What to Expect from Revamped Raiders Defense

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Dec 15, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles (25) catches a 71 yard touchdown pass against the Oakland Raiders in the third quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Chiefs defeated the Raiders 56-31. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Roster depth to be vastly improved 

Now, injuries, lack of depth, and overall lack of talent are all things that good coaching staffs are able to scheme around to some extent or another.  Jason Tarver’s blitz-heavy philosophy, which often involved safeties and LB’s in man coverage or a single-high safety scheme, did nothing to make up for the lack of cover skills throughout that roster.  When Tarver – or Dennis Allen – would abandon the blitz in games, the front four could not get pressure on the QB consistently (Raider defensive linemen accounted for only 15.5 sacks).

With the most cap space in the league this offseason, Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen made it a priority to reinvigorate the defense.  While allowing last year’s team sack leader and promising young star Lamarr Houston to leave in free agency, the Raiders added a number of celebrated veterans with playoff and Super Bowl experience to the lineup.  Two key additions – LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck – who are anticipated to start at the defensive ends, had more sacks combined last season (16) than the entire Raiders defensive line.  While Woodley has question marks about his ability to stay healthy (missed 14 games the last three seasons), he did tally five sacks last year, more than all but two Raiders. Justin Tuck had five more sacks last year (11) than Lamarr Houston (6).   Antonio Smith, who played right defensive end in Houston’s 3-4 system, will likely move to 3-technique tackle alongside Pat Sims. Smith, also a quality run-stopper, has had at least 4 sacks in each of the last five seasons with Houston.  Corners Carlos Rogers and Tarrell Brown are both veterans of the quality 49er defenses of the past several seasons, and look to be immediate improvements over Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins.

McKenzie also made moves in the draft that should have an instant impact on the defense.  The 7th overall pick in the draft, Khalil Mack, was widely considered the most versatile defender in the draft, a powerful linebacker with exceptional pass-rush skills who can also make plays in coverage and against the run.  Mack, who has a widely publicized “sack list” of QB’s around the league, will likely see a lot of time as the “over” Sam linebacker on 1st and 2nd downs, then as a defensive end in 3rd down passing situations.  Mack is a dream for a blitz-happy coordinator like Tarver, and will likely contribute to several new plays and schemes in the Raiders defensive playbook this year.  Keith McGill, a 4th round pick out of Utah, is a large, strong cornerback who, if he plays near his ceiling, can match up well with bigger receivers like  Demaryius Thomas, Dwayne Bowe, or Keenan Allen.  Defensive Tackle Justin Ellis, another 4th round pick, is a massive body who can eat blockers at the point of attack and clog up run lanes, and will likely rotate in as a nose/1-tech defensive tackle with Pat Sims and Stacy McGee.  Seventh-round pick Shelby Harris may wind up making the 53-man roster as well, and could find himself rotating in as either a 3-technique or a strongside defensive end.  Safety Jonathan Dowling, the Raiders final draft pick of 2014, faces an uphill battle in making the 53-man roster this year, although if he lives up to his college reputation as a hard hitter, he may earn a spot on special teams, at least initially.

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  • On paper, the Raiders have dramatically improved on the defensive side of the ball, in terms of starting talent as well as depth. The addition of Mack to a linebacker corps that includes solid veterans Nick Roach and Kevin Burnett (the Raiders leading and second-leading tacklers in 2013) as well as talented second-year man Sio Moore will allow Jason Tarver to move guys around and send blitzes from a variety of places (Roach, Burnett and Moore accounted for 12.5 sacks last year), and we can expect more consistent pressure from the front four with the additions of Woodley, Smith and especially Tuck.  Woodley’s linebacker pedigree (he was a 3-4 rush linebacker his entire career in Pittsburgh) adds another dimension of flexibility to the front seven. The addition of Smith, Ellis and free agents Torell Troup and CJ Wilson to go along with Pat Sims and Stacy McGee will undoubtedly improve an already capable run defense and give the Raiders a deep interior defensive line rotation, along with more versatility in that group, as well.