The Oakland Raiders have one of the worst pass defenses in the entire NFL. It could be the worst, considering safety Michael Huff and veteran special-teamer Pat Lee are starting at cornerback and Matt Giordano at free safety.
It’s hard to see things going well for the Raiders in Atlanta against Matt Ryan, who has thrown 13 touchdowns passes to just three interceptions and completed 68.3 percent of his passes.
No team has successfully slowed down the Falcons through five games, but there is a silver lining. The Falcons have played several terrible pass defenses, meaning they are probably more beatable than the statistics indicate.
The Denver Broncos provided a blueprint in coverage and couldn't execute. The Carolina Panthers provided a blueprint for getting pressure on Ryan but still couldn't cover. The Raiders need do both, with inferior talent across the board.
There is also another way to beat the Atlanta Falcons, and that’s to simply outscore them. No team has been successful, but that doesn't mean it's not possible. Of course, the Raiders have not had an explosive offense. There is potential with Darren McFadden, Denarius Moore and Marcel Reece, even if it hasn't come together yet.
Essentially, the Raiders will have to do something no other team has done this season or something they haven't done this season or both. It's a tall task, but this is the NFL. Anything is possible, and the Falcons are not unbeatable.
It sounds simple, but on offense the Raiders need to get the ball into the hands of the players that can make plays. Darren McFadden needs to see a lot of touches, and the Raiders also need to figure out how to get the ball into the hands of Denarius Moore in the passing game. It wouldn't hurt for the Raiders to get Taiwan Jones involved and potentially Terrelle Pryor.
The Falcons have allowed several big plays on swing passes and screens to running backs and wide receivers. The Raiders should incorporate those types of quick-hitting passes into the game in order to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers.
The Falcons have been able to get early leads, and most teams have abandoned the run early. When the Falcons have been in a tight game, the opposing running backs have been able to churn out good yardage. Alfred Morris and Willis McGahee both had 100-yard games against the Falcons, and McFadden should be able to have similar success.
Of course, the Raiders are desperately trying to get a stalled running game going. McFadden and the zone-blocking scheme haven’t yet produced many positive results, but the extra practices over the bye week might have helped.
Alfred Morris was able to get to the edge of the defense on several occasions against the Falcons last week. In one case, the Redskins basically ran the same play twice in a row and picked up good chunks of yardage. The play was a simple toss to the left with a tight end and fullback blocking on the play side.
The tight end executed a good kick out block on one linebacker, and the left guard picked up the other linebacker which opened up the outside run. Morris is reading the safety.
Morris gets to a point and has to make a decision. His fullback didn’t get a block on the safety, but the safety had to protect the edge. If the safety doesn't protect the edge, Morris could have taken it around the end for a big game. Morris wisely reads the safety and cuts back.
Once Morris is past the safety, it was going to be an explosive play, and all the deep defender could do was take a conservative angle and drag Morris down from behind.
McFadden hasn’t been good about finding the cutback, but in this case it’s a simple read of one defender. The Falcons will overrun plays to keep McFadden from getting to the outside, so the cutback will be there for him if he decides to take it.
The Falcons use a lot of zone coverage in the passing game and like to play games with which defenders will be dropping into what zone. The weakness of zone coverage is when there are too many players in a particular zone or there is a seam between the zones. This has certainly been the case with the Falcons.
Teams have used two strategies to beat the Falcons' zone coverage, and both approaches require two receivers running into the same deep zone. In one example, the Carolina Panthers run two players into the deep middle zone. This is a post or seam and dig/in route combination.
The deep safety is more concerned about the side of the field with twin wide receivers which allows Cam Newton to get an easy completion on a deep dip. The Panthers use two short routes to keep the short zone from sinking too far and interfering with the deeper routes. The deep safety can’t cover that much ground.
The other strategy, requires two receivers to run into the same deep zone which is past the underneath coverage of the linebackers. One receiver sits down behind the short zone, and the other runs deep taking with him the player responsible for the deep zone.
The Chiefs were able to execute such a play because the defenders were playing their zones no deeper than the first-down marker. Normally an underneath receiver or two would keep the linebackers honest, but in this case the situation dictated the need for an extra blocker instead.
The Broncos successfully limited Julio Jones by shadowing him with Champ Bailey, but the Falcons just threw the ball to Roddy White instead. Cover White and Jones and Ryan throws to Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons have a lot of weapons in the passing game.
The Raiders don’t have the cornerbacks to slow down Jones and White for long, and their best bet is to play physical at the line of scrimmage and try to get pressure on Matt Ryan.
Defensive end Andre Carter will play for the first time this season, and the Raiders should give him most of his snaps at left end while sliding Lamarr Houston inside. Doing so would pit Carter against right tackle Tyson Clabo, who has allowed five sacks, three hits and eight hurries of Ryan this season, according to ProFootballFocus.
There’s no secret to slowing down a good quarterback. The recipe is often to play physical and disrupt the timing of the wide receivers and get pressure on the quarterback with four pass-rushers. The Raiders have opted to play it safe and drop into coverage in recent weeks and haven’t trusted the defense to get to the quarterback.
Should the Raiders use more press coverage against the Falcons?
The conservative approach has allowed quarterbacks to complete over 70 percent of their passes against the Raiders. The soft coverage means opposing quarterbacks rarely have to worry about the pass rush and can simple get the ball out early. The results haven’t been good, and the Raiders should at least try to be aggressive—even if that means taking risks.
The Raiders will use Tyvon Branch to cover Tony Gonzalez, and he’s had some success in the past covering elite tight ends. Bringing Branch down means the Raiders will have to play with a single deep safety, which could be dangerous if the Raiders can’t put pressure on the quarterback.
Using more press coverage and trying to put the heat on Ryan is a high-risk, high-reward play, but the alternative is almost guaranteed failure. We’ve seen enough of Oakland’s defense to know that the Raiders need to make an adjustment to hide the weaknesses of the secondary.
The Raiders should get aggressive on defense because they have nothing to lose. The alternative is a long afternoon of pitch, catch and guaranteed production from Atlanta’s offense. Essentially, the Raiders need to adopt the scheme beloved by Al Davis with some modern wrinkles in the front seven.
Who thought we’d miss Davis’ defense just four games into the 2012 season?