When the Raider defense first took the field in September, fans watched with nervous eyes. For fear that they would watch a repeat of the previous season. In the opening two games of that season, the defense surrendered over 1000 total yards of offense and 69 total points. Fans knew they were fortunate to emerge from the worst defensive stretches in NFL history at an even 1-1. Through the first two games, this current season the Raiders managed to cut those numbers in half. On the other hand, the bottom began to fall out in a weird game in DC. For even the most optimistic fans, this collpase proved to be true over the balance of the season.
During the off-season the Raiders did little in Free Agency to address some of the problem positions. They ignored veterans such as Zach Brown or even Perry Riley Jr.. Coupled with making no real effort to lure top end cornerbacks like A.J. Bouye or Trumaine Johnson. Furthermore, Reggie McKenzie preference to search the middle rounds to for talent for the heart of the defense does not work. His inaction in free agency and draft misses continue to affect this team. While he has certainly earned his chance to right the ship, there are some holes in its hull.
The very real personnel issues remain compounded by significant coaching limitations. As a result, these are the kind that can and will get a coach fired. When Jack Del Rio became Head Coach, fans presumed the former linebacker would save the defense. He has not. In January, when John Pagano agreed to become the Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Assistant, it was clear that the organization was preparing to move on.
During Ken Norton’s two and a half seasons with the Raiders, his defenses allowed 20 points or more in 34 games. Also, the Raiders did not have a defense rank higher than 22nd in terms of yards per game in at any point . Worse still, constant “communication” issues in the secondary existed. Not to mention, blown coverage on running backs and the near permanent presence of a free running tight end. It was not clear why Del Rio did not pull the plug on the Norton experiment sooner. The defense suffered more for that one decision than any other did.
To Pagano’s credit, the defense enjoyed significant uptick in overall production. Unfortunately, the Raiders improved too late to make a run. Since taking over for Norton after a listless showing by the defense out of a bye week the Raiders have notched 14 sacks, four interceptions. As a result, they avoided the same number of cardinal sins. Yet here the Raiders are, at the very end of a long rope in a terrible season. Even Khalil Mack, who shines normally, elevated his play. During this season, teams exploited the defense and its previously poor coaching.
If anything is to change next season, it should begin with how the Raiders scout. McKenzie cannot continue to try to fill in the gaps with developmental projects and bargain bin talent. He must add players with tangible talent. By the same token, the Raiders need to pay them. Del Rio cannot continue to allow for a lack of accountability or “scholarship players” . That phrase started in the mid-2000s for players like Stanford Routt or Michael Huff. Now, Reggie Nelson fits that bill. John Pagano, if he remains the Defensive Coordinator into 2018, cannot make the same mistakes as Norton.
He must remain flexible and willing to adapt his scheme to his players. None of these things is simple but the all must happen if the Raiders defense is to get itself off the mat and into the fray.