Oakland Raiders: What Needs To Change?


Here we go Raider Nation, we are marching on into another week were the Raiders have absolutely no chance of winning, according to everyone. Of course, let us not forget the Raiders had a chance to beat the Jets in New Jersey and should have tied and potentially beat the Patriots on the road as well. Regardless of how these last four weeks have gone, this team has to take note from Sparano’s symbolic action and bury the beginning of this season. This is a team that has talent and can win football games, but it is time for all these parts to come together. Yes, the Raiders are facing the 4-1 Chargers, but this is not the 70’s Steelers or even the early 2000’s Broncos. Heck, I am not even sold that this is the best Chargers team of the last decade.

Forget The Opponent

Right now the Raiders need to forget about who they are facing and instead focus on who they are. The biggest issue I had with Dennis Allen was that he never brought an identity to this team. Sparano has a long history of creating teams that are aggressive and play hard. It is a simply identity, but it is one that can provide an immense amount of confidence for a team that has none. In order to get to a place where the Raiders can answer the question of “Who are we?”, they must decide on a scheme that works for them. Sparano says he will not make any “wholesale changes” to what the Raiders are doing, but success for this team does not require “wholesale changes”. Defensively the Raiders have become thin at the linebacker position with both Maiava and Roach heading to the injured reserved list. The roster moves to make up for those loses have been the additions of waived special team linebacker Ray Ray Armstrong, and free agent Jamar Chaney.

If you are not inspired by either of those moves, you are not the only Raiders fan who thinks that way. Armstrong is an ex-safety who was cut for multiple dumb special teams penalties, while Chaney was an inside linebacker for the Eagles that was drafted in round seven in 2010. Chaney is the only natural inside linebacker on the roster and will need time to learn the playbook, while Armstrong has little value outside of special teams unless it is in coverage. All in all what the Raiders have is a linebacker corps of specialists who have certain talents, but do not fit a typical scheme of sorts. The most important thing the Raiders coaching staff can do in order to make this defense work and especially the run defense, is to do all they can to prevent offensive lineman from making their way to the second level.

The Raiders run a sort of hybrid 34 defense with mixed gap control concepts, but this tact has been pretty ineffective. What has worked this year for the Raiders is creating penetration. The consequence of penetration is disruption and disruption is chaos, and what teams cannot win with, is chaos. In order for the Raiders to create chaos they need to make some slight adjustments to their scheme.

This is the basic diagram of what the Raiders run schematically. Notice the placement of the Will linebacker “W” and the opposing defensive end. In some respects they are almost symmetrical. Furthermore, the inside defenders (end, nose, and tackle) can be adjusted to line up over different offensive lineman in order to create different matchups.

What I propose is something closer to this look.  Although it principally share some concepts with the 34 hybrid the Raiders use, this fundamental shift towards a five man defensive line actually fits the personnel very well. Recently, Woodley has spend the majority of his time in a two point stance over the tight end. He has also dropped in coverage repeatedly. This formation would not eliminate that option, in fact by mugging (bringing the rushers to the line of scrimmage) the Raiders can be more deceptive to who drops in and out of coverage. In many respects this formation can act as a traditional 34 defense.

This is a traditional 34 and it is easy to see the similarities between what I am proposing and what one sees here. In the history of football defenses, the 34 defense was said to be an evolution of the 52 defense. The largest difference is a simple one. In a 52 the tackles and the nose are lined up directly over the guards and the center forcing the interior of the offensive line to block man for man against the run game. This protects the linebackers behind them and in theory guarantees them the opportunity to run and hit rather than take on blocks. The defensive ends in this defense can line up over the tackles, outside of the tackles, or wherever they want from a technique perspective in order to produce the desired outcome for a given play.

Although the changes may seem minor, they can produce an immense surge in the effectiveness of the defense because it places the players in a position that fits their skill sets. Firstly, the defensive line ideally from the right end to the left end would be Mack, McGee, Ellis, Wilson, and Woodley. The three interior players all have experience in a 34 defense and taking on interior offensive lineman. Woodley and Mack both have experience in attacking defenses and more importantly, being the guys who pinch down or pressure the outside of the pocket forcing the quarterback to step up into the interior defenders. All of those interior defenders know how to penetrate and with one on one matchups they can win those matchups.

What happens with Tuck and Smith you ask? Both of those veteran defenders need to be allowed to do what they do best and that is rush the passer. Both Smith and Tuck have proven to be effective interior pass rushers in those specific situations and by saving them for those spots and using them thirty snaps or less per game, you are guaranteed to get their best. Along with Mack and Woodley on the outsides, the Raiders can produce a solid pass rushing front four assuming they save their interior rushers (Tuck and Smith) for the times they need them the most.

