The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the Raiders Defense in 2016

Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) reacting after stopping Houston Texans wide receiver Will Fuller (15) in the back field during the first half of the AFC Wild Card football game between the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders at NRG Stadium in Houston. 

If you are reading this you were likely frustrated with the way the Oakland Raiders defense played in 2016.

The team signed linebacker Bruce Irvin, safety Reggie Nelson, cornerback Sean Smith to team friendly but still expensive contracts.  The hope was that the team could improve on a defense that ranked 22nd in the league the season before.  In 2015, the Raiders defense gave up 363.6 yards per game, and surrendered the 11th most points in the league (399).  They sacked opposing quarterback’s 38 times, which ranked 14th in the league, and they were 26th in pass defense with 258.8 yards surrendered per game.  Oakland finished 13th in run defense (104.9 yards per game) to complement their weak pass defense.  Improvement was needed and Jack Del Rio decided to keep all of the coaching staff to preserve continuity.  Preseason predictions by NFL experts and writers showed that many of them expected the Raiders to improve on their 2015 numbers.

As we know that didn’t happen.  These hopes seemed to play out during the Raiders first defensive series against the New Orleans Saints.  Drew Brees started off with two incomplete passes.  Then, Bruce Irvin powered his way into the Saints backfield to strip sack Brees and the Raiders recovered the fumble.  Oakland settled for a field goal but for the rest of the game Drew Brees and the Saints receivers were unstoppable.  Brees torched the Raiders defense for 423 yards and 4 touchdowns.  The game was a microcosm of the Raiders entire 2016 season on defense.

There were positives too and this article will seek to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

THE GOOD

#1: Mack and Irvin: Khalil Mack had another great season and he made the Pro Bowl despite having a small drop in his sack statistics.  Still he powered in for 11.0 sacks and he brought consistent pressure all season.  His performance in the Carolina Panther game is a good microcosm of how dominate he can be and why so many teams double team him consistently.  Mack has a pick six, he registered 6 tackles, 1 forced fumble and 1 sack.

During the season he recorded a career high in forced fumbles with 5 and he just missed establishing a new career high in tackles.  Mack played injured during the playoff game against Houston but despite the injury he was constantly pressuring their quarterback.  After the season a few fans complained about Mack’s lack of sack production following Derek Carr’s injury.  However, he still finished the year with 44% of the entire teams sack production in 2016 and only Bruce Irvin was close to matching Mack’s sack totals.

Bruce Irvin took some time adjusting to the Raiders defensive scheme despite playing in the same scheme in Seattle.  Irvin finished second on the team with 7 sacks and he forced opponents to fumble six times.  He led the league in strip sack fumbles and he finished fifth on the team in tackles.  Interestingly enough, every single one of his sacks occurred in a Raiders win.

Both Mack and Irvin started all 16 games and their combined 18.0 sacks accounts for 72% of the Raiders 2016 team total of 25.  Without a doubt they were the most statistically successful players on a Raiders defense that struggled mightily all year.

#2 Turnovers: The Raiders defense finished second in the league with 30 turnovers.  The Kansas City Chiefs led the way with 32 total turnovers.  Oakland recovered 14 fumbles which ranked second only to the Chiefs who had 15.  Oakland’s forced 21 fumbles which ranked second only to the Cardinals.  Only 8 teams had more interceptions than the Raiders (16).  To be fair, the struggling Raider defense did come up with important turnovers when it counted.  The two games against San Diego come to mind when considering that fact.  In two games against San Diego the Raiders forced 3 total turnovers in two very close games against their AFC West rivals.  Turnovers in the games against Carolina and Tampa Bay were also very critical to the Raiders cause because both teams were looking to extend leads when the Raiders defense stepped up.

#3 Reggie Nelson

Reggie did not start the season well but he settled down and he turned out to be the best defensive back that the Raiders possessed statistically in 2016.  The 33-year old was signed to replace Charles Woodson but as all Raider fans know it is nearly impossible to replace Charles Woodson.  However, Nelson performed well after the first three games and Raiders coach jack Del Rio has voiced that Nelson has been a positive influence both on the field and in the clubhouse. “He’s been a tremendous addition to our football team,” Del Rio stated recently. “He just loves ball. He loves life. He always has a smile. He’s a great teammate. He’s been a good leader for us.”  Nelson led the 2016 Raiders with 5 interceptions and he also added 2 fumble recoveries which accounted for 23% of the Raiders 30 takeaways.  Only David Amerson had more pass defections (16) to Nelson’s 12 and Reggie finished fourth on the team in total tackles with 50.  The 2016 Raiders defense did not gain much yardage after they picked off opponents passes  Reggie returned his interceptions for 74 yards which once again led the entire team.

