The Oakland Raiders are trying to completely rebuild a defense that was ranked 28th in points allowed in 2012 and lost two starters to free agency. General manager Reggie McKenzie has signed a trio of linebackers to try to strengthen one of the team’s biggest weaknesses.
The biggest loss this offseason was free-agent linebacker Philip Wheeler, who came to Oakland on a one-year deal last season and became one of the team’s best defenders. Wheeler replaced pass-rushing linebacker Kamerion Wimbley and became a versatile linebacker capable of stopping the run, dropping into coverage, blitzing and calling the defensive plays.
Kaluka Maiava is one of the options McKenzie brought in to replace Wheeler, but he was only a part-time linebacker for the Cleveland Browns in 2012. Maiava was rarely asked to drop into pass coverage, which means he’ll have to prove himself in that area to stay on the field in nickel situations.
The good news is that Maiava received a favorable grade by ProFootballFocus in 2012 (subscription required), largely due to two good games in pass coverage. McKenzie may have signed Maiava based on a limited sample size over the past two years in pass coverage, but the sample is generally pretty good.
Primarily Maiava covered backs and tight ends running flat patterns. Like many linebackers, Maiava wasn’t asked to turn his hips and run down a seam or cover a tight end man-to-man. Wheeler was a little more versatile because he could drop into deeper zones and was actually capable of covering some tight ends man-to-man.
On one play in Week 1, Maiava got his hands on the tight end just as he made his break. The little shove may have disrupted the pattern just enough to pull the tight end off his mark. The pass would end up being behind the tight end, which was either a poor throw or a product of Maiava’s contact.
Maiava did allow the tight end to get some separation, but he closed and hit him just as the ball arrived. The ball fell incomplete, but it could just have easily been intercepted if the ball had been ejected into the air instead of bounding off the turf before landing in the hands of a teammate.
While Maiava might not be able to replace Wheeler as a cover linebacker, his ability to stop the run should help the Raiders replace Wheeler against the run. Maiava was primarily a two-down linebacker and special teamer for the past two seasons, so the Raiders should also have a much better feel for him against the run.
Maiava has the ability to shed blocks and get around bigger blockers in order to sniff out running plays. The Redskins were trying to run off the clock late in a Week 15 win over the Browns when Maiava showed off his ability to get off a block and stop the run.
Maiava slipped by the block using his hands, broke down in the running lane and was able to make a solid tackle after only a short gain. Despite being a relative unknown, Maiava's good hand usage likely attracted the Raiders.
Despite sound technique in some areas, Maiava can still improve. Maiava has a tendency to bite on fakes and overrun plays at times, which may have impacted his ability to make more plays in the run game. Maiava also needs to work on keeping his pad level down and wrapping up ball carries.
On one particular play in Week 1 against the Eagles, LeSean McCoy spins off of Maiava’s tackle. Maiava came on a blitz off the edge, slipped the block of the motioning tight end and had the opportunity to stuff McCoy for a loss, but couldn’t make the play. However, Maiava showed off another trait that likely attracted the Raiders—hustle.
After missing the tackle on McCoy, Maiava quickly gets to his feet and begins pursuit of McCoy. After 10 yards, Maiava is able to make the tackle because McCoy slows down to try to juke the cornerback. The play didn’t end up hurting Maiava because the Eagles were called for a holding penalty, but still demonstrated one of his strengths and one of his weaknesses.
Maiava may not totally replace Wheeler, but when combined with other additions, he should help the Raiders on defense. If Maiava struggles in pass coverage, he could share time with Miles Burris at the weak-side linebacker position with Kevin Burnett playing more on the strong side. Maiava can also contribute on special teams, which was a significant area of weakness for the Raiders in 2012.