The Oakland Raiders have signed 11 free agents this offseason. Even though they weren’t able to sign defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh or wide receiver Randall Cobb, they did manage to bring in good players in their primes.
Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton’s addition was the only head-scratcher. He’s an upgrade over Miles Burris and he’s just 28, but at $6 million per year over the next three seasons, the Raiders need him to be more than just an incremental upgrade. The Raiders need Lofton to be a very good middle linebacker.
Of course, if any brain trust in the league knows how what to look for in linebackers and how to get the most out of them, it’s probably the one in Oakland. The trio of general manager Reggie McKenzie, head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. all played linebacker in the NFL, so they should have quite a bit of insight into the position.
In Lofton, the Raiders likely see an underrated commodity. They see a linebacker who was asked to do far too much last year but who is smart, instinctive, durable and always around the ball. He’s not a playmaker, but he prevents big plays because he’s always where he should be.
What others probably see in Lofton is negative plays without positive ones to balance them out. They see all the missed tackles and the perpetually poor run defense in New Orleans. They see the effects rather than the causes.
The Raiders can get the most out of Lofton by only asking him to do what he does best. Asking Lofton to cover running backs in the flat take on blockers on every play is a recipe for failure. By letting the defensive line take on blockers and the outside linebackers take care of flat coverage of running backs, the Raiders can set Lofton up for success in 2015.
Last year, the Saints didn't do that and released him due to his performance and pay not matching up. It should come as no surprise that New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan put Lofton at a disadvantage in the running game. Ryan’s best defenses against the run have always come in his first year with the team and always decline in Year 2.
In 11 years as defensive coordinator with four different teams, Ryan’s defenses average 24th in rushing attempts, 24th in rushing yards, 21st in rushing touchdowns and 21st in yards per rush attempt. His scheme begs teams to run on him, and they do with good success.
Lofton’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last year was supposedly his worst. Pro Football Focus gave him his worst grade of the year in that game, so it’s probably a great place to start when discussing his 2014 performance.
On the second play from scrimmage, Lofton makes a positive play in the run game. On 2nd-and-10, Lofton quickly reads a run play to Le’Veon Bell to the left. The quick read allows him to avoid the block of center Maurkice Pouncey, who is one of the best in the league.
With Lofton in the running lane, Bell presses the run to the outside. If Lofton were to shoot the gap, Bell would have a huge running lane to the outside.
Lofton stayed on Bell’s outside shoulder instead, and Bell runs out of room to the outside. Bell’s only choice is cut hard back against the grain to get whatever he can. In this case, it was three yards. Lofton made this play without making the tackle by preventing a big play and forcing Bell back toward the middle of the defense.
Later on the opening drive, Lofton’s instincts and football intelligence again thwart Bell. Pittsburgh’s offensive line pushes the Saints defensive front three yards backward, but Lofton quickly reads the play designed for Bell to cut back.
Steelers left guard Ramon Foster does a great job switching his block over to Lofton to keep him from making the play outright. Against a better defensive front, Foster doesn’t have this luxury. Lofton struggled to get free of Foster, which was a theme in this particular game and last year overall.
Despite this, Lofton’s initial read was partially the reason Bell had to abandon the play design. All Bell could do was get what the offensive line got for him. Still a solid gain because of a dominant offensive line, but Lofton saved a big gain.
Now here’s an example where Lofton was in a tough spot but didn’t make the play. The Steelers put eight blockers in the box, but the Saints matched with just seven. The eighth defender was a cornerback who the Steelers took out of the play with the play design.
The Steelers were able to outnumber the Saints with blockers, which is an obvious advantage in the running game. Usually the defense should have a numbers advantage, but the Steelers pulled two players to the left and had their right tackle pick off the backside linebacker.
This took away the Saints’ eighth defender—a cornerback lined up to the defensive left. It also reduced the play to a four blockers on four defenders with two of the blockers having a running start.
The pulling right guard blocks Lofton and Bell scampers for 12 yards. As the last two plays clearly highlight, when Lofton must defeat blocks, he struggles. When he’s able to stay clean, he affects plays.
A good example is this play where Lofton actually missed the tackle. Bell is able to spin out of the tackle attempt and gain five yards, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad play by Lofton. The fact that he forced Bell to turn this back inside was a positive because the rest of the defense was blocked.
Lofton first avoided the block of the right guard and was in position to make the play. He didn’t, but he forced the play back inside where there was help coming, as opposed to letting Bell get up to full speed with a lot of green in front of him and only a man to beat to get to reach paydirt.
