Longtime USC coach and winner of 4 National Championships, John McKay, said “the game is won in the trenches.” In part 2 of this post, I described how Mckenzie went about improving the offensive line. He also had a major transformation project on the defensive line in an effort to create an effective pass rush. The defense as a whole had 38 sacks–add to that a paltry 68 hits on quarterbacks in 2013 and its quick to see the Raiders were deficient in this area.
The thirty-eight sacks ranked them 18th in the league, tied with the 49ers. But outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, who regularly rush the quarterback in their 3-4 defense accounted for 17 of those sacks. The Raiders, on the other hand, had to blitz heavy and often to fabricate those same sacks. This approach was effective all the way up the the Eagles game where Nick Foles torched them as the Raiders failed to put pressure on him. In the second half of the season, the pass rush, like much of the defense, had lost it’s steam due to two primary factors–no pass rush from the line, nor depth to rotate in fresh players.
While ultimately disappointing, last season was a major improvement over the 2012 squad’s 25 sacks led by players that did not play for the Raiders in 2013; Seymour, Shaughnessy, Bryant & fan favorite Philip Wheeler. Similary, they are entering the 2014 season missing last year’s sack leader, Lamar Houston (6-sacks). While many Raider fans, myself included, were disappointed to see him leave in free-agency, it’s the nature of the beast. It was not, however, the monumental loss that media pundits make it out to be. He had a great motor and was an effective rush-stopper on the edge, but last year he was asked to step-up as a leader. They needed him to be a consistent force that, drawing double teams and generating 9+ sacks. In that, he failed–and going in the opposite direction made media comments that he was unlikely to return. Ultimately, he is a solid contributor, but not the leader we needed him to be or the leader he wanted to be paid like. Enter Justin Tuck!
A Notre Dame alumni, Justin played for years behind Michael Strahan before taking over for the retiring Hall of Famer. Coming off of an 11 sack season, he is the type of leader that the Raiders need. Immediately, upon signing, he started to recruit for the Raiders, wooing Woodley (signed shortly later on the same day) and Hatcher, a free-agent from the Dallas Cowboys. The Raiders continued to beef up the line with depth and pass rushers by signing Antonio Smith from the Texans and drafting DT Justin Ellis in the 4th round and DE Shelby Harris in the 7th round. Both should provide depth. Smith, Tuck and Woodley combined for 21 sacks last year. The entire defensive line rotation combined for 21 in 2013. Like the offensive line, the defensive line will enter the year with more talent and depth. So too, will the linebackers
Fully expect mad scientist, Jason Tarver, the Raiders defensive coordinator to continue to blitz from all angles to create pressure and keep quarterbacks guessing. Critical to the chess game is 1st round draft-pick, Khalil Mack. Mack is considered one of the most versatile players coming out of college. Rushing the quarterback by lining up on the D-line or as an outside linebacker, he racked 10 1/2 sacks last year in his final year of college. The well spoken Mack has expressed his desire to be a wild-card–lining up all over the field and to learn from Woodley (57 career sacks) and Tuck (60.5 career sacks). I try not to get too excited about rookies because while their full of potential, they ain’t done shit yet! That said, the last time I was this excited about a rookie was when the Raiders drafted future hall of famer, Sir Charles Woodson.
The players McKenzie brought in should lead to a huge improvement for the pass rush. Same goes for the offensive line. If there is one issue that many have brought up with the free-agent pick ups, it is not talent, but age. That, I will discuss in part 4.