Breaking Down the Play of Oakland Raiders' Linebacker Rolando McClain
The Oakland Raiders drafted Rolando McClain No. 8 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft to help shore up a porous run defense. As a top pick at middle linebacker, McClain would also be expected to be solid in pass coverage so he could play on three downs.
McClain was big, strong and smart—he had the whole package. McClain was supposed to make an immediate and significant impact on the field for the Raiders. McClain was the anti-JaMarcus Russell and he was supposed to be the defensive leader that he was at Alabama.
Unfortunately everything the Raiders needed McClain to be, he hasn’t been. McClain is an inconsistent run stopper and poor in coverage. That has only been half of his problems as he has given poor effort, had off-the-field issues and most recently he’s clashed with the head coach Dennis Allen.
The team announced that McClain was reinstated from his two-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team on Monday, but according to Jerry McDonald of the Contra Costa Times he will reportedly need to meet with Allen prior to returning to practice.
Allen was in Texas for his father’s funeral on Monday and McClain will either return to practice Tuesday or be waived after the meeting. With his time in Oakland potentially coming to a close and his eventual second chance coming in another NFL city, it’s time to take a look at his NFL career.
The Rolando McClain Effect?
One of the primary reasons the Raiders brought in McClain was to correct a bad run defense. It’s the middle linebacker’s primary responsibility. McClain moved from the Nick Saban’s 3-4 defense to the 4-3 in the NFL. Many fans believe this reason has kept McClain from being more productive.
While partially true, McClain would still need to be the linebacker that stays on the field in nickel situations and that’s precisely the area where he has struggled. Otherwise, McClain would be a two-down run defender in the 3-4. If that is indeed his best fit in the NFL, then he should have never been drafted as highly as he was.
In the three years prior to McClain’s arrival, the Raiders allowed 4.7 yards per carry and in the three years with McClain they have allowed that very same average of 4.7 yards per carry. The Raiders have actually been a little worse in yards per carry, but both round to 4.7 (4.68 compared to 4.71).
The only difference is that teams are running less on the Raiders since McClain arrived. How much that has to do with McClain’s presence versus the quality of the defensive secondary is hard to quantify. While there are many reasons for Oakland’s continued struggles, it’s clear that McClain is not an impact player in the running game that is capable of elevating the players around him.
Although the Raiders have struggled defensively against the run, that doesn’t mean McClain has been a total failure against the run. McClain is graded as the best run defender on the Raiders according to ProFootballFocus (pay wall) which is just below NaVorro Bowman for sixth in the league among inside linebackers.
In fact, McClain has been graded positively by ProFootballFocus in each of his past three seasons with his best rating coming in 2012. Although the grading might be a bit generous in my view, McClain has been an above-average run defender throughout his career.
McClain has consistency issues because he lets blockers get into his body. Once blocked, McClain has trouble shedding those blocks to make a tackle. This is a technique deficiency and one that players are capable of improving, but he’s in his third year and it’s still a problem.
There are literally dozens of examples of McClain getting blocked and failing to disengage that result in solid gains for the opposing offense. Those plays are usually cleaned up by Oakland's leading tackler Tyvon Branch. The most noticeable errors are the ones that turn into big plays and McClain has allowed more than his fair share of big plays to opposing running backs.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to Oakland, rookie Doug Martin had a season’s worth of big plays and at least two came at McClain’s expense. One of Martin’s three touchdowns demonstrated one of McClain’s weaknesses very clearly.
The Raiders had nine players in the box to stop Martin and couldn’t do it. Martin ran off tackle to his left and wiggled through the line between McClain, Branch and Pat Lee.
The Buccaneers won the line of scrimmage and blew linebacker Phillip Wheeler off the ball and out of the hole. McClain ran right into the blocker and only Lee had any chance to bring down Martin after that.
Martin danced a little behind the line of scrimmage, moving from right to left to move through the hole. McClain is fully engaged with the blocker and Martin ran right by him. Branch and Lee were the only other Raiders who had any chance to make a play on Martin.
McClain could be described as a thumper because he is best when he doesn’t have to shed a block and make a play moving laterally. This type of run and hit player has a place in the NFL and it has enabled McClain to be highly productive when an opposing offensive line has trouble blocking at the second level.
