Who's to Blame for Oakland Raiders' Struggling Defense?
When reading the Oakland Raiders' defensive resume it looks like a candidate that deserves the boot, not a job.
Believe it or not, it looks worse when you look at the decisions made above the players' heads. On Tuesday, head coach Jack Del Rio pushed the first domino. He fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., which allows John Pagano to take over play-calling duties.
Del Rio issued the following statement in regards to Norton's time in Oakland, per the team's official website:
"After careful thought, I have made a difficult decision to part ways with Ken Norton, Jr. as defensive coordinator. I have the utmost respect for Ken as a person and as a coach, but I feel that moving John Pagano into the play-calling role will best utilize his wealth of experience. I appreciate Ken's passion and commitment to the Raiders since coming aboard and wish him the best going forward."
Nonetheless, when a good company goes bad, it starts at the top. Yes, the players have to execute on the field. The 11 guys in action at any given time need to do their jobs.
However, it's important to look at the overall design. Who's calling the bad shots? How did the Raiders reach this point at which the defense hasn't shown notable improvement in the past three seasons?
The national media embraced the Silver and Black as a dark-horse favorite to challenge the New England Patriots in the AFC, but we saw what happened in Mexico City in Week 11.
Oakland put together an embarrassing performance with an extra week to prepare for the contest. Players dropped passes. A rookie defensive back covered the Patriots' best receiver on occasion. Quarterback Tom Brady exploited the middle of the field, which the front office inexplicably continues to ignore year after year.
Overall, the Raiders' business trip to Mexico resulted in a failure. Give credit to the Patriots but save some blame for the Raiders from the top down.
For Oakland, the shortcomings on defense date back years before it surfaced like a bulging zit on the face of the current season. In the previous campaign, a top-10 offense, takeaways and edge-rusher Khalil Mack covered the eyesores on the defensive side of the ball.
Now, the Raiders offense ranks 20th in scoring. The football hasn't bounced in their favor. Injuries have delayed development for two rookie defensive backs expected to aid the pass defense.
On top of it all, the coaching staff hasn't followed through with accomplishing certain objectives, placed players in difficult situations and made critical errors in developing the roster.
In a team game, with an extended period of futility on defense, it's unfair to hold a few players accountable. Raiders fans should take a long look at the people who don't suit on game day.
We'll rank them from least culpable to most responsible for the team's defensive hardships.
Assistant Head Coach – Defense/Defensive Coordinator, John Pagano
John Pagano just walked in the door. During the offseason, he talked about cutting down on allowing explosive plays on the back end through communication.
"I'm another set of eyes that gives them a different way to look at things," Pagano said during organized team activities. "To be able to hear and to be able to help guys understand."
How many eyes does it take to realize and understand safety Reggie Nelson doesn't have the quickness to cover over the top in the designed defensive scheme? He's frequently trailing receivers after the catch on deep throws.
We also know Pagano specifically focused on the secondary in an initial assignment, according to former defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
"Right now his role is to help us on the back end with our communication and [shore] up what's going on to make sure we stay on top, and that we're all talking about the same things every week, about them throwing the ball deep on us," Norton said.
The Raiders have allowed 10.8 yards per completion, per Team Rankings. The communication line between Pagano and the defensive backs seems fuzzy.
As a newcomer whose role could change week to week before Norton's dismissal, it's reckless to place the blame on him. Nonetheless, if he's responsible for limiting big plays downfield, it's an objective that's still in progress.
Assuming cornerback Gareon Conley fully recovers from surgery on his shin and safety Obi Melifonwu develops into an impact player, the pass defense could show better results in 2018.
Offensive Coordinator, Todd Downing
How can anyone hold an offensive coordinator culpable for a poor defense?
Well, the Raiders offense has struggled to sustain drives. According to Team Rankings, the unit lists 28th in time of possession, which means the defense takes the field more than others in the league. Todd Downing's group also placed 23rd in first downs per game.
Picture this: The league's seventh-best scoring offense in the previous year no longer extends drives with first downs, which leaves a bad defense on the field for more than 30 minutes per contest. It's a recipe for disaster when the turnovers don't fall in your favor.
When a defense can't stop drives with takeaways, it's best to utilize the run game to keep the opposing offense on the sideline. Of course, that's hard to do when the ground attack has logged the least amount of rush attempts in the league.
Apparently, adding a power rusher such as running back Marshawn Lynch to a backfield with two other consistent ball-carriers doesn't prevent the offense from listing 10th in pass attempts.
When you exclude the game in which the officials ejected Beast Mode, he's averaging approximately 12 carries per game as the featured tailback. In three of the Raiders' six losses, they could have committed to the ground attack throughout the contest but opted to attack through the air with inefficiency.
Oakland can't expect the offense to save the defense at all times. However, some continuity with possession would keep a porous unit out of sight for a few extra minutes.
General Manager, Reggie McKenzie
Many criticize general manager Reggie McKenzie for parlaying one extraordinary 2014 draft class into an extension. However, he's also hit on late-round prospects and undrafted free agents, which often falls on deaf ears due to misses in the earlier rounds.
