This isn't the time to lambaste the Las Vegas Raiders for their blockbuster deal that sent star edge-rusher Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears in September 2018. Although we cannot fully judge the long-term effects of the trade, the team hasn't done nearly enough to fill his void. They've tried and come up with minimal returns in multiple ways.
After the first quarter of the season, Vegas is tied for 29th in sacks (four) and quarterback pressures (25). Since 2018, the defense ranks last in the former category with 49 and has placed within the bottom four in the latter statistic each year.
Clearly, Vegas' defensive problems start up front, but what's the root cause of the issue? The coaching staff and talent share culpability. Let's start with the players.
With the No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 draft, the Raiders selected Clelin Ferrell—Clemson's leading pass-rusher (21 sacks) between 2017 and 2018.
Thus far, Ferrell has yet to make a significant impact on the pass rush, logging 4.5 sacks and 18 quarterback pressures in 19 games. He doesn't have to measure up to Mack, who's an elite defender, but the Raiders probably expected more than an average strong-side run-stopper from a top-five pick. When clubs select defensive linemen that high, they usually have the ability to pressure quarterbacks with consistency.
Ferrell bulked up to 275 pounds during the offseason. Yet, his added strength and power haven't shown up on film in some spots. He experienced some issues against the New Orleans Saints. Colton Lochhead of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker chimed in:
Ferrell isn't shedding blocks for a high number of stops in run defense, either. In two out of four games this season, he's logged one or zero tackles. Perhaps the second-year pro needed a full offseason to adjust to his heavier frame, because the work over the summer hasn't translated to game days yet.
With that said, Ferrell doesn't carry the responsibility of generating a pass rush alone. Maxx Crosby racked up 10 sacks and placed second in Defensive Rookie of the Year polling with four votes. He's recorded three sacks this season, but two came on plays in which quarterbacks Cam Newton and Josh Allen held on to the ball for extended periods, trying to find an open man downfield.
Crosby doesn't even lead the Raiders in quarterback pressures (four), as that honor belongs to defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (five), who's played 42 percent of defensive snaps through four weeks. The team placed him on the Reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday, which deals a big blow to the defensive line.
In March, the Raiders signed defensive end Carl Nassib, but he's only logged a half-sack and three quarterback pressures, which is an embarrassing return for a player with the fifth-highest 2020 cap hit on the roster at $7.75 million, per Spotrac.
In today's NFL, teams can bring pressure from the interior as well. The Raiders edge-rushers don't have to lead the charge. Last year, in Mike Mayock's first trip to the scouting combine as the team's new general manager, he talked about how a push up the middle affects the top quarterbacks, per Eddie Paskal of Raiders.com:
"Over the years I've talked to almost every top quarterback in the NFL and I've asked them all the same question, 'What bothers you the most?' And almost all every top-flight quarterback says, 'Immediate pressure up the middle.' … If you're getting push up the middle that's difficult. It disturbs sight lines, forces you to readjust your feet.
During free agency, Vegas signed Maliek Collins. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther compared him to two-time All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins (h/t Levi Damien of Raiders Wire):
"I've been around Geno Atkins a long time in his career," Guenther said. "Maliek reminds me a lot of Geno Atkins. He might be our best acquisition of the offseason from what I've seen. He's been tremendous."
Head coach Jon Gruden called Collins the "key" to the defense, but the 3-technique defensive tackle hasn't been able to unlock the pass rush. He's recorded just three tackles and three quarterback pressures in four games.
While it's still early, Collins hasn't looked anything close to Atkins or a significant factor as an interior penetrator.
Then again, with all of this talent, we can also point to the coaches. Since Guenther joined Gruden's staff, the Raiders defense has ranked in the bottom two across multiple categories, per Josh Dubow of the Associated Press:
Despite the Raiders' moderate improvement in sacks from 2018 to 2019, Gruden dismissed defensive line coach Brentson Buckner for former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Gruden told reporters he made the change with the idea it would elevate players from the 2018 class:
"P.J. Hall, [Maurice] Hurst, [Arden] Key, those are three guys that we used high draft picks on. Arden has to stay healthy, P.J. Hall, I'm anxious to see where his weight is, he came in overweight last year and at that position that can't happen. Maurice Hurst has had some good moments, but we need these guys to burst on the scene no question. Getting Rod Marinelli is the best thing I can do to allow that to happen."
The Marinelli effect hasn't kicked in. Hurst has shown flashes, but he's underutilized and now out indefinitely. The Raiders released Hall before the season started, and the 2018 second-rounder has 18 tackles, nine solo, and a sack with the Houston Texans. Key has only two quarterback pressures and one tackle.
During the offseason, the Raiders showed interest in Jadeveon Clowney (h/t Cecil Lammey of 104.3 The Fan) and were "kicking the tires" on Yannick Ngakoue, per Vic Tafur of The Athletic. The former signed with the Tennessee Titans on a one-year, $13 million deal, and the Minnesota Vikings acquired the latter in exchange for a second-round pick along with a conditional 2022 fifth-rounder.
Hindsight is 20/20, but the Raiders should've had a more aggressive approach in pursuing Clowney or Ngakoue given the state of their defense, which not only struggles to collapse the pocket but ranks 25th against ground attacks. Gruden identified poor tackling and gap discipline as the reason for their struggles against the run.
In order to bolster the front line and finally silence the critics who still question the decision to trade Mack, the Raiders may need another big-time trade before the deadline. Acquiring an impact player such as Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap—who played four seasons under Guenther, two of those Pro Bowl terms—is one possibility. He's unhappy with a reduced role and could be open to a midseason move elsewhere.
If not, quarterback Derek Carr and the offense better prepare to score 34 points per game with little margin for error.
Team and player quarterback pressures provided by Pro Football Reference.