Back to the Bay is a weekly column every Thursday from Just Blog Baby Podcast cohost Rory Anderson. For more of Rory’s Raiders analysis tune into the Just Blog Baby Podcast every week on BlogTalkRadio.com
Every team has an identity. In many cases this can be one word that sums it up in great detail as to how each team plays football. Well that is to say, every team but the Raiders. For several reasons this Raiders team has no identity. It has no distinct characteristic that tells you how the team plays football. Right now one may be able to say injured but many teams are banged up. In reality the Raiders are a riddle wrapped in an enigma and they have yet to find their soul and make a statement telling everyone who they are. This primarily comes from the inconsistent offense, but the defense at the same time is also unsettled. Well, unsettled may not be the right word. More like, in transition. This whole team is in transition, but if they want to win they have to find an identity ASAP.
This has been a topic that I have covered at length, but due to a recent roster shakeup, it needs to be mentioned one more time. Today the Raiders added outside linebacker Martez Wilson who was waived from the Saints on Tuesday. Wilson was drafted in the third round in 2011 and was viewed as a highly athletic and versatile linebacker/defensive end prospect. Wilson seemed like an enticing fit for a Gregg Williams system, but he rarely saw the field his rookie year. In his second season he played under Spagnula who had a hall of fame terrible defense. Wilson first played outside linebacker, but after a few games he was put into the defensive end rotation and allowed to rush the passer. He is 6’4 and he weighs 254 pounds. He has the natural body type to be a pass rushing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. He has the speed to get around the edge and the strength to push through offensive tackles in a bull rush. Wilson is very raw and needs some fine tuning, but his raw talent is exceptional and it really is intriguing that the Saints would let him go.
Last season Wilson saw 274 snaps and graded out as a -0.1 by Pro Football Focus. Although he was a -1.4 against the run he had some very solid performances. His worst game came as a strong side linebacker in a 4-3 scheme against the Chiefs when Jamaal Charles had an amazing statement game. The other games he did not have a score against the run because he became a part time player and only played on pass downs.
Speaking of those, he had a 3.2 score in pass rushing and in his 274 snaps, he recorded three sacks, five quarterback hits, and 16 pressures. This season, Wilson has played on 42 snaps recording one sack, one pressure, and one quarterback hit. It would make sense that Wilson would thrive in a Rob Ryan style 3-4 defense, but he became expendable once the Saints added outside linebacker Parys Haralson who is playing very well this season.
John Hendrix writing for the fansided.com Saints blog “Who Dat Dish” stated that the Rams were taking a hard look at practice squad quarterback Ryan Griffin now that Sam Bradford tore his ACL. This makes sense considering how well Griffin played in the preseason and how desperate the Rams are now for a quarterback. What interests me, is why the Saints chose to waive Wilson. There is no evidence that the Saints were unhappy with his production and they expected a great deal of interest to come his way one the waiver wire. Furthermore, the Saints are now carrying five inside linebackers and three outside backers. It seems that Rob Ryan is deviating far from a typical 3-4 defense and instead is running a hybrid concept allowing Cameron Jordan to penetrate while treating one of his linebackers more as a defensive end rather than a linebacker. When looking at the Saints depth chart, it makes a great deal of sense why they chose to move on from Wilson just based on what they want to do even though it is a little surprising they decided not to waive one of their five running backs especially Mark Ingram.
From a Raiders perspective, this is a great speculative add and it seems to enhance the notion that the Raiders will continue to build more towards 3-4 principles rather than 4-3 principles. Remember, a defense is not described essentially by the personnel that is on the field although the names of a defense seem to perpetuate that idea, it is instead based upon the principles utilized by the defense within its scheme. Wade Phillips’ Cowboys were a perfect example of this. They lined up in what was a “3-4” defense, but Demarcus Ware rushed the passer on almost every play and the undersized nose tackle Jay Ratliff was actually one gapping meaning he was penetrating trying to get to the quarterback in a Warren Sapp type of way rather than two gapping as a normal nose tackle would. Usually defensive lineman in a 3-4 hold the point of attack, eat up blocks, and make a move towards a gap when the ball carrier comes their way. This is the polar opposite of a 4-3 defense in principle, but that’s what the Cowboys did.
