Any Given Monday: Raiders Defense Flourishing Under Guenther

Paul Guenther’s revamped defense will get tested early against the high-flying LA Rams.

While it has yet to play a down in the regular season, Oakland’s new-look defense, under coordinator Paul Guenther, is a vast improvement over what fans watched the past several seasons.

The Raiders defense has had more holes than a colander since 2010, when it led the league in sacks. It hasn’t approached that kind of production since. Under former coaches Dennis Allen and Jack Del Rio, opposing quarterbacks would often go more than a dozen throws without an incompletion.

Last year’s defense didn’t get an interception until November. Former defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. would infamously say the Raiders lacked interceptions because opposing QBs weren’t trying to throw incompletions or picks. Based on that logic, the team’s low sack count (31) must have occurred because opposing lines made it difficult for the defense to get the quarterback on the ground.

This seems to be on the precipice of change under new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Head coach Jon Gruden is an offensive guru and, for the most part, has left the entire structure and makeup of the defense to Guenther. All the media talk has centered on what Gruden can do to revitalize the offense, but it is what Guenther’s doing on defense that has me most excited.

Prior to joining the Raiders, Guenther spent 14 years with the Cincinnati Bengals, four as defensive coordinator under coach Marvin Lewis. During that time, the Bengals ranked among the top half of the league in points allowed, finishing second and seventh in two of those years despite an anemic offense (18.1 points per game).

There’s no reason to believe such a trend won’t continue in Oakland. The Raiders have recorded 11 sacks in three preseason games, a considerable improvement over the 31 they recorded all of last season. I understand it’s preseason, but Guenther’s defense is more than just passing the eye test.

For the first time in years, players aren’t looking confused pre-snap. Blown coverages aren’t the norm. Defensive backs are sticking to the receiver and not panicking when the ball comes their way. The defensive line is generating pressure across the depth chart, while the linebackers at the second level look like they know what they’re doing.

Furthermore, for all the talk about Gruden bringing in a slew of veterans, there are several young players who are going to be driving the train. Rookies PJ Hall, Arden Key and Maurice Hurst will be big parts of the defensive-line rotation, while second-year cornerback Gareon Conley has the talent to be an elite shutdown corner.

Even second-year linebacker Marquel Lee has gone from looking completely overmatched last year (leading the Raiders to sign Navorro Bowman) to looking like a quality player at the second level. And, let’s not forget Shilique Calhoun, who, although fighting for a roster spot, has gone from being virtually invisible under Del Rio and Norton Jr., to one of this year’s preseason stars.

No, the Raiders aren’t going to have the best defense of all time, but they aren’t going to be pushovers, either. And, with Gruden’s offense running the show, that’s more than they will need.

Rookie Watch

Marcell Ateman

The young wide receiver out of Oklahoma State doesn’t have breakaway speed, but he knows how to use body position to create separation. He had four catches on five targets against the Packers, and has steadily progressed throughout the offseason. I expect Ateman to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.

Veteran Watch

Shilique Calhoun

The third-year defensive end simply keeps making plays, so much so he’s probably earned a roster spot. Calhoun had another sack and a flurry of pressures against the Packers. He has been the team’s most consistent defensive player, although he hasn’t received a lot of action against the starters. There seems to be enough there, though, to give Calhoun a chance when the real shots start flying.

Some Quotes to Remember

“You gotta have guys that would jump over the water coolers to cover a kick when the game’s on the line. You gotta have guys that, behind the scenes, are always thinking about the game, that love it.”

Head coach Jon Gruden on the culture he is trying to foster.

“I said, ‘Relax, go out there and do what you do.’ You know, you try not to overcoach those kinds of guys because Arden’s special at what he does rushing the quarterback.”

Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther on his teaching approach with rookie defensive end Arden Key.

A Tweet of Amusement

3rd-and-7

3 (plus 50) Predictions:

Given that there is just one preseason game left and the team is more or less set, it’s time to make a roster prediction.

Note: Starters are listed in bold; backups are in no particular order.

QB: Derek Carr, Connor Cook.

Cook and Manuel have looked awful the past two games, but Cook appears to be the lesser of two evils. Manuel isn’t going to get picked up by another team, so if Carr or Cook go down, Manuel could return as a backup. Keeping just two QBs allows the Raiders to have an additional roster spot for a player they would have kept as a clipboard holder. Additionally, they can sign a young QB (maybe bring back Christian Hackenberg after he’s cut by the Eagles) to the practice squad to be the scout team QB.

RB: Marshawn Lynch, Doug Martin, Jalen Richard, Chris Warren III

Warren has been a surprise in training camp, and his style complements the other three backs better than DeAndre Washington. Washington recently had minor surgery on his knee, which might lead him to being placed on IR if the Raiders can’t trade him.

FB: Keith Smith

Gruden wants to take football back to 1998, but even in 1998 using more than one fullback was a rarity.

WR: Amari CooperJordy Nelson, Martavis Bryant, Seth Roberts, Marcell Ateman, Dwayne Harris.

