Long Is The Road and Hard Is The Way That Out Of Oakland Leads to Defense...
In Psalm 22 the question is posed: My God why have you forsaken me? One must wonder if this same question fills the thoughts of Al Davis when he sees his Raiders play defense.
I’m not sure that it is the wrath of God which has rendered the Silver and Black D powerless. I think the Raiders are a better team than their 2008 record would indicate.
I’m not confused or all-methed up, so I am not going to say they are a good team. However, I think with a better defensive philosophy, the Raiders could rise from pitiful to mediocre (which should be enough to be competitive in the under achieving AFC west).
I'm not naïve enough to think that a change in defensive philosophy will fix all that ails the Raiders, or that it is enough to make them a winning team, but I have a theory that a slight (OK, massive) overhaul of their current 1972 playbook (No kidding this is the same defensive set I played against in high school) can make a quick turn around on the defensive side of the ball and minimize the amount of money the Raiders have to spend in FA and up the margin of error for their draft (it is much easier to feel good about the way you draft when you are shopping for contributors rather than needing to hit super-stars).
The talent pool in Oakland is definitely thin, especially along the defensive line. It has been a long standing fault of the Raiders coaching staffs of late to seriously underestimate the importance of tackle play on the defensive line. Keeping a scant three DTs on the roster is a HUGE mistake no matter what scheme you're playing. Having no rotation equals tired legs and that means holes in the line, lazy play and a lack of gap discipline. These all add up to 159 rushing yards allowed per game in 2008.
I think with the current personnel package, a couple of deft drafts and a few fortuitous free agents, the Silver & Black defense could be brought back to respectability. (NOTE: I did not say they would be awesome, imposing or inspiring. Just good enough to be competitive and get themselves off the field every so often.)
Scheme only counts for so much when you start talking about a defense. Often the issue is getting the players to play a scheme the right way. Go a little Rod Serling with me and 'consider if you will' the difference between the defense in New England and the D in Cleveland. Basically the same package with a few tweaks here and there. The Pats have the personnel to make it work; the Browns are still in the "crafting mode" of getting the right parts to fit the system.
I spent a good number of years wearing a military uniform, and there is one lesson which carried over for that time in my life to become one of the cornerstones of any good defensive system: keep it simple.
The more you start mucking things up with complex maneuvers and over the top packages and formation shifts the more you are asking for something to go terribly wrong.
In this case, since we are not working with the highest end talent in the league to start with, we really need a system that minimizes the amount of "trickeration" we are planning to employ. That is not to say it will be base-vanilla, it'll just be less exotic scheme than say the Pats, Eagles or Steelers run...
Now I am about to say something that is going to get some hairs on the necks of the collective audience to stand on end (and no, I don't need someone to teach me football): Cover-2. Specifically 4-3 base alignment zone Cover-2.
There is method to this madness.
In the zone-2 system, you don't need to have really high-end talent all over the field and you can use a few tricks here and there to cover some short-falls and some shifts on coverage to take pressure off of CBs in 0-coverage.
Trust me, this can work:
Since I am proposing an overhaul of the Raiders entire D-philosophy and the instillation of a whole new system; we have to start with the core of any defense: the tackle. Sure there are a couple of big name DTs coming into FA this year: put them out of your mind.
The reality is that no player in their right mind would want to play for the Raiders right now. So we are going to have to build a scheme around the players available, the players in the draft and some of the more low-key free-agents who are going to be available and could be lured to Oakland with the promise of a chance to get off the bench a little more often.
Call me crazy, but I am not as much of a believer in Tommy Kelly as the front office in Oakland. I think he is a good player, with a world of (as yet unrealized) potential playing the 3 or 4-technique, but he lacks the technique to generate enough power at the point of attack to try and play as a 0 or 1 having to contend with 600+ pounds of guard and center where his quickness is basically neutralized.
For his size, 6'6" 300lbs., Kelly has good athleticism but doesn't consistently play with the technique to beat both a guard and center. So we're going to classify him as a very good starting point for a scheme which makes the most of a good B-Gap tackle. He'll stay on the interior line.
"Booger" McFarland was similar in size and with the same technique issues during his good years with the Buccaneers and Colts, and played well in a two-gap responsibility. If Kelly lines up a little wider as a 3/4-DT with his responsibilities limited to being aggressive and hitting one his two gaps, getting up-field after the ball carrier, I think we can start to see a lot of that potential.
Gerard Warren is a big body with big potential and little production, which I blame more on the lack of rotation and poor schemes for the D-Line than on his actual ability.
As the only other DT on the current roster, Warren is going to have to play the interior line 0/1-Technique. This means Warren is going to have to make the most of his size. At 6’3.5” and 330lbs. Warren has the mass and power to play as a true 0/1 DT and push the pile to fill one of his gaps, leaving only one gap for the MLB to cover.
This does a couple of additional good things: if Warren can force a Guard/Center double team it means Kelly will draw less double and be able to play more aggressively and shields the DE on his side from catching Guard/Tackle doubles on interior runs.
That brings us to "The Terd". Terdell Sands, all 335 lbs. of him, has been (pardon the pun) a massive disappointment to Raider Nations since that dark day when management brought him on-board for WAY too much money.
Sands has shown consistent weakness at the point of attack, which I think is not a side-effect of a lack of power on his part, but an inability to know his assignments and read blocking schemes. Watch week 12's game against Denver. Sands spent most of his time on the field swiveling his head trying to figure out just what he was supposed to be doing. Never good.
Since it is a cap hit to part ways with Sands and a replacement isn't to be found anywhere on the roster we're going to try to make good use of his bulk. We keep Sands on the interior line, but we adjust his playing technique a little. He needs move further in and play a straight single-gap 1-technique DT just to tie up the center and guard and give the MLB just one gap to hit.
This requires very little on his part other than focus. His assignment rarely if ever changes when he is on the field: fill a hole and force the play to one side or the other. Sands only real responsibility at the 1-Technique DT is to provide a rotation for Warren, not playmaker, just an overpriced role player.
Oakland doesn't have a DE on the roster with the size and strength to make the move inside, which means one of two things is going to happen: A) Tommy Kelly gets his career shortened by five years having to play almost every snap this season or B) The Raiders get some more DTs...
So we are going to take a look at the DTs available in FA and the Draft to fit our needs…that will be covered in a later installment “FA Needs and How to Fill Them”.
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