Similarly, the Seahawks run a 4-3 under defense, but in many respects it operates as a 3-4. The same goes for Dennis Allen’s defense in Denver when he had Dumervil and Von Miller both coming off the edges with the other three defensive linemen two gapping and pushing blockers back rather than penetrating. Have you ever wondered why the “46 defense” is called what it is even though it has the exact same personnel as a 4-3? If you do, it is because the principles are different.
The Raiders currently run a hybrid defense where they move in between 3-4 and 4-3 principles regularly depending on the situation, but the personnel on this team would be better suited in a 3-4 defense. Having the group of (right to left) Lamar Houston, Pat Sims, and Vance Walker as the three down lineman and a deep group of linebackers that they could mix and match depending on the situation would fit very well. It is not far from what they do now. They could have Hunter in on run downs, use Burnett and Burriss inside and out, and place Sio Moore or Wilson wherever they choose. It should not be expected that such a change happens now or that Wilson will even be a large contributor immediately even though he has the athleticism to do so, but it does raise the question of why Reggie McKenzie cut Christo Bilukidi and not Juron Criner as everyone expected.
What makes most sense based on his play is that Bilukidi would be unfit in a 3-4 scheme or principles because he was having issues using leverage and taking on blocks. He mostly was a penetrator in college and he failed to hold his own at the point of attack, a key in a 3-4. This is all speculation, but this defense is far from being complete and finding the right mix of players to make the scheme work is essential. If Wilson comes into Oakland willing to work and learn, he will have an opportunity to be activated frequently and make an impact.
There isn’t a single phase of the football in more flux than the offense. Injuries to the offensive line wreaked havoc on the Raiders in Kansas City last week, but the Raiders are getting an important lineman back this week. Center Stefan Wisniewski has been back to practice and he will be essential for success against the Steelers. It will be his duty to call out protections and ensure that the lineman know their protections on every play. Although Wisniewski has a tendency at time to struggle with leverage, he is very smart and knows football. In order to beat Dick Labeau’s complex zone blitz scheme a team needs a smart center to ensure the plays are blocked properly. The Raiders are unsure about Gurode and Pashos which means there is a good chance Lucas Nix will be starting at left guard again. They have also ruled out Menelik Watson and Jared Veldheer cannot be activated until next week. That means the Raiders may be forced to go into this game with only six active linemen which could be disastrous.
Beyond the offensive line there is the matter of the scheme. Terrelle Pryor is athletic, but against popular perception, he did not run the option at Ohio State so all of these plays are new to him. I have spent weeks in this column saying that offensive coordinator Greg Olson needs to let Pryor be Ben Roethlisberger. This is not Darren McFadden’s offense and he needs to stop pretending that it is. This is Pryor’s offense and they should throw the ball 60 percent of the time even if a considerable number of those are screen plays or short routes.
Pryor has struggled at times with the short passing game, but this should be an area where he and Olson should have worked hard to be on the same page with during the bye week. If it were my choice, I would have Pryor in the pistol every down. That does not mean I would run option every play that would go against my point. The pistol is a formation that combines the best of normal sets and the shotgun to create a formation that allows the quarterback to view the defense without backpedaling and have a running back behind him getting steam before he gets the ball. What is most important is that the Raiders coaches decide to entirely turn over the reins of this offense to Pryor.
This may be a scary concept to some, but this isn’t Al Davis’ NFL and he had the foresight to know that the league was changing when he drafted Pryor. It is not about the option, it is about the quarterback. The best offenses in this league are lead first and foremost by the quarterback and they live and die based on what the quarterback does. The Raiders have been unable to run the ball because Olson has been too timid to turn the offense over to Pryor and instead has force fed Darren McFadden in a run first scheme. Insanity is doing the same action over and over again expecting a different result every time. The Raiders have few options to solve their offensive woes, but their best one is standing right in front of them and it is time to let him work. Yes his offensive line is injured, but not every pass has to be a deep one. Utilizing Marcel Reece and Mychal Rivera in the short passing game over the middle would be a great safety valve. The same can be said about McFadden. The Raiders have offensive talent, and it is time they abandon the traditional ways of getting these players involved and instead think outside the box utilizing some college concepts and a short rhythm passing game.
