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Steelers Film Room: Oakland Raiders Defensive Scouting Report

This year, Jon Ledyard and I will be collaborating our scouting reports. We’ll play to our strengths – he’ll be focusing on the individuals while I’ll be looking at overall scheme. These reports will be broken down into two articles, one for offense and one for defense.

Our reports for the Oakland Raiders‘ offense.

ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT:

The Raiders have a relatively low 14 sacks this season but they’re getting it from a lot of different places. Eight different Raiders have at least one full sack.

Malcolm Smith, former Super Bowl MVP who faded from the spotlight, is doing it all for them. Leads the team with 56 tackles, has three sacks, four pass deflections, and one interception.

Charles Woodson is 39 freakin’ years old and leads the entire NFL with five interceptions. He’s also playing a whopping 96% of his defense’s snaps. Absolutely bonkers.

As a defense, they have allowed only 18 runs of 10+ yards, tied for the ninth least in football. They have allowed some explosive plays against the pass, 29 gaining 20 or more yards. That’s 7th most.

It’s a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense so calling a guy like Khalil Mack a defensive end is a little misleading. But he’s technically counted as such in the snap count and is the only defensive lineman to play over 50% of the season’s snaps. They have five other DL between 40 and 50% of snaps. It is worth pointing out that rookie Mario Edwards Jr. has routinely seen a majority of snaps since Week Four.

Like I alluded to, they’re a hybrid defense. Some 3-4 and 4-3 looks. Just a matter if they decide to play guys like Aldon Smith and Mack with their hand up or down. They do a nice job of moving those guys around, seeing time at both end spots.

In the secondary, in their base, D.J. Hayden serves as the LCB and David Amerson as the RCB. When the Raiders go nickel. Hayden will slide to the slot, Amerson to LCB, and nickelback Neiko Thorpe at RCB.

Last week against the New York Jets, it appeared T.J. Carrie and Larry Asante rotated series at safety opposite Woodson. Asante started and slightly out-snapped Carrie 67-54. We’ll see what the rotation is like this week.

There aren’t a lot of household names here but there is talent. Even for a football-junkie like Jon and me, we don’t know the background on a lot of these guys. Feels like the normal Raiders went on strike or something. Shane Falco should be their QB.

A guy like Ray Ray Armstrong was once an interesting name in college when he played at The U before getting dismissed, trying to attend tiny Faulkner College, never playing there, and becoming a UDFA.

They’re a little unusual along the defensive line with their technique. They’ll play their nose tackle and their strong side end head up on the center and the tackle. Usually teams play with a shade but the Raiders show a true nose.

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Watching the last two weeks, they weren’t a blitz-heavy team. The most chaotic things they do are stunt their ends up the A gap on 3rd and medium. Here it is once vs the San Diego Chargers and again versus the Jets a week later.

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They will occasionally bring their linebackers up the middle but there’s nothing of note to report.

Against the Chargers, they preferred to roll up their SS over #2 in 11 personnel, showing a single high safety and letting them stay in their base. A relatively unusual choice but that may have been game-plan specific. The next week vs the Jets, they did a 180, showing several dime packages with a nickel corner (Thorpe) and a third safety (Carrie) as the actual dime defender. I’d guess they gameplan like the latter given the Steelers’ weapons but we’ll see. It’ll be interesting how they defend it.

I’d consider their defensive coverage to primarily be Cover 1 (man-free). They run variations, like every team, but like a true Al Davis team, they want to play man.

Oakland Special Teams: 

Their two gunners last week were both offensive players – wide receiver Andre Holmes and running back Taiwan Jones. Safety Larry Asante is the upback. They have not faked any punts or kick this season and have not appeared to do so over the last three years.

One interesting nugget to leave you with since there isn’t a fun fake alert. The Raiders have some curiously wide splits on their punt coverage team. More than I’m used to seeing. Creates some natural lanes and though they haven’t had a punt blocked this year, the Chargers came close.

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For comparison, here is the Steelers’ punt unit. Much tighter splits. I’d attack those A gaps, Danny Smith.

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JON’S INDIVIDUAL SCHEME: 

The Raiders defense is a little bit of a tough unit to figure out. There are plenty of weaknesses here to take advantage of, as individually they lack talent in many key areas, but Oakland’s defense has showed off the ability to be opportunistic all season long. 12 forced turnovers is a solid mark (the league leader is Philly with 19), and eight interceptions have helped negate the fact that the Raiders secondary is being gashed for over 302 yards per game through the air. Only the Giants are allowing more passing yards per game in the entire NFL.

The ageless Charles Woodson has snagged five interceptions this season to lead the NFL at 39 years old, all while playing 96 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Oakland asks him to play single-high a good bit, where his route diagnosis, ball skills, and range are easily among the best in the league.

Woodson playing centerfield here, just reads the quarterback and breaks on the ball as soon as Geno Smith’s throwing motion begins. Pass never has a chance to reach its mark. Did the exact same thing to Peyton Manning in Week 5 against Denver too. If you’re throwing vertical routes with Woodson in zone coverage on the back end, better include a pump fake or a route combination to stress his read. If he gets a clean break on the ball, its dangerous.

The Raiders corners are nothing special. David Amerson has the size and physicality you want in a corner, but has clunky footwork and isn’t quick enough to match receivers in Antonio Brown’s mold. The Redskins actually waived him two weeks into the season, and Amerson was snapped up by the Raiders quickly. Unusual for a team to give up on a second round pick entering just his third season, but Amerson was struggling mightily in Washington.

D.J. Hayden is more fluid and probably faster, but his instincts aren’t great and he can be fooled by great route runners. Emmanuel Sanderstoasted him on a double-move in Week 5, as Hayden jumped the first break and got caught.

