Column: Raiders Defense Has Long Way to Go But Cupboard Not Bare

Hayden Nadolny
Las Vegas Raiders Defense Jon Gruden

While the Las Vegas Raiders’ loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday night crushed their postseason aspirations, and their historically bad defense was once again exposed, the team has some good talent and must fill in gaps and find a coach to get the most out of those players.

With the Raiders having lost in heartbreaking fashion last night in overtime, Raider Nation no doubt will be Googling mock drafts and planning for season 2021.

While the loss crushed the postseason dreams of the team and its fans for 2020, there may in fact a solid platform to build from on both sides of the ball for Jon Gruden’s team.

The Offense is in Good Shape Overall

The Raiders’ offense is relatively set and should once again thrive under Jon Gruden. While there could be plenty of chatter and rumor-mongering about prospective quarterbacks coach Jon Gruden loves (as there is every year), the odds are that Derek Carr remains the starter next year despite backup Marcus Mariota’s crisp performance in the loss to Los Angeles.

Carr has a team-friendly contract (cap hit of 22.125M per Over The Cap), and still has two seasons left on this deal. Talk of a potential contract extension a few weeks ago was premature, but if he keeps up this level of play while managing to improve his tendency to fumble upon getting sacked, the Raiders will have their quarterback for the next five years. The extent of his groin injury is unknown as of Friday morning.

Carr will forever remain a polarizing figure amongst the fan base, but if you were to substitute alternative QBs such as Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa, Josh Allen, and Jared Goff into Gruden’s offense this season, this writer doesn’t see the Raiders having any more wins (currently seven).

Running back Josh Jacobs has undeniable talent and performed well last night. Still, his availability remains a concern and the only concern for the talented and tough runner. Injuries happen and Jacobs isn’t to blame but the Raiders may need a true and impactful No. 2 option to keep their offense rolling. Devontae Booker has done yeoman’s work and is a good back, but the Raiders may look to find another playmaker to spell Jacobs.

It’s All About the Defense Now

The formula for winning a Super Bowl has always been fielding an elite defense. In the modern NFL, you must also have an offense that can put up points at will. The Raiders have that ability but they just can’t stop anyone. You don’t necessarily need to have an elite defensive unit during the season, but they need to get hot and be playing at an elite level in January and February. The past Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs were just 6-4 after 10 games in 2019, but their defense got hot and they ran the

Las Vegas Raiders Defense Maxx Crosby
Maxx Crosby has seen a significant decline in his production in his second year with the Raiders.

If you were to review the last 20 Super Bowls, 15 of the winners had elite defenses – both entering the game, and playing at an elite level during the Super Bowl itself. Going in with a formula of “we’re going to score 40 and win 40-39” is not a recipe for success. It looks great on paper (who doesn’t love a swashbuckling thriller) because you theoretically “win,” but it is all theory nonetheless.

Simply put, the Raiders’ defense must be addressed. The offense needs a few tweaks, but they are manageable. Right now this a Top 10 offense in the league in terms of points per drive, Top 10 in points scored, and number one overall in third down conversion percentage.

The Raiders Have Spent Significantly on Defense with Subpar Results – So Far

Before properly evaluating the talent levels on defense, the moves to acquire certain players on that side of the ball needs to be looked at in a bubble.

In 2018 the Raiders spent a second-round pick on a defensive tackle (P.J. Hall), a third-round pick on a defensive end (Arden Key), and a fifth-round pick on a DT with medical concerns (Maurice Hurst).

In 2019, the Raiders spent a first-round pick on a DE (Clelin Ferrell), a first-round pick on a safety (Johnathan Abram), and a second-round pick on a corner (Trayvon Mullen). They also shelled out a four-year, $42 million (16.7 million fully guaranteed) to a slot corner (Lamarcus Joyner). Of note, a fourth-round pick was used on a DE (Maxx Crosby) who was runner up in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting to Nick Bosa.

Las Vegas Raiders Defense Damon Arnette
Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Damon Arnette (20) jogs up the field during warm-ups at the Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, in Henderson. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images

In 2020, the Raiders spent a first-round pick on a cornerback (Damon Arnette), while going on a free-agent defensive spending spree. They spent over $32 million guaranteed money on two starting linebackers (Nick Kwiatkoski and Cory Littleton), and over $18.8 million guaranteed money on two defensive linemen (Maliek Collins and Carl Nassib).

Altogether, under Jon Gruden, the Raiders have spent six draft picks in the first three rounds (I’m excluding safety turned linebacker Tanner Muse from this discussion), drafted two players on Day Three of the NFL Draft who have clear defensive talent, and spent close to $70 million in guaranteed money on defensive free agents. All of this investment yet the defense looks worse than it did when Gruden first arrived on the scene in 2018.

From my perspective, it’s incredibly hard to believe that the talent evaluators whiffed on each of these personnel moves such that the argument that “the Raiders just don’t have any talent on defense” holds any kind of weight. There is some talent there, just not enough and the talent house on Raiders Way isn’t being mined at a level you need to see.