McClain had one of his best games of 2012 in Week 1 against the weak line of the Chargers. Curtis Brinkley got hit hard by Rolando McClain at the line of scrimmage on one play that demonstrated exactly what McClain does well.
Tommy Kelly drew the double team and neither offensive lineman was able to disengage and block McClain. The right tackle was in position, but both McClain and rookie Miles Burris were unblocked. McClain knifed through and met Brinkley at the line of scrimmage.
McClain’s play was rewarded as Brinkley was stopped for a two-yard gain. When McClain isn’t blocked he has proven he can get to the running back in traffic and make a solid tackle.
Unfortunately, Oakland’s defensive line has rarely been able to draw enough double teams to keep McClain from having to slip a blocker to make the tackle. This has made McClain an extremely inconsistent performer with the same issues as his predecessor Kirk Morrison, but without the coverage skills.
Any linebacker drafted No. 8 overall has to be able to cover. Two-down players (especially ones like McClain) can be found later in the draft and through free agency. Teams are known to dump disappointing draft picks that struggle to become three-down players. The Raiders picked Aaron Curry up with this very problem last season.
McClain ultimately lost his job in the nickel package after playing the Denver Broncos in Week 4. So what did the coaches see that cost McClain snaps? Look no further than the third play of the game on a quick crossing pattern from Brandon Stokley.
The Raiders brought nickel cornerback Joselio Hanson on a blitz leaving McClain and Branch to cover Stokley and the tight end. Branch was lined up deep making it virtually impossible for him to cover a short route over the middle.
McClain initially dropped as he saw the tight end, but he failed to realize that he had Branch to help. McClain should have been looking for Stokley to protect against an underneath route. Had McClain recognized Stokley coming across the middle, he could have possibly made a play and forced Denver to punt.
This is the definition of a blown coverage by McClain and one that happened far too often for Oakland’s coaches to keep McClain playing in the nickel package. Stokley was eventually tackled by Matt Giordano, but this mistake cost them nearly 30 yards and a first down. The Raiders were one missed tackle away from allowing a long touchdown on this play.
Teams will often tolerate some deficiencies if the player gives 100 percent on every play. McClain’s lack of improvement and poor technique over the past three seasons is a sign that he might not give 100 percent off-the-field (only the coaches really know).
When McClain is on the field he is far too often caught jogging on plays when a little hustle could make a difference. This is another example of a blown coverage by McClain in Week 4, but it also demonstrates how his lack of hustle allowed Ronnie Hillman to get extra yards.
McClain left Hillman wide open, and he reversed field and attempted to run to the edge as the speedster often does. McClain took a bad angle attempting to come straight at Hillman.
Once Hillman got the edge on McClain he began jogging down the sideline. Notice Lamarr Houston five yards behind McClain at this point in the play.
Had McClain been hustling he might have been able to help his teammate when Hillman ran over him, but instead McClain just kept on jogging down the sideline. Houston has closed the gap to just two yards by this point in the play.
Finally, Joselio Hanson bumped Hillman out of bounds. Houston made up four of the five yards he was behind McClain on a 30-yard play. A player that was supposed to be the team’s defensive leader should never be caught jogging or otherwise disinterested in making up for his own coverage mistake.
When McClain is motivated he’s a much better player, but there are serious questions at this point if he can't be motivated. McClain has played for three different head coaches and three different defensive coordinators and this remains an issue.
Will McClain ever be a productive player?
McClain can still be a productive player with the right attitude and effort, but it should be clear by now to anyone who has watched him that he is not worth what the Raiders are paying him. The new regime in Oakland has an opportunity to make a statement to the rest of the team that poor effort will not be tolerated, but that window is quickly closing.
It seems unlikely that McClain has a future in Oakland, but he remains under contract and on the 53-man roster for now. Provided McClain is waived there will be teams that are looking for his skill set that could be interested in his services.
McClain could be a solid two-down inside linebacker for a 3-4 team. He’d be an ideal fit next to Derrick Johnson in Kansas City or similar situation where he is a thumper in the run game. Effort is likely the key to McClain’s future and his second contract is unlikely to include much in the way of guarantees.
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