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Rebuilding Raiders Hoping Trenches Key to Turnaround

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Rebuilding Raiders Hoping Trenches Key to Turnaround
USA TODAY Sports
Defensive end Justin Tuck headlines Oakland's focus on the trenches.

The Oakland Raiders are just starting the reconstruction phase of their rebuild. After two grueling years of roster deconstruction, general manager Reggie McKenzie finally had the resources to make significant improvements in 2014.

That’s why losing two key young trench players in free agency was a peculiar start. One of the most common rebuild philosophies is the approach that starts with addressing the lines on both sides of the ball, so losing defensive end Lamarr Houston and left tackle Jared Veldheer seemed like a huge blow.

Improvements on the offensive and defensive lines in 2014 may hold the key to Oakland’s turnaround. Losing Houston and Veldheer in free agency and Rodger Saffold to a failed physical notwithstanding, McKenzie has done a great job building from the inside out this offseason.

Linemen aren’t very exciting for fans, so McKenzie’s effort has gone somewhat unnoticed by comparison to his work at the quarterback position. Line play is a vital part of the game that doesn’t get as much attention as it should. Rarely do you hear about offensive lineman unless they do something wrong. Defensive lineman are only noticed when they get sacks.

 

Potential Impact

According to Pro Football Focus grades (subscription required), the three best pass-blocking teams made the playoffs in 2013, as well as two of the top-five run-blocking teams. Four of the top-six teams in run defense also made the playoffs. Surprisingly, only one of the top-five teams in pass rush went to the playoffs, but it was the reigning Super Bowl champs.

Being top five in one of the four areas (run defense, pass-blocking, run-blocking, pass rush) resulted in teams making the playoffs about 45 percent of the time in 2013 and 55 percent in 2012. Three teams ranked in the top five in two of these areas in 2013, and two of them made it to the Super Bowl.

PFF's Trench Grades 2013 (*Playoff Team)
PFF Rank Pass-Blocking Run-Blocking Pass Rush Run Defense
1 CIN* PHI* NYJ SEA*
2 DEN* DAL KC* STL
3 GB* CHI DEN* TEN
4 WAS SF* BUF MIA
5 CLE TEN SEA* DET

ProFootballFocus.com

This method somewhat removes the impact of the quarterback, receivers, running backs and defensive backs. It’s imperfect but at least tries to isolate the importance of the game in the trenches.

Another good way to isolate their impact of the offensive and defensive line is to use adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate from Pro Football Outsiders. Four of the top-five offensive lines in adjusted line yards made the playoffs in 2013.

Football Outsiders Trench Stats 2013 (*Playoff Team)
FO Rank Adjusted Line Yards (OL) Adjusted Sack Rate (OL) Adjusted Line Yards (DL) Adjusted Sack Rate (DL)
1 NE* DEN* ARI STL
2 KC* DET DET CAR*
3 SD* CIN* DEN* BUF
4 DAL NO* NYJ NO*
5 GB* CHI STL GB*

FootballOutsiders.com

Seven of the top-nine defensive lines in adjusted sack rate also made the playoffs. However, only one defensive line that was in the top five in adjusted line yards made the playoffs, suggesting that run defense is the least important of the four categories.

Still, it’s easy to see how valuable having a top line can be. Good teams tend to have at least one line that is carrying their team.

 

The Upgrades

There is evidence that the Raiders placed a priority on upgrading their trenches this offseason. In free agency alone, the Raiders signed three-quarters of their projected starting defensive line and at least two of their five starters on the offensive line. In the draft, the Raiders brought in at least one more starter and another player who will likely be in the rotation as a rookie.

Of the nine projected starters in the trenches, just two were starters in Oakland last season and only three were even on the team. One of those starters is a defensive tackle, Pat Sims, who will come off the field in nickel situations.

Using Pro Football Focus grades from 2013, the Raiders will upgrade by 47.3 points on the offensive line and 45.8 points on the defensive line for a total improvement of 93.2 points. It’s enough of an improvement to take the Raiders from being one of the worst offensive lines in the league to a respectable one.

Offensive Line Upgrades
Year LT LG RG Total
2014 Starter Penn Jackson/Boothe Howard -
2013 PFF Grade 8.1 -11.3 -1.0 -4.2
2013 Starter Veldheer Nicks Bisiel -
2013 PFF Grade -4.0 -44.3 -3.3 -51.6
Difference 12.1 33 2.3 47.4

ProFootballFocus.com

Defensive Line Upgrades
Year RDE DT LDE Total
2014 Starter Woodley Smith Tuck -
2013 PFF Grade 10.8 12.6 15.4 38.8
2013 Starter Houston Walker Hunter -
2013 PFF Grade 11.4 4 -22.4 -7
Totals (Difference) -0.6 8.6 37.8 45.8

ProFootballFocus.com

This assumes Kevin Boothe takes over at left guard instead of third-round pick Gabe Jackson. It also doesn’t measure any kind of cumulative effect there may be by putting better players together. It also doesn’t account for any regression despite that probability.

The largest upgrades will come at left guard and left defensive end. Pro Football Focus graded Raiders left guard Lucas Nix as the worst in the league with a negative-44.3 grade in 2013. Jason Hunter was one of the worst four defensive ends with a grade of negative-22.4.

The Raiders should also see a boost from their first-round pick, linebacker Khalil Mack, who will put his hand in the dirt on third downs. They may also see a positive impact from their fourth-round pick, defensive tackle Justin Ellis. Mack will make an immediate difference, and Ellis will likely push for playing time.

 

The Trickle-Down Effect

Good line play tends to affect every other area of the team. For example, the offensive line’s pass-blocking should not only help quarterback Matt Schaub, but also the receivers. Good run-blocking obviously helps the running backs, but a good running game helps Schaub because he can use more play action.

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It’s well known that having a good pass rush helps the defensive secondary, but it also may help the offense. If better defensive line play can get the ball back for the offense, they will score more points strictly by law of averages.

The Raiders finished ranked 24th in the league in third-down-conversion percentage allowed last season and tied for 19th in opponent first downs per game, according to teamrankings.com. The Raiders were also 22nd in first downs per play. If they can improve significantly in those areas, the offense should also be more productive.

Oakland also faces the NFC West this season, a division that has become known for its ability to run the football. If the Raiders can’t get stops on first and second down, their pass rush isn’t going to be very effective on third down getting the ball back to the offense.

There is a lot riding on the additions the Raiders made this offseason—perhaps none more important than the improvements in the trenches. The offensive and defensive line play is going to go a long way in determining if the Raiders can turn things around in 2014.

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