It’s Rolando McClain’s third season in the NFL and many believed it could be his last in Oakland. McClain was arrested last year, and he hasn’t played like a middle linebacker that was drafted with the eighth overall pick.
Among the excuses made for McClain were that he played injured, he was miscast as a 4-3 middle linebacker and he was a poor fit in the Raiders' man-to-man, no-blitz defensive scheme. As it turns out, some of those excuses could actually be legitimate. The Oakland Raiders defense played well against Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers, and McClain was one of the key reasons.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, McClain hurt his ankle in the fourth quarter of Monday night's game (via Paul Gutierrez, CSN Bay Area). If the Raiders are to limit Reggie Bush on Sunday, they will need McClain.
One thing the Raiders have done with McClain is lightened his coverage responsibilities. Coverage was one of McClain’s weaknesses and he excelled at blitzing and to a lesser extent run support. The Raiders emphasized his strengths on Monday night.
Play No. 1—Blitz
This was the lone sack of Rivers on the first defensive drive. The key to this play was the rush of McClain making Rivers uncomfortable from his blind side.
The right guard is going to leave McClain for running back Ronnie Brown and try to block the stunting Matt Shaughnessy. A well-known saying in the NFL is “backers on backs equals sacks,” and that is the case here.
Brown whiffs on the block of McClain and has a pretty clean line to get to Rivers.
Rivers has a window to throw, but he doesn’t have anyone open. Coverage was good enough that Rivers is going to have to step up in the pocket to avoid being sacked by McClain.
Shaughnessy disengages and gets the sack of Rivers, but he doesn’t have the chance if not for the blitz of McClain. I’m surprised the Raiders didn’t try to blitz through the gap between the left tackle and guard with more frequency because it worked so well on this play.
Play No. 2—Run Defense
On this play, the Chargers are trying to run to the right, with a potential cutback option for the running back. McClain is playing his normal middle linebacker spot.
McClain flows to the running lane and Tommy Kelly does a good job of trying up two blockers to keeping McClain clean.
The idea here is to explode through the gap and tackle the running back, but in the past McClain would be indecisive and end up getting blocked by the moving offensive line.
McClain fires through the opening to bring down the running back for a loss who had tried to cutback.
Play No. 3—Run Defense
On this play, McClain is going to do the same thing as the last one, except he doesn’t have to flow to the running lane before shooting the gap. The tight end motions from right to left but comes back to the right to try to get a seal block on McClain.
Without any hesitation, McClain shoots the gap that opens up in front of him. Any hesitation might have enabled the tight end to get a solid block on him.
McClain is in the gap so fast the tight end runs past him. Miles Burris also slips the block of the offensive lineman.
Once McClain is the backfield, the running back doesn’t have much of a chance; all the running lanes are filled with defenders.
McClain wraps up Brown for the solid tackle.
The Raiders avoided having McClain drop into coverage and instead let him attack the line of scrimmage on running and passing downs. At some point McClain might be tested in coverage, but for now the Raiders are just having McClain attack the defense with Philip Wheeler becoming the cover linebacker.
Last year, the Raiders didn’t have a linebacker like Wheeler. Aaron Curry and Kamerion Wimbley both needed to attack the line of scrimmage and McClain was the best in pass coverage. Now, McClain is the one who can attack and who better fits his strengths.