Raiders Defense Fix Requires Systematic Approach

Phil Robinson III
Las Vegas Raiders defense Clelin Ferrell

There’s more than one way the Las Vegas Raiders defense can address its shortcomings to have an impact on the remainder of the 2020 NFL season. A mixture of player acquisition, better utilization of the roster, and scheme adjustments could make the difference between the Raiders making or missing the playoffs.

As the Las Vegas Raiders get set to travel to Cleveland this weekend to take on the Browns, the foremost question on the minds of the front office, coaching staff, and fans everywhere is how do they fix the Raiders defense.

Las Vegas Raiders defense
The Raiders defense cannot continue as is so Guenther and his staff has to figure out the right answer to all that ails his young and underperforming group. Photo: Michael Clemens/Raiders

With an offense rich in weapons, and a quarterback who is playing at the top of his game, the defense needs to do more to keep the team in games.

While blaming Paul Guenther for the shortcomings of the defense is easy, Calling for his removal is harsh but not without cause. Firing the defensive coordinator seven games into the season won’t yield a seachange and it won’t solve the Raiders fundamental problems.

Solving the problems on defense will take a systematic approach of player acquisition, utilizing the talent the Raiders defense has on the roster and adjustments to Guenther’s scheme.

We take a look at how, using that systematic approach, the Raiders defense can get on the road to respectability.

Limiting variables

Before attempting to navigate the solution to the problems on the Raiders defense, lets take a look at all the variables.

Currently, the Raiders have $6.006M in salary cap space. Without shedding future draft picks in deadline moves, the Raiders 2021 draft picks are one pick in Rounds 1-3, one 5th round pick, two 6th-round picks, and a 7th-round pick. In 2022 they have the standard 1st-7th-round assortment of picks.

When it comes to a coordinator change to help the Raiders defense, you should forget about it for now. Guenther isn’t going the shown the door by Gruden anytime soon. The addition of defensive line coach Rod Marinelli this offseason gave rise to speculation he was the defensive coordinator in waiting should Guenter falter. Marinelli’s defenses as the coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys were Top 15 overall for three years straight. While elevating him is popular with fans in Raider Nation, there’s been no indication the aging legendary defensive coach wants to be a coordinator again.

When it comes to trades to help the Raiders defense, there are limits to whom they can trade and who they can afford to take on. The Raiders most tradeable pieces on defense are the following: Cory Littleton, Trayvon Mullen, Johnathan Abram, Maxx Crosby, and possibly Clelin Ferrell. How many of these guys would they be willing to move? Which one of those players would they be willing to part with to fill needs? From all indication, none. The Raiders continually stress they like their young corps and that’s why you should expect them to be buyers instead of sellers at the deadline.

The ‘What-Ifs’ of the NFL Trade Deadline

Fans always have an unrealistic expectation of what can be done by a team at the NFL trade deadline. For the Raiders defense to add a key defensive addition, they’ll need to weigh options up front vs. on the backend to get a player that helps them the most and does it fast.

When looking at possible trade targets, some are far more pie-in-the-sky but worth exploring. In his recent piece on the trade deadline, Las Vegas Review-Journal Raiders beat writer Vinny Bonsignore explored several possiblilities including a long shot Raider Nation would love to see – New England Patriots All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

Stephon Gilmore has already put his house up for sale in the Boston area giving rise to rumors he will soon be traded. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year thinks he’ll be traded and why not to the Raiders?

Should the Raiders make a move to acquire Gilmore? Gilmore would instantly come in and be the team’s CB1. Along with Trayvon Mullen, and rookie Damon Arnette when he returns from injured reserve, the addition of Gilmore would give the Raiders defense an entirely new look. With Gilmore in the fold, Arnette or Mullen could alternate in the slot, depending on matchups, and rookie Amik Robertson would add depth and it would give him more time to develop into the pro the Raiders think he can be. That unit would squarely put the Raiders defense in the conversation when it comes to the league’s top cover units.

Having those three in coverage will allow the remainder of the Raiders defense to be deployed in a completely different fashion. It still won’t solve the deficiency of a deep safety, but, although a longshot, would change the look of the Raiders defense in a profound way.

Who’s Ready to Deal?

The Houston Texans have let teams know they are trading off veteran players as they look to rebuild with a new coach and general manager heading into the next draft. The Texans let it be known four players are off limits: Deshaun Watson, JJ Watt, Laremy Tunsil, and Tytus Howard. Leaving established veterans such as Zach Cunningham, Whitney Mercilus, PJ Hall, and Justin Reid up for trade.

Although there are reports Watt could be had for the right price. While conversations around him may happen, the cost for a team like the Raiders would most likely be too high.