Bryant will get numerous snaps in the slot. . The Raiders like Ateman’s ability to high-point the ball and he could see snaps in the red zone, where he can box out on fade routes. Harris has rarely been seen in preseason, which might mean the Raiders know what they have and have him as the final receiver who can produce on special teams (specifically as a kick returner) for coordinator Rich Bisaccia. Griff Whalen was pushing for a spot but left the locker room Friday in a walking boot, so expect him to be waived with an injury settlement.

TE: Jared Cook, Lee Smith, Derek Carrier

The team’s most stable position.

Offensive Line: Kolton Miller, Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson, Donald Penn, Jon Feliciano, Brandon Parker, David Sharpe, Ian Silberman.

Rookie Miller has earned a spot as the starter at left tackle, shifting Penn to right tackle. Silberman will be relied on as a swing tackle who also has experience on the interior.

Defensive Line: Khalil Mack, Justin Ellis, Mario Edwards Jr., Bruce Irvin, Arden Key, Maurice Hurst, PJ Hall, Tank Carradine, Shilique Calhoun.

Eddie Vanderdoes remains on the PUP list, while Fadol Brown is unlucky not to earn a spot given his play in the preseason. If Mack’s holdout continues into the regular season, expect Brown or Frostee Rucker to get the spot until Mack returns.

Linebacker: Emmanuel Lamur, Tahir Whitehead, Derrick Johnson, Marquel Lee, Nicholas Morrow.

I have listed four starters because Johnson and Lee will get extensive playing time subbing for each other depending on the formation. Morrow will see more playing time if he continues to develop, while Azeem Victor and Jason Cabinda are practice-squad candidates if they clear waivers.

Cornerback: Rashaan Melvin, Gareon Conley, Leon Hall, Daryl Worley, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Nick Nelson.

I’ve listed four starters because Worley should get the bulk of the third corner snaps, although he’s likely to be suspended. If suspended, Antonio Hamilton would likely get the spot. Shareece Wright has a hamstring injury and will likely be waived with an injury settlement.

Safety: Marcus GilchristReggie Nelson, Erik Harris, Karl Joseph.

The position is in flux, with all four players pushing for playing time. It might come down to form as to who the starters will be in Week 1 because there isn’t a lot separating the bunch.

Special Teams: Eddy Piñeiro, Johnny Townsend, Andrew DePaola.

If Piñeiro’s groin strain keeps him sidelined, the Raiders will keep Mike Nugent on the roster until the rookie gets healthy.

7 Things I Think:

1. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson alluded to possibly keeping 10 or even 11 offensive linemen. This number is ridiculously high at 11. Expect the Raiders to keep just the nine for balance purposes. If they keep 10, the defensive line will be a little less crowded.

2. Given the Packers didn’t play many starters, the Raiders have had little game action against true starters in preseason. At least the team was able to hold two joint practices with the Lions a few weeks ago where the starters got some valuable reps against similar competition.

3. I’m fed up with media pundits, analysts and the like who pronounce players’ names incorrectly. With a surname like Nadolny, I’ve heard every variation under the sun. But seriously, these guys are paid to talk about players and they can’t even say their names correctly. How hard is it to say “Mar-tav-is” and not “Mar-tav-i-us” Bryant? There’s even one less syllable in his name, making it easier for you guys! At least it’s not on the level of Derek Carr being constantly referred to as his brother, David. That’s just flat-out ignorant and disrespectful.

4. The Raiders have not had a good run of second-round draft picks under GM Reggie McKenzie. Obi Melifonwu is undoubtedly the biggest bust of all. The Raiders thought so little of the second-year safety they cut him despite having the ability to put him on IR to stash him until 2019. Gruden wants 53 players who love football, and that simply isn’t a trait Melifonwu possesses. Additionally, his recurrent hip injury might derail any potential career he had. His release marks a sad day to end what looked like a promising future just 12 months ago.

5. I am far from convinced that Martin will be the primary backup to Lynch at running back. Gruden has repeatedly talked up Martin, but he has been extremely underwhelming and lacks the burst the other backs have. His performance in Oakland to date reminds me of Maurice Jones-Drew’s time with the Raiders in 2014.

6. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s three-game suspension for his role in Zach Smith’s domestic abuse issues is a joke. There is no doubt Meyer knew of Smith’s issues and kept Smith on the staff, exposing a dangerous man to young players, and then attempted to cover it up. Power isn’t always everything in sports (or life in general), but it certainly has helped here. Not sure this can be summed up any better than the tweet below.

7. I am involved in a longtime fantasy football keeper league between a bunch of high school and college friends. In eight seasons, my best result was runner-up last year. In light of the increase in interest in fantasy football, I will add a fantasy update to this column each week, including a preview of my recommended starts and sits for the upcoming Raiders matchup, along with an update of my league. Be sure to hit me up on Twitter with your questions, along with suggestions, because there’s no way I’m accepting second best this year.