THE BAD

#1 David Amerson & Sean Smith

Raiders history is loaded with great combos at cornerback.  Lester Hayes paired up with Mike Haynes and Willie Brown paired up with Skip Thomas.  Even the early 1990s combo of Lionel Washington and Terry McDaniel was a deadly combo and later the pairing of Charles Woodson and Eric Allen was dominant.  After 16 games together the combo of Sean Smith and Davis Amerson has failed to live up to the lofty reputation of their predecessors in silver and black.

Sean Smith was heavily criticized by Jack Del Rio after being beaten several times during the playoff game against Houston.  Smith was beaten inside for a touchdown (although it appeared that he expected inside help) but that was pretty much a microcosm of his entire year.  There was a stretch around midseason that he performed better but for the most part that came against teams who possess lesser talent at wide receiver.

He was also lit up several times by the opposition.  Phillip Rivers, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Brock Osweiler repeatedly looked his way when they wanted to completed passes and for the most part Smith obliged.  He surely wasn’t the same bust that Larry Brown once was for the Raiders but there were times that he sure looked like it.

David Amerson wasn’t much better than Smith.  In 2015 he played so well that the Raiders organization rewarded him by extending his deal and Raider fans felt that they had found their next great cornerback.  If 2016 is any indication, both the Raiders and their fans might be incorrect in that assumption.  When Smith wasn’t getting torched it was Amerson.  The Oakland defense gave up 61 plays of 20 yards or more and this combo was a big part of that. Del Rio called out the entire defensive backfield after the season for giving up too many big plays and Amerson was one of those players.  Del Rio didn’t name names but surely he meant Smith and Amerson.

To be fair the Raiders defense struggled in pass rushing situations and no one can expect a cornerback to maintain coverage forever.  Even if the 2016 Raiders had Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes they likely would have still struggled.

#2 Where are the sacks?

The 2016 Raiders defense finished the season ranked dead last in sacks (25.0) and lost yardage as a result of sacks (147).  With both Mack and Irvin on the roster it is very shocking that this occurred.  However, Mack and Irvin accounted for 18 of the Raiders 25 sacks and one could reasonably argue that they did their part.  Other players had to step up and nobody seemed to do so.  In games that Mack and Irvin didn’t get pressure resulted in the defensive backfield getting toasted. And since other defensive linemen couldn’t push the pocket back, opposing quarterbacks seemed to have all day to find receivers.

Fourteen players in 2015 recorded sacks for the Raiders but in 2016 it was much different.  This season only six Raiders (Mack, Irvin, Denico Autry, Stacey McGee, James Cowser and Dan Williams) recorded sacks for the Raiders.  Of that group only Mack, Irvin, Autry and McGee recorded multiple sacks but McGee and Autry only combined for 5.5 sacks together.

Moreover, the Raiders are not historically known for blitzing linebackers.  Even in their heydays of the 60s, 70s and 80s they tended to rely on their front four to get to the quarterback.  Ken Norton Jr and his defensive scheme might be different than the one ran by Al Davis and his former coaches but it is similar in the sense of how it uses its linebackers.  Perhaps KNJ was protecting the defensive backfired by only sending four pass rushers in certain situations.  However, avoiding risks can sometimes lead to big plays being made on a defense.  The 2016 Raiders are a prime example of how being too laid back on defense fails.  To be fair, Justin Ellis and Dan Williams are stronger versus the run than the pass.  Moreover, rookies Shilique Calhoun and Jihad Ward struggled and the jury is still out on their effectiveness as NFL players.  The defensive line has to do its job though and it didn’t do enough.

#3 Fourth Down

The 2016 Raiders ranked among the NFL’s best in fourth down defense by finishing seventh.  Opposing offenses went for it on fourth down a grand total of 15 times against the Silver and Black (17th in the NFL) but they only converted 4 of them (26.7%).  Why is this bad?  The fact that teams were willing to go for it indicates how much opponents respect your defense.  Moreover, several times during the season opposing coaches spent time thinking about it before punting.  The Raiders did good in this area but their reputation for giving up big plays was well known throughout professional football.

