Earl Thomas and the Oakland Raiders Defense

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 02: Free Safety Earl Thomas #29 of the Seattle Seahawks tries to stop wide receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins #15 of the Oakland Raiders from catching the touchdown pass in the 2nd quarter during a preseason game September 2, 2010 at The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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At a glance, Seattle’s Earl Thomas¬†and the Oakland Raiders have nothing in common. Thomas isn’t an upcoming free agent, the Raiders haven’t played the Seahawks, and he grew up in Orange, Texas, 2,000 miles away from the (current) home of the Raiders. However, just beneath the surface, lies the secret to Oakland’s defense.

Earl Thomas and the Oakland Raiders Defense

Ken Norton Jr.

Ken Norton Jr., the defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders, is an unpopular guy. As great as Oakland’s offense was this year, their defense was hideous. The Raiders were 26th in total defense, giving up 375 yards and 24 points a game while only registering 25 sacks. The Raiders were able to win 12 games in 2016, but none were because of staunch defense.

When the Raiders brought Norton in, it was with plenty of hoopla. Norton was the linebackers coach for the Seattle Seahawks, and it was assumed that he would bring some of that defensive success with him. The Raiders even brought in corner Sean Smith to play the Richard Sherman role and drafted Karl Joseph to play the Kam Chancellor role.

So what went wrong? If the Raiders were running the same defense as Seattle, how come they didn’t have the same success? Despite what people insist, Smith and David Amerson are talented corners, and Joseph is a hard-hitting safety. The Seahawks didn’t have a pass rusher like Khalil Mack, and the Raiders even brought in former Seahawks¬†Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin. What’s the difference?

Reggie Nelson

While the Seattle Seahawks had All-Pro safety Earl Thomas, the Oakland Raiders had Pro Bowler Reggie Nelson. Pro Bowler is italicized because Reggie Nelson is far from an elite player. According to Pro Football Focus, Nelson is the 29th best safety in the National Football League. He’s a liability in coverage, and wildly inconsistent in run support. To sum up Nelson’s inadequacies, he’s not very good. In fact, he’s the opposite of Earl Thomas.

Earl Thomas

You might be thinking that comparing Oakland’s defense to Seattle’s is a little ridiculous. The Seahawks defense is littered with superstars, and as great as Earl Thomas is, he’s only a part of the machine. Anyone could come in and play with those guys and be just fine. Or could they?

See, this season, Thomas missed significant time with an injury, including the playoffs. The Seahawks are a completely different team without Thomas. With him, the Seahawks had 11 interceptions, held opposing quarterbacks to a 79.9 rating, and they only gave up 16.2 points per game. Without him? Opposing quarterbacks had a rating that was almost 20 points higher, while giving up four more points a game.

Against the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Legion of Boom looked like the Legion of Doom for Seahawks fans. The Falcons scored 36 points and compiled over 400 yards, including well over 300 through the air.

The Raiders Defense

So what does this have to do with the Oakland Raiders? The Seattle Seahawks have a pretty good defense when Earl Thomas is playing. They haven’t missed the playoffs since 2010, and with him in the lineup, they’ve played in two Super Bowls. Without him, they looked mediocre at best.

Who else looks mediocre? The Oakland Raider defense. Watching the Seattle Seahawks without Earl Thomas, they looked a lot like the Raiders. They played well for a bit, and then they’d give up huge plays. They couldn’t consistently generate pressure and they gave up laughable plays in the secondary.

Maybe Ken Norton’s scheme does work. Maybe the reason the Raiders have struggled on defense is that they don’t have the big money safety like Seattle does. If Oakland went out and got a big safety to complement Karl Joseph and company, maybe it would transform them into an elite defense. And would you look at that, Kansas City’s Eric Berry could become a free agent this off-season.