized as a strong side defensive end and either gets eaten up by larger right offensive tackles and tight ends or takes wide angles to the ball, effectively taking himself out of the play and allowing the opposing blocker to get the second level to block the strong side linebacker or strong safety.
Second, Gerrard Warren, despite his size, is a natural three-technique defensive tackle, not a two-gap nose tackle. His function in life is to use his agility and quickness to get into the backfield, not occupy space and hold the point of attack. I almost forgot to mention Terdell Sands here (in fact I had to add this in after the fact), which pretty much says it all as far as he is concerned.
Third, Tommy Kelly is a serviceable three-technique, but his height, weight, strength, and playing style is best suited for strong side defensive end or five technique in a 3-4 scheme. In fact, in a 3-4, he might be worth that $50-million contract.
Fourth, Jay Richardson is developing into an solid run stopper at his DE position when he's not getting lost vs. misdirection plays, but he offers nothing as a pass rusher (three sacks last season).
Although Kalimba Edwards did offer five sacks as a third down and long yardage pass rush specialist in place of Richardson, teams often times pass on first and second down in various yards to go scenarios (note the sarcasm) and he is simply not a complete DE. His liabilities vs. the pass are very similar to Burgess' liabilities vs. the run.
So what is the solution? The best course of action is to acquire a true nose tackle, either through the draft or free agency, which will free up our next defensive coordinator to move the rest of the lineman into their natural positions.
The nose tackle position is stocked with some good players in rounds one and two, and many space eaters will fall to round three and four in most NFL drafts. Once the Raiders have acquired a good nose tackle, they then need to acquire a second one because Oakland has nobody on this roster capable of playing that position effectively.
Once those two transactions are completed, Tommy Kelly can shift out to the strong side to replace burgess, Gerrard Warren can return to his natural three technique position (where he has played well while filling in for Kelly during injuries), and Burgess can compete (along with Scott, Richardson, and Edwards) on the weak side at the opposite DE position where smaller rush specialists belong.
These moves alone, discussed by Rob Ryan himself in 2007 during training camp (although they never materialized), would instantly upgrade the Raiders defense.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention a switch to the 3-4, but I will save that for another time because it warrants its own column, and is even more intriguing than these simple personnel moves.