THE UGLY

#1 They gave up too much real estate

The 2016 Raiders defense gave up so much real estate during the early part of 2016 that they were on the path to set league records for a 16 games season.  Oakland broke a 65 year record by giving up 1,035 in their first two games of the year.  Oakland did face both Drew Brees and Matt Ryan during those games but that still isn’t a good excuse.  They did clamp it down after that and they never gave up more than 423 yards during any of their remaining games.  The issue came to the surface after the Raiders lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in week six.  The offense at that time was still having its ups and downs and thankfully it kicked into high gear until Derek Carr broke his fibula in week 16.  It should be noted that only six teams finished worse than the Raiders in yardage given up on defense.

It should also be noted that Oakland finished 26th in that category but Miami (29th), Atlanta (25th), and Kansas City (24th) all found themselves alongside the Raiders in yardage given up.   All four teams made the postseason.  In other yardage categories things don’t get much better.  Their run defense slipped from 13th in 2015 to 23rd in 2016.  Moreover, in 2015 they were 26th in pass defense with 258.8 yards surrendered.  In 2016 the Raiders defense only improved moderately in that category (25th in pass defense with 257.5 yard surrendered per game).

In 2016 they ranked 20th in points given up which was a slight improvement over their 2015 numbers.

#2 Ken Norton Jr.

Personally, I was shocked that Ken Norton Jr. wasn’t fired after the season.  Instead, Jack Del Rio fired defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson stating Explosive plays, whether you like it or not, they always come back to the secondary.  The Raiders allowed a whopping 61 passes of 20-plus yards and 16 bombs of the 40-plus yard variety.  Those numbers are embarrassing.  In Robertson’s defense the starting 2016 Raiders defensive backfield lost Charles Woodson and they had three new starters (Smith, Nelson and Karl Joseph) and that can sometimes make or break a defensive backs coach if they fail.

In the end Ken Norton Jr. is the defensive coordinator, he makes the game plans and calls the plays on defense.   For the most part, those gameplans failed.  What am I basing this on?  Well I’ve already discussed stats but when I open my Raiders 2016 Media Guide I can place the 2016 Raiders as the third worst defense in Raiders history (yardage surrendered) with 6,001 yards.  Only the 1997 Raiders (6,116) and the 2011 Raiders (6,201) yards were worse.  Overall, they weren’t much better in this category than they were in 2015 when they gave up 5,818 yards on defense.

They are also tied for fourth in sacks for an entire 16 game campaign (25) with the 2003 Raiders, 2004 Raiders and 2012 Raiders.

I am still left scratching my head.  How did Norton keep his job?  Obviously the split with Musgrave might have been more than meets the eye and Del Rio knew that history doesn’t tend to shine favorably on head coaches who fire both coordinators.  Raiders history even serves as a guide to this fact. In 1988, then Los Angeles Raiders head coach Mike Shanahan fired both his offensive and defensive coordinator during the season and he was promptly terminated just four games into the 1989 season.

#3 2016 All-Time franchise rankings

In two seasons and one playoff game (33 games) Ken Norton’s defenses have given up 11,819 yards of real estate. That accounts for 6.7 miles.  To put that in even more perspective the great Marcus Allen gained 12,803 yards (145 games played) during his 11 year Raider career.  The 11,819 yards given up by Raider defenses in 2015 and 2016 are trailing Marcus by only 984 yards. This 32 game stretch by the Raiders defense is the worst, in terms of yardage surrendered in team history.

How do they compare to some other teams during that same stretch?  The Cleveland Browns won only 4 games during that same stretch that the Raiders won 19.  However, their defense has given up 12,346 yards and the Silver and Black trail them by only 527 yards!  The Miami Dolphins won 16 games over that same stretch but they gave up 12,141 yards.  Oakland trails them by just 322 yards.  To be fair, there is a fine line between yardage and winning.  The Patriots have won 24 out of 32 games during the past two years and they trail the Raiders defense in this category by only 322 yards.

If that doesn’t prove how valuable Tom Brady is or how valuable Derek Carr has become I don’t know what does.

CONCLUSION

In 2017 their work will be much more difficult because they face 5 teams that won 10 games in 2016. The NFL is a league that wants a lot of offense and teams will give up plenty of yards but Oakland needs to improve their defense before next season begins.

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