Two targets I like to improve the Raiders defense are Cunningham and Mercilus. It’s not impossible – maybe the Texans take Littleton straight up for Cunningham, and a package of picks for Mercilus, and Reid. A deal, or deals, like that would fit within the Raiders salary cap situation. While many might scoff at unloading Littleton, either he’s not happy in Las Vegas or he’s not a good fit for the Raiders scheme. It’s virtually impossible he’s lost his ability since leaving the Rams, but sometimes fits just don’t work.

Safety help is what the Raiders desperately need. First-round draft pick Damon Arnette is believed to be returning to the lineup soon. Having successfully survived the coronavirus, and his thumb healing up, Arnette will soon reunite with Mullen and Abram on the Raiders defense. With the Erik Harris experiment now proved a failure, the Raiders defense needs that roving safety. Adding Reid could provide a complimentary safety to Abram and be a massive upgrade over Harris and Jeff Heath.

Tinkering With Guenther’s Lineup

Guenther’s Pattern Match Cover 3 defense and Cover 4 out of the Nickel formation hasn’t been able to slow down an offense all season. The Raiders defense hasn’t generated much (if any!) pass rush and the run defense has been middle of the pack.

Las Vegas Raiders Defense Mo Hurst Maurice Hurst Jr.
Mo Hurst has consistently shown improvement and is the bright spot on the underwhelming Raiders defensive front in 2020. Photo: Michael Clemens/Raiders

The Raiders have only used a fraction of their defensive roster effectively. Guys like Maurice Hurst Jr, Carl Nassib, Isaiah Johnson, Amik Robertson, and Raekwon McMillian have all seen smaller numbers of snaps than they should. Nassib’s playing time is on the rise and there should be no question Hurst deserves more too. But with the Raiders defense struggling so badly, it’s unconscionable these players are not seeing more snaps.

Chris Smith and Datone Jones came off the practice squad and produced a noteworthy effort against the Kansas City Chiefs. Smith only lined up on 26 plays for the Raiders defense at Arrowhead but made the most of it. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he and Jones weren’t even on the active roster despite showing the desire and ability to do what their higher-priced teammates cannot. There’s no reason why Guenther doesn’t start to go with the hot hand instead of the big contract guys like Maliek Collins who fail to produce.

Include the addition of former Dallas Cowboys star David Irving, and the Raiders defense has plenty of options to mix things up.

“Irving (David) is coming along,” Guenther said of the newly signed Raiders defensive end. Irving was a phenomenal player under the tutelage of Marinelli and, if he can regain his form from Dallas, the Raiders will have a huge impact player at a cost-effective price.

The slot has continued to be an issue for the Raiders. Nonetheless, Traveon Beck is a young slot corner who has played in a pattern match 3 scheme. A UDFA, Beck is a three-year starter at the University of California. Also an original member of The Golden Bears #Takers secondary, coached by current Dolphins defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander. He fits the mold of what Guenther has in mind for a smart instinctive and compact slot corner.

Scheme Changes on Raiders Defense

A complete defensive overhaul in the middle of the NFL season is virtually impossible. It’s also not necessary in the case of the Raiders defense and its struggles. A few tweaks here and there, with an emphasis on playing producers not personalities, and a strategy revision will be good enough.

The Raiders defense doesn’t need to be the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or the 1985 Chicago Bears – it just needs to cut down on points allowed and start creating takeaways to help the offense. Reducing the number of points allowed from over 30 to 26 points would be a massive help for the Raiders team.

Raiders defense Raekwon McMillian
The Raiders traded for LB Raekwon McMillian and have failed to utilize him.

Guenther is going to need to scale back on the complex level defense. He hasn’t been able to get players to execute it properly. If he is serious about putting players in the best position to succeed, they need to get back to read and react. A mixture of man coverage and combo coverages.

The Raiders roster has the natural personnel for a switch to a 4-3 under defense, or a 3-4. Most defenders prefer to be in attack mode. There will always be a time and a place for Nickel and Dime, but the defense is conceived of physical players. The Raiders defense has in your face players and smash-mouth players. It’s a style which worked exceptionally well versus the Chiefs.

Summing up Needed Changes on Raiders Defense

Playtime should be allocated by production, not grasping the scheme. There is no harm in coaching the talent you have on the field, especially if they aren’t grasping your vision. While Paul Guenther isn’t going anywhere, for now, he needs to adjust his Raiders defense to best utilize the talent he has and help his team win more games.

The Raiders offense is too good to be losing games because they can’t consistently score 33 points (defense giving up 32.8 points per game) per game. The defense is young and needs to get accustomed to the speed and physicality of the game but they also need to let them loose. Let the young wolves hunt and mature on the fly instead of insisting on the rigidity of a system that isn’t delivering as executed now.

While Gruden has publicly backed his longtime friend and defensive coordinator, he is approaching the point in time when a friend says enough. A defensive coordinator change may not be coming soon for the Raiders, but plenty of changes should happen – and happen fast.