How to Fix the Raiders Defense?

So where exactly are the problems on defense?

It seems as though they are multi-faceted. There appears to be some talent to work with, but this unit is not fundamentally sound. They don’t know how to tackle safely or consistently, they don’t know how to play to the situation (that is, get off the field on third down for instance), and they don’t know how to line up in their run fits adequately.

However, the defensive free agents they have acquired over the years could tackle with their past teams, and they could also cover and execute their run fits. Additionally, the high draft picks the Raiders made also had shown on tape that they could do these things consistently – it was why they were drafted so high, to begin with.

So then, why have all of these players joined the Raiders and then, almost overnight, forgotten how to play fundamentally sound football on defense?

Based on the above information, the most logical issue seems to be that coaching has been a problem.

When former Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was hired in January 2018, it received mixed fanfare. While many pointed to his prior success of having a solid unit statistically in Cincinnati, his head coach was Marvin Lewis who was a defensive-minded coach and would have had significant input in the unit. This led to many wondering if Guenther had the wherewithal to run a defense with near-complete autonomy. Additionally, Guenther’s scheme may have been trending on the antiquated side in the NFL. He has always preferred a physical unit – particularly with larger linebackers who would provide a presence over the middle at the expense of speed, along with defensive ends who could set the edge in the run game but weren’t as big a threat rushing the passer.

In today’s modern NFL however, you need a defensive unit who plays fast, and they need to create turnovers. Guenther’s system rarely put players in a position where they could play fast, as the rules within the scheme were so constraining, players would overthink leading to plenty of missed assignments. Additionally, sometimes the scheme was actually putting players in a position where they could not possibly succeed – such as when Lamarcus Joyner was being asked to playing as a nickel linebacker in a run fit against the Jets (based on the rules of the scheme).

This is a classic case of a defensive coordinator believing that their scheme is perfect, and the players simply need to execute their roles because if they do that, the scheme takes care of the offense in totality. The problem with this line of thinking is that even (former Raiders offensive coordinator) Tom Walsh’s offense in 2006 was “perfect” on paper. Practically, like Guenther’s defense, it didn’t work in reality. It is sobering to think that the number of impactful plays the Raiders defense has made in 14 games this season can probably be counted the fingers of two hands.

If one is to evaluate the defensive personnel for the future, let this be prefaced in saying none of the personnel matters much if Gruden doesn’t hire a great DC.

Who’s the “Next Man Up” at Defensive Coordinator?

Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Vinny Bonsignore wrote first of respected defensive coordinator Wade Phillips interest in the Raiders defensive coordinator position this week. Despite that interest, Gruden and Phillips are not close football-wise shedding some doubt of a link between the two men. Despite this, now is clearly not a time for nepotism for Gruden.

Despite having a large long term contract, his seat will get hot if he doesn’t get this hiring right. Phillips, on paper, seems a good choice. He has a track record of defensive success over more than 20 years on multiple teams. He also has a history of taking below-average defenses and turning them into great units. While he may be 73 years old, one only has to see his Twitter account to realize he has the requisite humor and people skills to connect with players of the current generation. Phillips frequently has pointed to adapting his scheme to what his players do well, rather than forcing players to fit the scheme. It is such a simple concept but one that not enough coaches in the league do.

Who Stays, Who Goes on the Defense?

So, if Phillips or another new DC with a different scheme (specifically at 3-4, single-gap system) were to join the Raiders, who stays and who goes on the defense?

Clelin Ferrell appears to fit in perfectly as a 4-technique lining up directly over the offensive tackle. A nose tackle to line up directly over the center would be required, but they aren’t necessarily hard to find. Both Nassib and Crosby could be effective in a two-point stance (Nassib has a history of being solid in that role back in Tampa). Kwiatkoski has a history in a 3-4 in Chicago, and Littleton was one of the best cover linebackers in the league under Phillips in Los Angeles barely 12 months ago.

Cornerbacks Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette have potential to be solid corners, and in the right scheme, they could flourish. but an additional veteran corner would certainly help in that room to mentor and develop the young players.

At safety, Johnathan Abram is a liability at this point and has not
lived up to any expectations. The Raiders should seriously consider off-loading him for an early Day 3 pick in the upcoming draft if possible. Erik Harris has shown this year that while he is a nice feel good story, his level of talent at this point suggests he is more suited to being in a backup role (as does Jeff Heath). Given Joyner has played under Phillips as a safety previously, such a positional change back to safety could be a way of extending Joyner’s time with the organization, although he shouldn’t be considered as a slot corner next year. At the very least, it’s something to ponder.

The cupboard isn’t bare on the defensive side of the ball, but it obviously needs work. The amount of work though can be achieved in one off-season, and with the right coordinator hiring, they can be a Top 16 unit in 2021. If that is achieved, all the ingredients will be there for the Raiders to make the playoffs (and beyond) next season.

While we didn’t spend time exploring Gruden’s role in this failure to launch, it’s time for the coach to show tangible results that don’t include treading water or missing the playoffs with late-season fades.