Why the Oakland Raiders are struggling with run defense


In now two consecutive games the Oakland Raiders have allowed opposing teams to torch their defense on the ground. Just one week after Oakland allowed Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams to carry the ball 27 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns, Minnesota Vikings back Adrian Peterson turned 26 carries into 206 yards and a touchdown. The Raiders lost both games to bring their record to 4-5 on the season.

Though in recent years the Raiders’ defense has been considered among the worst in the NFL against the run, there was a point in 2015 where Oakland’s run defense ranked near the top in the NFL. Before taking on Williams in Week 9, the Raiders’ allowed just 83 yards per game on average, which then had their defense as the No. 2 run defense in the league. Since then, Oakland has plummeted down the rankings with back-to-back performances against Pittsburgh and Minnesota, and as a result, Oakland is now giving up an average of 115.3 yards per game, the 10th-most in the NFL.

This brings us to the question, what has happened to Oakland’s run defense?

Shortly after Oakland’s 38-35 loss to Pittsburgh, Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. addressed the Raiders’ inability to contain Williams and how they could improve before taking on Peterson in Minnesota.

“We really pride ourselves on our defense stopping the run and staying on top, and they really attacked the things that we thought we did well,” Norton said, via Raiders.com. “So we have to really get back to our fundamentals, really get back to the things that we do best and we spend that time this week to really come back to who we are.”

In terms of the Raiders’ fundamentals, Norton is referencing that it is imperative for Oakland to get back to being efficient tacklers in space and disciplined in gap control. Against Pittsburgh, Oakland allowed Williams to cut back across the defense due to poor effort in the backside gaps. On top of that, the Raiders’ linebackers and secondary struggled to make tackles at the second level early and often. With that being said, Williams was able to put together long, positive gains on nearly every carry. Williams averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

With Peterson’s stat line telling most of the story, it’s safe to say Oakland didn’t get back to their fundamentals in Week 10. Though the Raiders’ defense did a seemingly better job tackling the ball carrier in comparison to their performance against Williams, Peterson still broke a number of tackles and pushed the pile for solid gains after initial contact. Raiders defensive back Neiko Thorpe made the most recognizable missed tackle in Sunday’s game, as he allowed Peterson to blow through him on the outside for an 80-yard touchdown that sealed Oakland’s fate late in the fourth quarter.

Oakland maintained gap control for the most part, but it was their inability to properly get off blocks that ultimately allowed Peterson to break off respectable gains nearly every time he touched the ball.

As for the personnel responsible for Oakland’s recent struggles, most of the blame falls on linebackers Malcolm Smith and Curtis Lofton, for the Raiders’ defensive line and edge-rushers have actually played quite well against the run. For example, nose tackle Dan Williams and edge-rusher Khalil Mack are the anchors within Oakland’s front seven, as Williams is considered the 13th overall defensive tackle against the run and Mack has graded out as the No. 1 edge defender against the run, via ProFootballFocus.com.

Justin Ellis and rookie Mario Edwards Jr. haven’t been quite as successful in the ground game, but their struggles pale in comparison to what Smith and Lofton have failed to accomplish at the second level.

In Oakland’s most recent performance against Minnesota, Smith received a -5.7 grade from ProFootballFocus.com.

“Smith was moved aside or swallowed up on run plays on 14 separate occasions – simply too much for the defense’s leading snap-getter to absorb,” Rick Drummond of PFF.com said.

Though Smith began the season as one of Oakland’s top offseason additions, his inability to get the job done as a run defender is starting to be a significant factor in the Raiders’ losses. While Smith has proven to be more than capable in coverage, his run defense ranks near the bottom in the NFL among all linebackers.

Lofton, on the other hand, hasn’t proven to be capable in either facet of the game, as he is considered as the 88th overall linebacker among 91 eligible candidates, via ProFootballFocus.com. To put it simply, Oakland must look for a quick fix that doesn’t involve Lofton in the starting lineup if they want to have more success defensively moving forward.

As the season presses on, head coach Jack Del Rio and Norton must push to solve their problems against the run, for their woes in the passing game are already too much to overcome. Oakland has allowed the second-most passing yards per game this season, via NFL.com.

With Lofton continuing to play at a poor level, one step in the right direction could be to insert rookie inside linebacker Ben Heeney into the starting lineup. As a fifth-round pick, Heeney didn’t quite have the size or block shedding ability coming out of the University of Kansas to earn a high draft grade, but his instincts and effort on the field often allowed him to make plays that other linebackers simply couldn’t. According to NFL.com, Heeney tied as the preseason’s leading tackler with 27.

Though Oakland would assumedly be taking a step forward with Heeney being moved up the depth chart, the Raiders are involuntarily taking a step in the opposite direction with the loss of Aldon Smith. According to ESPN.com, Smith has been suspended for one year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Smith had earned the 13th-best grade against the run among all NFL edge-defenders through Week 10, via ProFootballFocus.com.

Third-year outside linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong is expected to replace Smith come Sunday, and though Smith has had a considerable amount of success rushing the passer, Armstrong is significantly worse against the run in comparison to Smith.

Without another viable replacement worth subbing in over Oakland’s other inside linebacker Smith, Norton will have to work towards improving his ability to get off the block as he continues to adapt to his new inside linebacker role. Smith previously played outside linebacker in a 4-3 defensive scheme with Seattle before moving inside in Oakland’s 3-4 base defense.

Oakland is set to take on the Detroit Lions (2-7) on the road in what should be considered a must-win situation for the Silver and Black, and though Detroit’s rushing offense shouldn’t be a problem for Oakland, it could give them an opportunity to test a few roster changes or input some new packages. The Lions have the league’s worst rushing offense in the NFL, as they are averaging less than 67 yard per game and 3.4 yards per carry, via NFL.com.

Expect Del Rio and company to study the film and self-evaluate their play over the past two weeks in order to make the necessary adjustments for Oakland’s defense to again have success against the run. Though inserting new players into the starting lineup or making drastic formation changes can come off as a sign of desperation, changing nothing and expecting a different result simply won’t make the cut in this league.