The Las Vegas Raiders invested much of their cap space last offseason to bolster the defensive side of the ball. But as the Raiders close in on the halfway point of the 2020 season, their results have been a mixed bag of bright spots.
Following Las Vegas’ Week 7 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coach Jon Gruden said there would be changes for his team — specifically on the Raiders’ defense.
“Everything is on the table,” Gruden said. “We’ve been meeting since very early in the morning. We’re going to play better on defense. I’m determined to make sure we prove that this week.”
While the Raiders sit with a 3-3 record heading into their Week 8 contest against the Cleveland Browns, the Raiders rank 31st in points allowed per game (32.8) and 28th in passing yards allowed per game (283.8).
Quite simply: the Raiders defense isn’t getting it done.
The Raiders endured a punishing first two seasons with Gruden back on the sideline. Since then he’s kicked his offense into gear, which ranks ninth in yards per game and 11th in scoring. Given the success of his operation of the offense, seeing the Raiders’ defense under coordinator Paul Guenther, continue to struggle has to be eating at him to some extent.
While big-name free agents like Cory Littleton and Maliek Collins have struggled, there are other defensive players who’ve stepped their game up and are developing quite nicely.
DT Maurice Hurst
The Raiders’ defense and its lack of pass rush remain the team’s weakest link once again. Regardless of the rotating defensive front that Las Vegas mixes in, they currently sit with seven sacks on the season, ranking 30th in the NFL.
However, defensive tackle Maurice Hurst has been a key cog from the interior alignment. Hurst has largely been underutilized while sitting primarily behind Collins and Jonathan Hankins. But when Hurst has gotten his number called upon, the former Michigan product has risen to the occasion.
Hurst has recorded just one game in which he saw more than 50% of the defensive snaps. For him to get more playing time, it will require the Raiders to swallow some of their pride and essentially admit they missed on the Collins acquisition this offseason.
Inserting Hurst into the starting lineup on passing downs over Collins looks to be the best possible solution to fine-tune the pass-rushing woes. Hurst not only has more pressures on the year, but he’s also contributed five quarterback hits.
Last week, Hurst even rushed from the defensive end alignment and wound up pressuring Tom Brady, while playing out of his natural position. Hurst was the only defender who got his hands on Brady the whole game.
The Raiders’ defense started the year with hopes that second-year player Trayvon Mullen could transform into the team’s No. 1 cornerback. After six weeks of action, Mullen looks to fit the bill accordingly.
Mullen isn’t the ball-hawking cornerback that consistently picks off quarterbacks, but his sticky coverage ability proves he can follow the opposing team’s top wide receiver on a game-to-game basis. While playing more than 80% of the defensive snaps, Mullen has recorded seven pass breakups.
A hidden component of Mullen’s skill set is what he’s been able to provide in run support. This season the Raiders have seen several opponents run the ball towards the boundary, forcing cornerbacks to make tackles. In doing so, Mullen has released his aggressive nature and delivered timely stops.
The secondary has received criticism in recent weeks in part for allowing an abundance of third and long conversations, but Mullen has been one of the few players that have taken a step forward this season despite the fluent deficiencies.
Even after Nick Kwiatkoski missed time early on after suffering a torn pectoral muscle, the new defensive signal-caller has been ascending in his growing role.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kwiatkoski is the 10th ranked linebacker in the NFL and the highest-graded defender on the Raiders’ defense this season.
Initially, Kwiatkoski’s track record indicated he was better suited against the run and struggled in pass coverage. However, it appears he’s turned the corner, allowing just three completions over the 14 times he’s been targeted in coverage, equaling five yards in total.
In his four starts, Kwiatkoski has recorded two pass break-ups and 18 tackles, with just one missed tackle on the year.
In games Kwiatkoski’s been active, the Raiders defense has, by and large, played better throughout. Littleton, the Raiders’ offseason splash, has struggled significantly when Kwiatkoski isn’t available to call the plays for the defense. When Kwiatkoski is in the game, it’s no secret, other defenders on the team have played better.