Oakland Raiders biggest needs at halfway mark

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Oct 4, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett (83) runs past Oakland Raiders middle linebacker Curtis Lofton (50) during the first quarter at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Inside Linebacker

With defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. leaning on much more of a 3-4 defensive scheme, the need for two capable inside linebackers has emerged.

Coming from a 3-4 in New Orleans, veteran inside linebacker Curtis Lofton was predicted to have a relatively positive impact in the middle the Raiders’ defense. This unfortunately is not the case.

According to ESPN.com, Lofton has just 38 combined tackles through eight games, which puts him on pace to have his worst season as a pro in terms of tackles, as he is projected to have less than 80 combined tackles for the first time in his NFL career. Lofton’s lowest season total was the 94-tackle season he had during his rookie year in 2008 with the Atlanta Falcons.

Whether or not he is struggling with the new system in Oakland, Lofton’s play is simply unacceptable. He is proven liability in coverage within a defense that is already thin in the secondary, while he also ranks near the bottom in run defense. Of the 89 eligible inside linebackers, ProFootballFocus.com has Lofton listed as the No. 84 overall inside linebacker in the NFL.

Fellow free agent addition Malcolm Smith hadsn’t been quite as bad as Lofton, as Smith has been one of Oakland’s top linebackers both rushing the passer and in coverage, but he has been less reliable against the run. Given that Smith is still trying to transition from an outside linebacker position in a 4-3 to an inside linebacker spot in a 3-4, it’s important to keep expectations low early on in his development, but Smith will have to start learning to play better in Norton’s system if Oakland is going to stop the run with any consistency.

While former University of Miami (Fla) strong safety Ray-Ray Armstrong was believed to have the advantage in coverage at the linebacker position, he has seemingly struggled to meet expectations. Without a strong ability to play in the middle of Oakland’s defense, Armstrong has been forced into the rotation with Mack and Smith along the edge to attack the passer. Though he isn’t the answer for the middle of Oakland’s defense, Armstrong has had some success putting pressure on the quarterback, as PFF ranks him as the 10th-best linebacker in terms of pass rush.

Next: Filling the Need: Inside Linebacker