Third and Huh?: Baffling Oakland Defense Needs Work

Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton
May 5, 2017; Alameda, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. (left) and coach Jack Del Rio react during rookie minicamp at the Raiders practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One missed tackle can break the levee — One that is intended to bend and not break. That sentence is a good summation of the Oakland Raiders defense.

In layman’s terms, the Ken Norton Jr. (and by extension, John Pagano and Jack Del Rio) defense is predicated on keeping the plays in front of you and making the tackle before any YAC (yards after catch) are generated.

Sounds pretty simplistic, no?

But make no mistake; despite being widely panned as “vanilla” and “simple”, there is nothing elementary in regards to the Raiders defense. There are plenty of moving parts that comprise the whole, but when one aspect is even a little off — an ounce — the entire machine suffers systematic breakdowns.

Case in point: Oakland has done an adequate job of tackling at the line of scrimmage and just beyond it. But after the front seven, it becomes a cluster you know what. Against the Dolphins, it took center stage.

“Tackling is the biggest thing,” Del Rio said of his biggest area of concern during the bye week. “We’re doing some things well. I think we’ve established, as a front, that we can limit some good running attacks from really running it at us. I think it started in the opener in Tennessee. I think they have a really good running offense and we showed there that we can stop the run. That’s one area. When we start doing that, and then getting off on third down more regularly, I think you take a big jump. To me, what it comes down to is the tackling on the back end that has really been poor. You can’t play great defense without being great tacklers. That’s probably the biggest area for us.”

Coverage will always go hand-in-hand with pass rush. That’s Football 101. A ferocious and consistent pass rush can make even the greatest passing next to useless. Ferocity and consistency have been far and few between when it comes to the Oakland attack. Even Del Rio is miffed at the lack of rush — even though he plays a huge part in shaping that.

“I am a little surprised we haven’t been a little more effective with it,” Del Rio said. “We’ve got good pass rushers; we need to have a little tighter coverage so that the quarterback has to hold the ball.”

And herein lays a critical weakness in the Raiders’ zone: Not properly accounting or communicating who has the obligation of covering the checkdown/dump-off targets, namely running backs flaring out of the backfield. Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler exploited this to near perfection this past Sunday night. A large portion of his 311-yard passing night was a result of that very thing.

“If he’s able to get it out on time and comfortably, throw it in front of us and then make guys miss and get big plays, then why would they hold onto it to look down the field?,” Del Rio quipped. “That’s where I say leverage and tackling is huge for our defense.”

Look no further than Miami’s first touchdown as a prime example. Damien Williams should been stopped short of the end zone when he hauled in the swing pass from Cutler. Instead of a textbook wrap up tackle, Oakland defensive backs went for the kill shot, ricocheted off the 5-foot-11, 224-pound running back, and the Dolphins’ ball carrier dove in for the score.

It’s no secret the Raiders secondary is patchwork, at best. Injuries have decimated a veteran group that’s mixed with newly obtained young blood. The starting corners (TJ Carrie and Dexter McDonald) were seventh-round picks and Week 1 starters David Amerson and Sean Smith have proved ineffective.

Get this, entering Week 10; the Raiders are the lone team in the league without an interception. To make matters worse, opponents are completing 71.2 percent of their passes against the ragamuffin secondary.

However, despite not being like-glue sticky in coverage, a football player should know how to properly and securely tackle, regardless of position. And with a defense struggling in making the opposing quarterback go down hard, missed tackles are especially detrimental. It surely doesn’t help Raider defenders spend a lot of time on the field.

The win in Miami was one of the few times the offense was on the field longer than the defense. It’s no secret a fatigued defense is going to reach its breaking point. A sound football team gets contributions from all three aspects (offense, defense and special teams) in equal measure. Harmony.

There hasn’t been much with Oakland’s ragtag bunch. You know the labels on packages that say: “Fragile. Handle with care”?

The same can be said about the Raiders defense.


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