The Oakland Raiders have long prided themselves on being different from the rest of the NFL, a haven for players unwanted by the rest of the league and allowed to thrive and grow together. It has been over a decade since the Raiders have been successful in the league while doing this, but it seems as though Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen have found a way to make this work. In the NFL equivalent of “Moneyball” (down to the city and everything), the Raiders have pieced together, quietly, one of the better defenses in the NFL through the first six weeks of play. This is despite missing a number of players to injury, including SS Tyvon Branch and OLB Miles Burris.
Despite a $32 million salary cap hit, the Oakland Raiders have assembled a defense hungry to prove itself and eliminated overpaid players from the roster. This is due to a remarkable coaching job by Dennis Allen and a complex zone blitz scheme by Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. Using players picked from depth charts around the league, the Raiders have played stellar football through six games and given fans plenty of hope for the future.
Preseason predictions of the Raiders having the worst linebackers and defensive line in the NFL have now looked downright ignorant as the Raiders have played smart, solid football and forced opposing teams into mistakes. While the team isn’t playing lights-out defensive football, even a return to average is a wonderful change for a team that has had a defensive weakness for years. The pass defense is the weakness of the team, but it is still much improved from a year ago. Tarver’s zone blitzes on defense have used a lot of loose coverages to keep receivers in front of them. This has prevented big plays, as the Raiders have allowed just 241 passing yards a game (15th in the NFL), but it does allow for high completion percentage (68.3%, 30th) and high passer rating (98.6, 26th) from quarterbacks.
The cornerback depth chart is still a work in progress, but first-round pick DJ Hayden has overall looked great in his first games back from his injury and cleanup surgeries. He is the only rookie cornerback with two turnovers, and while he has caused a number of pass interference calls, most are from stellar coverage with him needing to turn his head around. While it is a penalty, it is something that can be coached out of him within a few seasons. He runs very well with receivers, and while his stats haven’t shown it yet, he should progress into a good NFL cornerback soon. Charles Woodson has been a turnover machine and has proven to be well worth the signing this year. While the cornerbacks have been hit-or-miss this season in coverage, it has overall been an improvement for a team that near the bottom of the league for most of last season. Usama Young and Nick Roach, in particular, have been very strong players for the Raiders despite being virtually unknown by average fans before last year.
While the pass defense has gone from being terrible to being average, the complete turnaround in the run game and pass rush have been stunning. The Raiders in the past decade have been terrible against the run, so Allen and Tarver set out this season to turn it around. The Raiders signed a completely new defense this offseason and aimed for runstuffing defensive tackles and linebackers that are solid in the run game. The main knock on this unit was its difficulty generating a pass rush, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern. The Raiders are the 12th-best team in the league through six weeks at rushing the passer, notching 13.0 sacks with ten different players. While the team still doesn’t have a 15-sack defensive end on the roster, the scheme has allowed for a variety of players to get to the quarterback.
Tarver mentioned in the offseason that his defense rewards successful players by “activating” them, or selecting them to blitz in a select defensive package. The defense’s flexibility and pre-snap presence has confused quarterbacks, allowing for the strength of the team to shine: the Raiders’ run defense. Almost any rushing statistic will have the Raiders in the top ten, despite having the 12th-most rushing attempts against them this season. Despite playing a number of successful rushing offenses, the Raiders have turned their sieve of a run defense into a huge strength through smart play and executing creative playcalling from Jason Tarver. They have allowed just 3.8 yards per rush (7th); they have still not allowed a run longer than 19 yards (best in the league); they are one of nine teams to average less than 100 rushing yards per game.
The Raiders have been very impressive in the first six weeks, but it will be very interesting to watch this team in the second half of the season. The Raiders play a number of successful rushing offenses in the second half of the season, including Philadelphia (1st), Houston (5th), Kansas City (9th), NY Jets (11th), Denver (12th), and Tennessee (15th).