For the better part of the 2000s, the Oakland Raiders struggled on the defensive line both stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. Opposing teams pushed the front around with ease, doing whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. This weakness and lack of toughness helped to contribute to an NFL record run of futility for the better part of a decade, but in 2009 things slowly began to change.
The Raiders boldly traded their 2011 first-round pick to the New England Patriots for Richard Seymour in what would prove to be the catalytic move for defensive improvement. At the same time, young players Trevor Scott and Matt Shaughnessy emerged as pass rushing threats, and Tommy Kelly publicly declared he was done lazing around and was ready to put in the effort he always should have.
Seymour made an immediate impact in 2009, sacking Philip Rivers twice in the season opener and serving notice this team was in the midst of a turnaround. Though the stats didn't reflect the improvement in the run game, the combination of Seymour and a renovated TK in the interior line made for a formidable pass rush up the middle.
The young players also embraced Seymour's attitude and professionalism. As he often reminded them, he has three rings; wouldn't they like some, too?
The Raiders continued to emphasize a change in culture, toughness and grit up front when, in the 2010 draft, they stole Lamarr Houston in the second round and grabbed gritty, no-nonsense middle linebacker Rolando McClain in the first.
Houston is very akin to Seymour: scheme-versatile, can play anywhere along the line, prodigiously strong and with a thirst and desire to learn that is rare and special. Houston has clung to Seymour like a pilot fish, absorbing any piece of football detritus that he can from the Great White who's been there, done that.
Another less publicized yet equally important addition in 2010 was the return of former D-Line coach Mike Waufle. Waufle was somewhat fresh off of coaching the most dominant defensive line performance in NFL history in the 2007 Super Bowl with the New York Giants. Waufle came in, instantly declared this line as talented as the 2007 Giants line (hyperbole, but nice to hear), and said it was time to get to work.
Waufle was here during the Raiders' run of success in the late '90s and early 2000s, and was disappointed and embarrassed to see how far the team had fallen since. He stated unequivocally that the attitude and culture were about to change.
Behind Waufle, Seymour, some new techniques and the versatile and deep personnel along the line, the Raiders D-Line began rising to dominant status last season, often taking over games and rushing the passer with such ferocity that their famed single high safety no blitzing vanilla scheme actually worked more often than not.
That scheme is contingent on the front four being able to get push, and get push they did. Any combination of Seymour, Kelly, Shaughnessy, Scott, Desmond Bryant and big John Henderson was able to get to the quarterback, and consistently, last season.
Feeling understandably comfortable and confident with their defensive line personnel during this tumultuous and uncertain offseason, the Raiders instead concentrated on the offensive line and defensive backs in the draft.
While there were some good D-Lineman available this year, the potential loss of Nnamdi Asomugha to free agency coupled with the offensive line's inability to protect Jason Campbell last season made those two positions of paramount importance.
The loss of Asomugha may have more impact than just in pass coverage, as more than a few of the Raiders' sacks last year resulted from blanket coverage in the secondary. If the Raiders lose Nnamdi, they will lose a little bit of that blanket coverage in the back end. Thus, they must get to the QB that much more quickly. As I've been saying all article, with this personnel it shouldn't be an issue.
What is paramount, though, is stopping the run, an area in which the Raiders began to improve dramatically in 2010, despite allowing a couple of early monster performances by the opposition.
Bryant and Big John have been pleasant surprises in the middle of the line: big, strong and stout lineman who occupy multiple blockers and clog running lanes. Henderson was thought to be washed up; Bryant drafted too late and not talented enough.
Both showed last year those perceptions were incorrect, and Henderson in fact made a huge impact in the middle of the line. Bryant's upside is tantalizing and with his athleticism and intelligence he can only get better.
The Raiders showed a lot of strength and toughness along the line during Waufle's first tenure; he had the Giants playing up to the highest level possible after coaching there a few years. The Raiders began to regain that toughness last season, and the players swear by Waufle, Hue Jackson and Seymour. The combination of love for the coaches on and off the field is something positive that hasn't been seen in Oakland in some time and is one of the major factors in the improvement of this team.
Seymour contributed to a major attitude and culture change off the field as well, but it's his impact along the D-Line that has this Raider team thinking playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.
In 2008, the year before Seymour joined the Raiders, they gave up 2,555 yds on a 4.7 ypc average, 129 rushing first downs and 23 rushing touchdowns. They ranked no higher than No. 27 in the NFL in any of these categories.
In 2009, the year Seymour arrived, they gave up 2,488 yds on 4.5 ypc average, 126 first downs and 24 TDs rushing. Not much improvement there, to be sure. However, they DID increase their sack totals from 32 to 36.
Then, last season, with the addition of Waufle and the one-year benefit of Seymour, the Raiders gave up only 2,138 yds on 4.5 ypc average, only 98 first downs and 14 TDs. This is significant improvement from the past two seasons, but they still have a long way to go. Not only did their run defense vastly improve, but their sack totals skyrocketed from 36 to 46 in 2010.
Defensive lineman contributed 29.5 of these sacks, or 64 percent. By comparison, the other teams tied with or ahead of Oakland have the following ratios:
Pittsburgh (No. 1 in sacks, 47) - 10.5 of 47 - 22 percent
San Diego (No. 2, 46) - 14 of 46 - 30 percent
Green Bay (No. 2, 46) - 18 of 46 - 39 percent
NOTE: These stats all taken from www.pro-football-reference.com
So the Raiders CLEARLY get more pass rushing production from their interior lineman than any other team in the league; all while showing major improvement against the run.
The players, coaches and scheme were all encouraging for success, but when you add in former Raider D-Coordinator Chuck Bresnahan reuniting with Waufle in Oakland for the first time since they were a Super Bowl contender in 2002, it makes for a potent mix of good vibes, talent and performance that will see the Raiders defend their way into the playoffs in 2011.