Sanders has become a great route runner, and he frankly destroyed both Amerson and Hayden throughout the game with top-notch footwork. Here’s Amerson opening the gate to the boundary while Sanders stems inside on the post route.

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Ball goes elsewhere, but Amerson is grossly out of position. So in answer to your unspoken question, yes, Brown could have a field day.

The Raiders will often stay in their base defense against 11 personnel, simply moving Travis Carrie over to the slot from his safety position and leaving Woodson single-high. Typically Amerson will play on the right side with Hayden on the left, but against three and four-receiver sets Hayden will often kick inside to the slot, while Amerson moves over to the left outside spot and Neiko Thorpe will come in and man the right outside cornerback position. They’ll even bring in a third safety in Larry Asante for a dime 3-2-6 look with Carrie and Hayden in the slots, Amerson and Thorpe outside, and Asante and Woodson the safeties.

The long and short of it is that Amerson and Thorpe aren’t ideal man cover guys. They’ll slip their hips early, they struggle to get out of their pedal, and they’ll give up underneath separation with their poor footwork. Both are long guys who will contest flighted balls, but they simply aren’t fluid enough to hang with quicker, speedier receivers. Expect to see Pittsburgh force Oakland into nickel packages early and often, leaving their best corner in the slot to deal with Markus Wheaton, while asking Thorpe and Amerson to deal with Brown and Martavis Bryant. Also betting Bryant gets some run in the slot as well, as they’ll try and get the overaggressive Hayden on a double-move or two.

As a pass rushing unit, the Raiders have just 14 sacks on the season, a decent number that certainly won’t turn any heads. Khalil Mack is quite easily the best player on the Oakland defense, not only as a pass rusher but also as a run defender and even in coverage. You name it, Mack can do it at a high level.

The instincts to find the football followed by the quickness to evade multiple blockers is just uncanny, then send a message by tackling a powerful back in Chris Ivory up high and dropping him. Mack is scary agile in space, and can set the boundary as well as any edge defender in the NFL. Physical, violent, and utilizes his upper half extremely well to work off of blockers when he is engaged.

As a pass rusher, Mack is only slightly less fearsome. Just a sick move to rip under Kyle Long’s punch and bend the edge, forcing Cutler to step up into Aldon Smith’s arms for the sack. Mack is becoming very efficient with his hands, but really it is his explosiveness off the snap that makes him so dangerous. Just brutal for any offensive tackle to have to deal with that type of athleticism.

Amazingly that was Smith’s first full sack of the season, carrying just 1.5 sacks into Sunday’s showdown against the Steelers. Smith doesn’t look as explosive off the ball, but he still has that incredibly long reach and the ability to disengage from blocks in a flash, when he feels so motivated. Should be an interesting test of length and punch power between he and Alejandro Villanueva.

Steady rotation of guys on the defensive line interior for Oakland, must of whom you’ve never heard of. None play more than half of the Raiders defensive snaps, as the loss of Justin Tuck eliminates easily the team’s best interior pass-rushing threat. Mario Edwards, Denico Autry, Stacy McGee, and Dan Williams all rotate along the defensive front, with Justin Ellis, C.J. Wilson, and Benson Mayowa seeing the occasional snap as well. Because the Raiders will play multiple fronts, they’ve tried to acquire players with some versatility to their game. Most of these guys can play multiple techniques, but none are even slightly impressive as pass rushers, with just 1.5 sacks among the entire seven-man crew this season. They’ll work hard, push the pocket, and stay fresh in the rotation. None seem to be pushed around easily at the point of attack however, space-eating to free up the Raiders linebackers to make plays consistently.

Like most of the Oakland defense, the Raiders linebacking corps is a bunch of no-name guys as well. Malcolm Smith, the former Seattle backup linebacker who won the Super Bowl MVP two years ago, is the star of the group and leads the team in tackles with 56, 20 more than Hayden, the next closest defender. Smith is playing 98.3 percent of the unit’s snaps, far more than Aldon Smith, the next closest linebacker at 76 percent. He’s the ideal athlete with above average instincts and the quickness to beat blockers at the point of attack. Because Smith struggles to get off blocks at times, he relies on his footwork to place him in position for stops, which will occasionally lead to working out of position, especially against cutback runners. He’s a very good coverage linebacker who plays in all situations, the only linebacker on the team to do so.

Curtis Lofton is a limited athlete who lacks fluidity and struggles mightily in space. Pro Football Focus has him as one of the worst coverage linebackers in the NFL, a trend throughout his career. Unfortunately Neiron Ball’s injuries have kept Lofton in the starting lineup, and likely will again this Sunday. Ray Ray Armstrong will replace him on obvious passing downs at times, but the highly athletic linebacker is undersized and still extremely raw. Its actually remarkable that the Raiders are 2nd in the league in run defense, allowing just 82.9 yards per game. The high ranking likely has more to do with how easily teams can shred them through the air than how dominate Oakland defends the run, but the mark is impressive nonetheless.

The Raiders defense has been well below average on third down, allowing teams to convert 42 percent of the time. Worth noting that opponents have also converted six of eight fourth down attempts against Oakland as well, one of the worst percentages in the league. They don’t commit many defensive penalties, just 50 on the season, tied for the ninth best number in the NFL.

Punter Marquette King has dropped 12 of 28 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard line. He’s got a monster leg, dropping a 60+ yard punt every year he’s been in the NFL. This year he has already hit a career long of 70 yards, but King will suffer the occasional mis-hit. Three season into his career, King has never attempted a pass or run on a fake before.

The Raiders have only allowed 63 yards on punt returns, so their coverage unit has done a fantastic job. Gunners Andre Holmes and Taiwan Jones have done a great job, both long striders who can cover a lot of ground quickly and break down astutely in space. The longest punt return allowed by the Raiders this season? A measly 18 yards.

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