The Oakland Raiders defense registered five sacks after two weeks of false alarms for opposing quarterbacks. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. unleashed his pass-rushers and positioned a variety of linebackers to tee off on Cleveland Browns quarterback Josh McCown.
CSNBayArea.com reporter Scott Bair made note of the transformation in base alignment via Twitter:
The entire AFC West division uses some form of the 3-4 alignment with premier defensive playmakers positioned on the edges. As an early proponent of the 3-4 alignment in Oakland, it's refreshing to see Norton blend in the design to spark his defense.
For the Raiders, the alternative alignment fits their personnel, allows the defense to reshuffle a full deck of talent and optimizes the versatility on the roster.
It’s never a good idea to fit a square peg into a round hole. Edge-rusher Aldon Smith played in a 3-4 alignment for four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Defensive end Justin Smith occupied blocks at the line of scrimmage, which eased Smith's job in circumventing the line protection for a sack.
Khalil Mack played linebacker in college for four seasons in Buffalo. He graded as the best linebacker in 2014, per Pro Football Focus. The second-year linebacker made a breakthrough toward the end of his rookie year, recording three of his four sacks in the last four games of the season.
As a 4-3 strong-side linebacker, Mack took on lead blockers as a primary run defender on the edge. The 3-4 defensive end would consume the initial blocks, giving Mack a greater chance at taking down quarterbacks as an edge-rusher.
Theoretically, the Raiders only have one prototypical 4-3 defensive end in Justin Tuck. He’s played the position at a high level for 11 years, but he’s now on the downside of his career.
In contrast, Oakland has at least four players who fit the body type or skill set of a 3-4 defensive end. Mario Edwards Jr., Denico Autry, Stacy McGee and C.J. Wilson all fit the mold.
Edwards played the position at Florida State. Norton experimented with Autry, McGee and Wilson as 3-4 defensive ends against the Browns.
Raiders' 3-4 Personnel Example No. 1
In the first example, Autry and Wilson sandwiched Dan Williams, who served as the nose tackle. Mack and Smith stood up on the edge.
Raiders' 3-4 Personnel Example No. 2
In the second example, Tuck and McGee lined up as the bookends, with Williams as the constant in the middle.
Justin Ellis can potentially interchange with Williams as the nose tackle responsible for occupying two offensive linemen.
At 6’2”, 334 pounds, Ellis can provide the same type of interior resistance as Williams (6’3”, 315 lbs) in terms of run-stopping and gap-stuffing.
Williams comes from a 3-4 defensive scheme in five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. He’s never started all 16 games, even when healthy. Ellis should still receive a decent amount of snaps as the two behemoths alternate at nose tackle.
The element of surprise and ambush makes a solid approach in attacking offensive tackles. Norton tested this theory by utilizing several players as edge-rushers on Sunday.
Shuffling Pass-Rushers Example No. 1
In the first example, Ray-Ray Armstrong lined up at outside linebacker and recorded the easiest sack on the day, due to a miscommunication in the Browns backfield.
Shuffling Pass-Rushers Example No. 2
In the second example, rookie Neiron Ball earns a sack working against eight-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas. Initially, Ball attempts to use his quickness on the outside.
Ball realizes Thomas’ solid position with his heels planted, ready to absorb the rush. The rookie linebacker uses quickness to dart across the line of scrimmage and find an entry into the pocket.
Shuffling the edge-rushers doesn’t allow the offensive tackles to fully adjust to one or two particular pass-rushers.
Ball used quickness and speed to record a sack. Mack may use a spin move and power. Smith has a knack for timing the snap count to get an early jump on the opposition.
It’s difficult to adjust to four different move sets and tendencies throughout an entire game. The unpredictability from a variety of edge-rushers increases the chances of allowing a sack or a hit on the quarterback.
Optimize Versatility and Young Talent
The 3-4 alignment allows smoother transitions in substitutions and manageable doses of playing time for developing talent.
Ball’s sack preceded safety Charles Woodson’s game-ending interception. Of course, Woodson garners praise for stopping the drive, but Ball made a key stop to put the Browns in a 3rd-and-14 situation.
In the final snapshot of the Raiders 3-4 defense, Edwards lined up as an edge-rusher. He didn’t record a sack, but a few snaps every so often at that position could develop his pass-rushing skills. Edwards could take the field as a 3-4 defensive end or an outside linebacker, which allows the coaching staff to see what he does best on the field.
Norton should experiment with using Ben Heeney alongside Curtis Lofton or Malcolm Smith as inside linebackers to clamp down on potent rushing attacks.
The 3-4 alignment creates endless possibilities for attacking an offense. The Raiders have the linebacker corps and hybrid athletes to make the transition effective in limiting time in the pocket and stifling ball-carriers.
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Week 3 statistics and play-by-play analysis provided by NFL.com.