And The Offense?

I heard the interview on 95.7 The Game that Tony Sparano had Damon Bruce where he made the statement that the Raiders need to run the ball more. That is fine and dandy, but the amount of times the Raiders run the ball is not the issue. What is hampering this offense is the efficiency of the running game and the only way for the Raiders to get it on track is to create positive matchups. Similarly to the defensive changes which on their face seem minute, the Raiders offense needs to focus on making Derek Carr a threat to opposing defenses. Once teams respect his abilities they will see fewer men in the box and become a more efficient running team.

During the scouting process when I examined Derek Carr, I felt he was hampered by the spread offense he played in. I continue to believe that a pure college spread does not fit what Carr does best, but it can provide the boost necessary for the Raiders to be successful. One basic principle of the spread offense is the run/pass option play. This is not an “option” in the sense that the quarterback chooses to let the running back run or he does, but rather his offensive line blocks down for a power run (generally an interior run where lanes are created from the pass threat), and based on what the defense does the quarterback can choose to allow the back to run the ball or run a pass play.

This is a principle the Eagles use to marvelous effect and it is just another way for a coordinator to allow his quarterback to manipulate the play the best way. One advantage the Raiders have is that this principle play can be run from several sets including the Pistol formation which is an offense quarterback coach John DeFillipo knows a large quantity about. Moreover, the Raiders began to show some Pistol formation in the last two weeks. What is advantageous about the Pistol is the ability for a running back to take a couple steps before being handed the ball. This allows for more power runs.

Beating the Chargers

For all of the talk about the Raiders being doomed for this game, I have seen one too many times an underdog team in the AFC West take it to the better team. There is 50 plus years of history between these teams and I believe the reports of the Raiders demise are overstated. Of course, I am the perpetual optimist, but the Raiders have shown the ability to beat Rivers over the years, including last year. The gameplan for the Raiders is very simple, frustrate Rivers. Four of his five offensive lineman are poor. This team may collectively playing well, but from a talent perspective the Raiders have the players to dominate this offensive line. Of course, the Jets one would assume have the players to dominate the Chargers up front and did not, but that performance says more about the continual chaos of Rex Ryan teams than the actual talent of the Chargers.

The Charger defense is a talented group especially in the back end, but what the Raider receivers have is height. Jones, Moore, and Holmes all have the ability to go up and attack the football in the air. Moore also provides pure speed on the outside and can be used to stretch the defense. His role was changed under Dennis Allen, but with Sparano having a tendency to want to attack vertically, I can see a case where he goes back to being the Cliff Branch sort of deep threat as opposed to a yards after catch man. The recent additions of Vincent Brown and now Kembrell Thompkins also provide some additional skills that can help the Raiders develop their approach to the passing game.

In last week’s column I showed an example of how a Sparano offense attacks all three levels of the defense. With Thompkins and Brown injected into this receiving corps, what the Raiders have added are the middle of the field threats they have lacked outside of Streater. Brown is a yards after catch man and could be used on short under routes and get the ball into his hands quickly. Thompkins looks natural running 15-22 yard in routes where he exploits space over the middle and is willing to take a hit. He also has the ability to go deep as well. It is now easy to see how the Raiders could go to a four or five receiver set and have a man testing every defensive angle. Jones goes deep seam on the right side, Holmes runs skinny post on the far left, Thompkins runs a 15 yard in from the right slot, Moore runs a wheel from the left slot, and under it all Brown runs a shallow cross as a safety valve. Only issue, Dwight Freeney. Solution? Donald Penn.

The Raiders are being hit by the injury bug, but it is something they can cope with. With Barnes being out with a leg injury, Menelik Watson will get the start. I am extremely high on Watson, but he is a project. I do not expect him to have a perfect game and he will struggle with some pass sets because he can be fooled, but he has the athleticism to run his man out the back if he is beat. Expect growing pains with Watson and expect to see plays where he makes a mistake, but he will also have plays where he makes a great block or flashes his athletic ability. This is a good Charger team the Raiders are facing this Sunday, but if there is one time for the Raiders to show they can win a game it is now.

It is impossible to estimate what motivation and some simple scheme adjustments can do for a team facing despair. After seeing Sparano’s “burying of the ball” and the reaction the team had, I think these players believe what Sparano is selling. Certain teams respond to certain kinds of coaching and this team did not respond to the laid back style of Dennis Allen, but seeing Carr as the first player to grab a shovel and Schaub right behind him, gave me hope. This team is not bad enough to go 0-16, in fact I still believe they can win sic games and I think it begins this week. Go ahead, call me a homer.

Prediction: Chargers 20, Raiders 24