If football games are won in the trenches, it's appropriate to take a closer look at the Raiders defensive line.
The Raiders released Gerard Warren this winter and drafted Lamarr Houston from the University of Texas to solidify the defensive line.
Warren showed flashes the past couple seasons, but was inconsistent. The former first-round selection never played to fan expectations. The Raiders were the third team to give up on him. He was also due a sizable salary in 2010, and that money can be put to better use elsewhere.
The Raiders have surprisingly decided to put Houston at defensive end instead of his college position of defensive tackle. On the surface it seems like an odd move—in reality, it's a very logical one.
Houston’s talents, with the ability to play defensive end or slide over to tackle, bring a versatility the Raiders' front four has lacked in recent years. Houston will provide relief for an aging Richard Seymour at end and seven-year veteran Tommy Kelly as the three-technique tackle.
Kelly has been often criticized due to the large contract he received in 2007. While Kelly may never live up to his contract, he hasn’t been a horrible player.
In 2009, Kelly totaled 14 quarterback pressures and five quarterback hits with one sack. He was a routinely good pass rusher. His biggest weakness is defending the run, but the Raiders have never asked the three-technique tackle to support the run on a regular basis.
The job of supporting the run has been placed in the lap of the other defensive tackle. The Raiders hope Desmond Bryant, the second-year player out of Harvard, is ready to succeed where Warren failed.
Tom Cable has routinely talked about Bryant as a player the Raiders are excited about. But is one quarterback pressure and one forced fumble in 2009 is enough to get excited about?
It is, because Bryant is the primary run defender on the defensive line.
Bryant will need to improve upon his solid rookie campaign and keep bodies off of rookie middle linebacker Rolando McClain.
What about the ends? How do the Raiders plan to use Houston, Seymour and Matt Shaughnessy?
Seymour is unique; he adds to the versatility with his ability to play tackle in obvious passing situations and also end. This will allow the Raiders to keep Kelly, Houston and Shaughnessy on the field. There is no need to worry about Seymour, unless he holds out of training camp.
This pass rush-centric grouping should be able to bring a solid pass rush from just the front four, but would expose the Raiders up the middle to the run. The Raiders drafted McClain to solve this obvious problem. Don’t expect McClain to come off the field in anything but third and very long situations.
In short-yardage situations, Houston, Seymour, Kelly, and Bryant would be the run-stopping group. It isn’t that Shaughnessy is bad at defending the run, but Houston should be more effective clogging gaps due to his superior size.
The Raiders have bet heavily that McClain will deter teams from running up the gut, forcing ball carriers to the edge where the Raiders will position the most talent lineman.
The Raiders do not have a ton of speed along the defensive line, but all the players are quick, agile, strong and with a good first step.
The logical conclusion, however hard to believe, is that the Raiders will blitz outside linebackers more frequently in 2010 when extra pressure is needed.
Kamerion Wimbley has never played the strong-side linebacker position. He has played as a rush end and rush linebacker. He knows how to rush the passer. The Raiders would be foolish to waste his best attribute.
Trevor Scott’s best attribute as a weak-side linebacker is also pass rushing, making Thomas Howard the primary coverage linebacker.
Quentin Groves is also seen as a pass rushing linebacker. All signs point to the Raiders bringing a fifth or sixth guy to put pressure on the quarterback.
The Raiders have logically built the defensive line to be improved against both the run and the pass.
If the Raiders defensive line can improve along with their linebackers, the Raiders have the potential to be one of the better defensive teams in the league in 2010.