The Oakland Raiders Concerning Defense – Who is to Blame?

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The hot-takers are screaming for the Oakland Raiders to fire defensive coordinator Ken Norton Junior. Yet others are reminding Raider fans to just R-E-L-A-X, Aaron Rodgers style. What’s the truth of matter? After giving up 632 yards and 44 points just two games into the preseason, should the panic button be pressed on the Oakland Raiders concerning defense?

Should The Raiders Be Concerned With Their Defense?

It would seem that there are two clear camps. Most of Twitter seems to be calling for the head of Ken Norton Junior. At the same time, many writers are reminding Raider nation to calm down and let the pre-season play out. But where is the Raiders defense really at?

First, it’s true that no-one should get carried away by the preseason, good or bad. These games are about getting ready for the season itself, so no team is running their full defense, and risking exposing new schemes and plan too early. Pre-season defense is vanilla as it comes. There is no expectation to see the defense playing their full scheme.

Second, players have got to get used to playing at game speed. Padded or otherwise, practices are not going to represent the challenge of a regular season game. Practice must be played out. Players need to get up to game speed and work through the physical reps they need to get the mental side right.

No matter, what signs exist for Raider Nation that they will see improvement from either players or scheme come September 10th? It may be be pre-season, but where are the hints that the Oakland Raiders defense will improve?

Where’s John Pagano’s Influence?

When John Pagano was brought in, the assumption was the Raiders defense would drastically change to a Pagano defense with Norton Junior’s name attached to it.Yet, the defense looks pretty similar to last year.

Pagano should bring in more disguises and blitzes, and as discussed, there should be no expectation to see immediate implementation. But, Pagano was also brought in to fix the communication and prevent explosive plays. In other words, to prevent a rookie wide receiver (Cooper Kupp) from being wide open in the end zone for a 23 yard touchdown as observed against the Los Angeles Rams.

What About Our Early Draft Picks?

Fifth round rookie Marquel Lee is looking more and more like he’ll be the starter at middle linebacker. This probably wouldn’t matter so much if second round pick, Obi Melifonwu, could get onto the field and start contributing. Put Melifonwu up against the opposition’s tight end and perhaps the Raiders will have more success covering them.

However, Melifonwu has yet to see the field. General manager Reggie McKenzie’s early draft picks are beginning to make a habit of not contributing much in year one. One thing is for sure – the Raiders need a better answer than Lee when it comes to covering Travis Kelce. At the moment, the answer is hard to see.

The Ongoing Question at Cornerback

Cornerback is the biggest problem on the team, because it’s also the biggest indictment against Norton Junior. The problem is not the eye-test, preseason, or no established pre-season improvement.

No, the biggest problem is the ongoing mismanagement of Sean Smith, and what that reveals about the coaching staff. Smith was the big off-season signing a year ago, and unfortunately looked anything other than a superstar in his first year with the Raiders.

Smith is a press cover corner. This is what Kansas City Chiefs former general manager John Dorsey said when Smith first signed with the Chiefs from the Miami Dolphins in 2013.

Bob Sutton’s [Chiefs defensive coordinator] scheme is about 85-percent press man, and we think Sean’s the type of physical corner who fits the defense perfectly”

The problem with a press man corner – even a really good one – is that when they eventually get beat, they get beat deep. And head coach Jack Del Rio has preached for two years now of the importance not getting beat deep.

Norton Junior seems to be asking Smith to hang back and play off man coverage. Give up the short stuff, but don’t get beat deep. The problem being that Smith lacks the speed and agility to keep up with speedsters who he gives ten yards free running to.

Scheme Your Way Around It

Bob Sutton – The Chiefs Defensive Coordinator – knew Smith’s weaknesses and schemed ways to cover them up. Arrowhead Pride offered a great write up on how Sutton, even when using press man, moved towards a Cover 2 or even Cover 3 shell. Sutton’s preferred scheme of Cover 1 (just one high safety covering the whole of the field) wasn’t working. Progressively more Cover 2 and Cover 3 looks appeared. Why was that?

One of the reasons for this might just have been to protect a press man cover corner who every now and then gets beat deep. Sutton was scheming ways to protect his players weaknesses. In Sutton’s tweaked schemes, Smith could play press man, but if he got beat he would still have safety help to protect him. Sutton understood that he couldn’t change Smith as a player, so had to create schemes to protect him and get the best out of him.

This idea of creating schemes to protect your players weaknesses isn’t new. Landon Collins spent his first season being torched in coverage for the New York Giants. To resolve the torching, they created a defense that asked him to spend much more time closer to the line of scrimmage as an enforcer and blitzer. Collins played at a Pro Bowl level for most of last season.

It’s a coach’s job to show the flexibility to create a system that the players he has can excel in. In two seasons, there has been no indication that Norton Junior can do this. He continues to insist on running a defense that doesn’t suit his personnel.

Smith is not the only issue either. Reggie Nelson didn’t look great in his first season in Silver and Black either. But again, Nelson never really played any single high safety for the Cincinnati Bengals because they understood he lacks the closing speed to play from sideline to sideline.

Adjust Your Defense Not Your Players

Both arguments are valid – McKenzie keeps bringing in players who don’t fit the scheme that Norton Junior wants to run, so maybe he should take some blame. But the Raiders must scheme for the players they have. Smith hasn’t become a bad player overnight. He’s just no longer playing for a coach who protects his weaknesses.

And that is a legitimate concern with the Raiders defense. The coaching staff doesn’t seem to be capable of adjusting their defense for the players they have. Hopefully, Pagano and Norton Junior have a whole load of plans up their sleeve for the regular season. Otherwise, Raiders fans might have very real reasons to be concerned about the performance of their defense in 2017.

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