Lofton in pass coverage is a bit of a mixed bag. His natural instincts usually help him when dropping into short and intermediate zones. He’s athletic enough to cover some tight ends, but he struggles against superior athletes in space. Bell, for example, had his way with Lofton in the passing game.
Here’s an example of Bell setting Lofton up for an outside cut. Once Lofton took the step inside, all he could do was chase down Bell from behind. This was a big gain for Bell and ugly coverage by Lofton.
Late in the game, the Saints were protecting an 11-point lead with about a minute to play, and Lofton missed a tackle in the open field on a Bell swing pass. On the next play, Lofton couldn’t even get a hand on Bell to make a play on another big gain.
These are situations that ought to be avoided during the normal course of a game, but they came into play here because of Ryan’s prevent defense. Lofton in space is a bad idea, especially in coverage.
It’s best if Lofton can cover shorter routes between the hashes. He did a decent job covering tight end Heath Miller on this curl route, and he’s generally in position to make a play in these situations. Asking him to come up and make a play on a superior athlete is asking for trouble.
Getting the Most from Lofton
The Raiders can get the most out of Lofton by minimizing the opportunities he has to defeat a block in the run game and keeping him away from flat coverage against running backs. Lofton is best using his instincts and moving around unimpeded.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lofton graded out 57th out of 60 inside linebackers, but he was seventh in the league in their run-stop-percentage statistic. Even with 11 missed tackles in the run game, Lofton made an impact in that area, and his grade didn’t reflect that.
The Raiders actually have a defensive front capable of keeping Lofton off blocks. Khalil Mack was a dominant run defender as a rooki,e and defensive end Justin Tuck was predictably above average. The Raiders also signed defensive tackle Dan Williams to play alongside defensive tackle Justin Ellis.
The Raiders brought back defensive end C.J. Wilson to give them another big body up front. That’s not to mention any other players they find in the draft or later in free agency.
|Raiders vs. Saints Supporting Cast|
|Position||Raiders||2014 PFF Run Defense Grade||2014 PFF Run Defense Grade||Saints|
|EDGE||Khalil Mack||+46.9||-6.3||Junior Galette|
|EDGE||Justin Tuck||+4.4||+5.4||Cameron Jordan|
|DT||Dan Williams||+11.7||+3.6||Akiem Hicks|
|DT||Justin Ellis||+4.9||+2.5||Brodrick Bunkley|
|DL||C.J. Wilson||+3.1||-0.4||John Jenkins|
|DL||Antonio Smith||-20.0||-9.5||Brandon Deadrick|
|SLB||Benson Mayowa||+4.5||+12.3||Parys Haralson|
|WLB||Sio Moore||-0.9||+1.6||David Hawthorne|
|Pro Football Focus|
Del Rio cut his teeth as a coach in Baltimore, who used big defensive tackles to give Ray Lewis the freedom to make plays. Lofton’s three best seasons came under head coach Mike Smith, who was Del Rio’s defensive coordinator in Jacksonville prior to landing the head job in Atlanta and subsequently drafting Lofton in the second round.
It’s probably safe to say Del Rio knows what he is getting in Lofton. Del Rio knows Lofton’s strengths and weaknesses and will work around them.
Although they lack talent many places, the Raiders now have the beef up front to keep Lofton clean and allow him to make some plays. He didn’t have that in New Orleans, and he struggled because of it.
In coverage, Lofton was one of the most targeted inside linebackers in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus. In certain situations, you can get away with him covering tight ends, but he should never cover running backs in the open field. The Saints put Lofton in that situation too much despite the fact he struggled.
Lofton did a solid job preventing receptions, but when he did allow them, he gave up a lot of yards. According to Pro Football Focus, no inside linebacker allowed more yards after the catch last year than he did.
Lofton is best between the hashes in the running game and passing game. That’s where his instincts work to his favor and his lack of raw athleticism doesn’t hurt him as much. That may make him a two-down player at times if offenses choose to spread the Raiders out, but that really depends on the Raiders’ ability to rush the passer in 2015.
Although undervalued for his work against the run, Lofton has a lot to prove to the Raiders in 2014. If he doesn’t turn things around, the Raiders protected themselves with a contract they can get out of after one season.
It’s worth noting that Lofton’s performances have been inconsistent from year-to-year for several years now, at least according to Pro Football Focus’ grades. Lofton has yet to have a negative grade in any odd year, but the only positive even-year grade of his career came in his rookie year.
That may bode well for the Raiders, who are looking to end years of poor middle linebacker play. Lofton has a real chance to be a productive player for the Raiders despite a lackluster performance in 2014.