Despite flipping a financially bloated roster with several holes into a competitive group, he's moderately responsible for the disappointing product on defense. As the general manager, he'll receive the most blame, but good draft picks still need quality coaches to develop into better talents.
Unfortunately, McKenzie hasn't grown out of his draft philosophy that causes him to overlook capable linebackers in the early rounds.
Coming into the offseason, the defense clearly needed an upgrade at inside linebacker, but the Raiders executive waited until the fifth round to draft Marquel Lee, who's a decent run-stopper but doesn't provide much help in coverage.
It took McKenzie seven weeks into the regular season to finally address the linebacker spot with 29-year-old NaVorro Bowman, who's one year removed from a torn Achilles. He's also a liability in coverage.
NFL tight ends have entered the league as athletic pass-catchers. We're starting to see more running backs catch out of the backfield. The league continues to transform with added nuances every year. Yet, McKenzie doesn't value a position necessary to cover either position player in the passing attack.
Oakland allows an average 14.4 receptions for 107.8 receiving yards per contest to running back and tight ends combined, per Football Outsiders. The league has changed, but McKenzie refuses to move along with the shift in offensive schemes.
The decision to hang on to old draft philosophies will continue to hurt the middle of the defense in years to come.
Ex-Defensive Coordinator, Ken Norton Jr.
Norton took the ultimate fall for the Raiders' woes. During his tenure, the team never ranked higher than 20th in points surrendered or 22nd in yards allowed. For three consecutive seasons, Oakland took the field with a below-average defense.
In 2016, the Raiders benefitted from swiping takeaways, ranking second in the category. This year, the football hasn't bounced in their favor. Oakland has forced just six turnovers in 10 games.
However, major issues are rooted in personnel decisions. Let's start with Mexico City.
Melifonwu, who underwent knee surgery, played seven snaps in his debut against the Miami Dolphins. Two weeks later, he lined up against the Patriots' best wideout in Brandin Cooks. The design made little sense other than the rookie flashed coverage skills on the collegiate level and took practice reps at the position.
It's unfathomable to give Brady an easy matchup on the perimeter with his top receiver versus a rookie who's been on the field for fewer than 40 snaps in the entire season. Of course, Melifonwu surrendered a 64-yard touchdown pass over the top with Nelson trailing in deep coverage.
On game day, a defensive coordinator can't allow those simple mistakes to burn his unit and expect to improve through the weeks.
The players enjoyed Norton's passion for the game, but for the most part, he struggled with elevating the defense in a results-based business. There's no need to beat a dead horse here. Del Rio axed him before the season's end.
Head Coach, Jack Del Rio
McKenzie puts the operation in motion. However, a great, good or bad draft pick cannot flourish without a coaching staff able to develop talent in place. Last year, many wondered if Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff could handle starting in the pros under former head coach Jeff Fisher.
Now, with head coach Sean McVay leading the team, Goff looks like a No. 1 overall pick. Yes, coaching matters for every player regardless of draft status.
For example, McKenzie selected cornerback D.J. Hayden No. 12 overall in the 2013 draft. After struggling through injuries, a demotion to the bench and wearing the bust label for years in a silver and black uniform, he's found his footing with the Detroit Lions.
You can dismiss Hayden's fumble recovery for a touchdown as random luck, but he's logged more pass breakups (five) than any Raiders defender this season.
Now, for those who blame McKenzie for selecting Hayden in the first round, did he whiff on the pick or did the coaching staff fail to develop a player with potential?
When addressing the team's 4-5 record during the bye week, McKenzie openly talked about how the team mishandled 2016 second-round pick, Jihad Ward, per San Jose Mercury News reporter Jerry McDonald:
"Last year we moved him to a different position. He kind of played a number of different positions. I don't think he was quite mentally ready to understand the techniques of them all. There were three different positions he was playing. That's a little different for a guy who hasn't really played D-line for a while. He's still in the learning process. If there's an opportunity for him to get in there and play he'll be ready."
Shilique Calhoun racked up 27 sacks as a pure pass-rusher at Michigan State, but the coaching staff chose to utilize him outside his natural position as a hybrid linebacker.
The developmental miscues trace back to Del Rio, who's supposed to lead this team, provide a boost wherever it's needed and aid in player development. As a former defensive coordinator, there's no reason why the Raiders can't improve on that side of the ball.
Del Rio decided to hire a rookie coordinator in Norton when the staff took over in 2015. The assistant walks in line with the head coach and should reflect his decisions with personnel and game planning. If so, the lead voice on the sideline deserves heavy criticism for the Raiders' inept defense.
Don't expect Del Rio to follow Norton through the exit anytime soon. McKenzie doesn't come to snap decisions on anything. The Raiders head coach also signed an extension during the offseason after a 12-4 campaign. He likely bought himself extra time with the recent firing. Nonetheless, he's in a league that asks, "What have you done lately?"
With Pagano taking over play-calling duties, we'll found out how Del Rio plans to handle the defense.
Will Del Rio allow Pagano, who takes the position more experienced than Norton, to bring fresh concepts to the table or do we see more of the same? The latter would indicate, Del Rio must shape up or get shipped out.