Last season, the Raiders defense was stagnant and about as solid as a Kleenex. With many (allegedly) elite players at nearly all skill positions, they underperformed in just about every category possible. Nnamdi Asomugha is the best corner in the leauge, along with the highly touted first rounder Michael Huff; Richard Seymour was supposed to fix the run defense; a linebacking core consisting of the talented Thomas Howard and Kirk Morrison who were highly respected – so what went wrong?
Man coverage with Nnamdi on one side and Chris Johnson on the other left an obvious gameplan for opposing quarterbacks – avoid 21’s side and look for 37. Seymour never got any momentum in stuffing the run or chasing the quarterback. While Howard and Morrison both had solid seasons, they both lacked gap integrity in the running game and Morrison lacked size at MLB at a fluffy 235 pounds. Tyvon Branch had a very solid year in the run defense, but was found out of position frequently in the passing game. Huff was inconsistent after having three interceptions early in the year. Another year was down the drain, and Al Davis had seen enough. I guess since he pulled the plug on the JaMarcus Russell experiment, he might as well revamp this shoddy defense as well.
Addressing all of the problems through trades and free agency wasn’t possible, and everyone knew that. The Raiders needed one of the most un-Raider thing of all time – a solid draft. With the last few years later picks starting to pan out (sack master Matt Shaughnessy and the versatile Trevor Scott), the Raiders had some youth and veteran leadership (Asomugha, Seymour) to build around. So Davis casts away the fan-favorite Kirk Morrison after drafting Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston. They bring in veteran Kamerion Wimbley from Cleveland and Quentin Groves from Jacksonville and voila – an entire new linebacking corps of blood thirsty people ready to prove they can play in the NFL. Both Groves and Wimbley weren’t held very highly by their previous teams mainly due to lack of production.
With the returning players starting to gel and the breath of an entire new linebacker group, there were high expectations to stop the run game and return the Raider defense to prominence. Week one was a huge chance to show the improvement made by Oakland, with the chance to play Chris Johnson (the other one) and the run-based Tennessee Titans. This game, as well as the Texans game in week four showed Oakland’s ability to not avoid the big play. This same issue plagued them all of last season.
The current three game win streak for Oakland has seen a new type of defense, however. Having only allowed an average of 230 yards per game in the last three contests, the Raider D has been largely responsible for these wins. Shutting down the run game has been huge, especially in the win over Kansas City and their number one rushing attack after allowing a mere 104 yards on the ground at only 3.1 yards a carry. Seymour, along with Tommy Kelly have been crushing opposing offensive lines, and are a large reason the Oakland defense (and offensive line, as I feel they deserve being mentioned in this as well) are some of the most physical players in the league. All the physical talent that Al Davis relishes is finally translating into football talent.
The run defense compliments the various pass defenses that John Marshall has used this year. By blitzing early in often with his copious amounts of speed from versatile players like Scott and Mike Mitchell (I really, really love the way Mitchell plays football as a hybrid safety/OLB), he can vary his schemes outside with Asomugha and Routt (who is having a rather pleasant season after a rather lucrative deal in the offseason for first and third round tender as a restricted free agent). Huff and Branch at the safety positions still get caught with their eyes in the back field a little too often, but are starting to grow into all around solid defensive players. The new linebacking group blitzes very well, and has the speed to play inside zone and even run with some slot receivers, and Kam Wimbley has been setting the bar for sacks for these backers in this career year that he is having.
All around, this defense has a scary blend of speed and strength that allow Marshall to dial up nearly any defensive scheme and have it executed to perfection. With of the players finally playing together and as a team, it should be interesting to see how they play against Pittsburgh this week, coming off the hot streak and bye. This truly is an exciting time to be a Raiders fan. Bring on the Steelers.