Oakland Raiders’ Future Coming Together Nicely

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Dec 7, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52), defensive tackle Antonio Smith (94) and defensive end Justin Tuck (91) sack San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) during the fourth quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Oakland Raiders defeated the San Francisco 49ers 24-13. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Pass Rush

One of the most important facets to a modern NFL team, if it wishes to be successful, is the ability to get after the quarterback quickly and consistently. If there is one thing the Raider defense has managed to figure out, it is how to get after the quarterback, and they have managed to get after the passer very well in two of the past three games.

The Raider defense had its best game as a pass-rushing unit on Sunday against the 49ers, recording five sacks of mobile quarterback Colin Kaepernick, despite the presence of former All-Pro guard Mike Iupati and three time All-Pro tackle Joe Staley.  The Raider pass rush sacked Kaepernick five times on the day, including three times in the crucial 4th quarter, squashing the 49ers’ hopes of a late rally. Four of the five sacks came from veteran Antonio Smith and rookie Khalil Mack, and one came from young free-agent acquisition Benson Mayowa. These three players, along with interior linebacker Sio Moore and veteran end Justin Tuck, are the heart of the Raider pass rush, accounting for 13 of the Raiders’ 18 total sacks on the season.

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  • Tuck and Smith are not long for the Raiders: Smith is 33 and Tuck is 31. It’s likely the Raiders will look to add a long-term replacement for one or both of these players in the draft this year. But both players have come on late in the year, both with their production as well as in terms of their vocal leadership. This has helped the younger players, namely Khalil Mack and Sio Moore, to develop their games. Mack was drafted in the first round this year to be the cornerstone of the Raider defense, and Moore, who was drafted in the 3rd round last year, has developed into a very consistent, active linebacker in his own right. Mack and Moore, if they can refrain from any more extended dances 20 yards downfield while opposing teams are preparing to run a play, could be one of this league’s most dangerous linebacking duos for many years to come: Moore’s aggression and passion for the game compliment Mack’s impressive athleticism and rare talent.

    Benson Mayowa, meanwhile, has been a surprise. An undrafted free agent acquisition of the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, he was waived by Seattle and landed in Oakland as LaMarr Woodley’s backup. Woodley’s season-ending triceps injury pushed Mayowa into the starting role, and he has played very well against the run and the pass, managing to log his first career sack on Sunday. Mayowa, who is a “tweener” player who sees time as a LEO end in 4-3 alignments and a weakside OLB in 3-4 alignments, he is a useful and versatile player who has been a great value for the Raiders off the waiver wire. While he is not the type of edge-rushing menace that Khalil Mack is, he has the tools and skills to be an every-down player as well, a solid bookend for the Raider defense who won’t command a massive salary cap hit.

    Another unsung hero in the Raider pass rush is rookie nose tackle Justin Ellis. Ellis, a 4th round pick out of Louisiana Tech, is a 337-pound behemoth of a man who was brought in to develop behind erstwhile starting nose tackle Pat Sims.  Ellis has managed to work his way into the starting role as the nose tackle, and with his sheer size and strength can clutter up the interior, pushing the pocket and leaving a quarterback with nowhere to step up when confronted with Mack, Mayowa, Tuck and Smith coming at him. He also can make it hard for an offensive line to pickup a blitzing Sio Moore coming from the interior, and when the whole gang is together, it’s a very difficult thing to stop. While Ellis doesn’t exactly fill up a stat sheet, he definitely fills up an A-gap, and it’s no coincidence that the Raider pass rush has been able to finish more often as Ellis has had a higher percentage of the defensive snaps. Ellis should also help shore up the Raiders deplorable run defense in years to come, something that will allow Mack, Moore and Mayowa to spend more time getting after quarterbacks.

    The pass rush is one of the keys to success as an NFL defense. Without a good pass rush, even the best secondary units in the league, with the best coverage schemes, will eventually get beat.  Good pass rushes create turnovers, create 3rd and long situations, and kill drives. The Raiders have the talent in place, both with the younger guys and with the salty old veterans who will likely be replaced in the next season or two by more young talented guys.  If the Raiders can improve against the run and young corners TJ Carrie and DJ Hayden continue to develop into quality cover corners, the Raider pass rush will have more opportunities to turn hurries into sacks and turnovers, which is the objective of any well-executed pass rush. That sort of thing wins championships.