Last year the Raiders were outplayed by a superior football team, but they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. This year both teams are drastically different. The Steelers have found a running game with the rookie Bell and have a more tempered short passing game which has allowed Antonio Brown to thrive. Defensively, the Steelers are a strange bunch. According to Pro Football Focus, the Steelers defense ranks 23rd in the NFL while the Raiders are 28th overall. In run defense the Raiders have an 8.4 rating while the Steelers have a -16.9. The big difference comes in pass where the Steelers have a -4.0 and the Raiders have a -18.8. What may be the most shocking rating is the Steelers2.8 rating in pass rush while the Raiders have a -20.0 even though the Raiders have twice as many sacks. The only real conclusion is that the Steelers may get a more consistent pass rush even if it is not converting to sacks.
Offensively, both teams are best passing the ball and although the Raiders struggle with run blocking, the Steelers struggle with pass blocking. When reviewing the Steelers tape from last week’s game against the Ravens, it was apparent that the Steelers were lacking talent at the offensive tackle position and with the injuries; the same can be said for the Raiders. Luckily for the Raiders, they will have their starting center back while the Steelers lost Pouncey for the season. Watching the tape, it was noticeable to see how the Steelers compensated for their interior line issues in pass blocking. They consistently used double teams inside leaving their tackles on islands against solid pass rushers and they consistently gave up pressure although there was always a spot for Big Ben to step up into.
The Raiders will have to take advantage of this allowing Houston and Sio Moore to take advantage of the potential one on one situation. Furthermore, it should also be expected that Tarver activate either linebackers or defensive backs on delayed rushes up the middle to prevent Roethlisberger from hitting his spot. The Steelers want to dink and dunk if possible and the Raiders will give up yardage underneath, but Roethlisberger like Phillip Rivers will give you opportunities to make plays against him and intercept passes.
On the offense, the Raiders need to keep track of Troy Polomalu who may be older, but he can still be a nuisance. It would make sense for the Raiders to get out of traditional personnel groups and formations that allow the Steelers defense to use its base blitz packages. Whether the Raiders use 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) or 12 personnel flexing a tight end into the slot or even 21 personnel putting Reece in the slot or outside, they will gain an advantage by forcing the defense to compensate and show their hand early. Motions can also accomplish this goal. The best way the Raiders can attack is through the air getting the inside linebackers to drop and the outside linebackers to rush up field, and then hit them with screens and draws. This has the potential to be much more effective than going toe to toe with the Steelers in a power run game and it was how the Ravens gashed the Steelers at times. Opening these run lanes will be essential for balance but it requires Pryor to get in a rhythm early. Lastly, the Raiders must watch left outside linebacker Lamar Woodley. Dick Leabeau is sure to use him similarly to how the Chiefs used Houston in week six and have him spy Pryor not allowing him to scramble to his right. Expect heavy blitzing at Barnes and Nix on the left who have struggled with it (especially Nix), so they can flush Pryor towards Woodley and get some sacks. The key is finding the open zones where the blitz came from. This is where the short passing game is essential.
This Raiders football team is much more talented than it was last year. The additions of Porter, Hayden, and Jenkins in the secondary have given Jason Tarver the assets he needed to open up the playbook and bring pressure through activating players. This is a distinct advantage that the Raiders did not have last year. Lamar Houston has the opportunity to have a very solid game and because Ben Roethlisberger will hold onto the ball he could get multiple sacks. What is essential is solid coverage to go along with a consistent pass rush which means DJ Hayden is going to have to continue to grow and play better against Antonio Brown. If you have not read my statistical breakdown of DJ Hayden you should and here is the link
The Raiders are a team that will be in football games. It is a small tragedy that they are still so beat up on the offensive line and the news on Thursday is Wisniewski is good to go for Sunday, Pashos is working off to the side, and Watson is still out. At some point a decision must be made on Watson possibly heading to injured reserve, but they must expect something from him if they haven’t made that move yet. At this point it is all speculation. Greg Olson has to get this team prepared to play with an injured offensive line and get the ball out of Pryor’s hands quickly. Lastly, Pryor must be better with clock management. Many things went wrong in Kansas City, but there is no reason for multiple delay of game penalties due to not knowing and watching the play clock. The Raiders can win this game and frankly they need to if they want any shot at the playoffs or even a winning season this year.