Defensive Line Woes, Part I

In a two part story, S&BI takes a looks at the Raiders' ongoing struggles on the defensive line. Part I addresses the problem.

At the start of last year's training camp, the Raiders took a somewhat unorthodox approach by dedicating much of the early period to fundamentals rather than schemes and the playbook.

The thinking behind that decision was in large part a reaction to the youth of the team and the Raiders' inability to execute the most basic aspects of play.

Whether it was proper tackling form and wrapping up ball carriers to receivers running crisp routes, Head Coach Tom Cable sought to instill a rudimentary, back-to-the-basics focus for his young squad.

But despite the heavy emphasis on fundamentals during the fall, the results of the 2009 season was evidence to the young Raiders' inability to translate that training into actual live game settings.

And while the offense's struggles are hard to ignore, in no other place was that failure more glaringly noticeable than on defense.

The results were frighteningly familiar for Raider Nation.

In 2009, the Raiders' defense ranked 23rd (23.7) in points allowed per game and 26th (361.9) in yards allowed per game. Those rankings hardly qualify as an improvement from 2008, when the team ranked 24th (24.3) and 27th (360.9), respectively.

The team's sack totals increased from 32.0 to 37.0, but interceptions were down by half from 16 in 2008 to 8 in 2009.

What's more is that the Raiders' defense has failed to score a defensive touchdown in over two seasons.

John Marshall was brought in last year to serve as defensive coordinator because of his no-nonsense, drill sergeant-like approach, and his emphasis on an aggressive, attacking style of play, which is part of owner Al Davis' stalwart defensive mantra.

The problem, as it so often is when dealing with an underperforming defense, begins at the defensive line.

For the past two seasons, the Raiders have ranked in the top ten in pass yards allowed per game. In 2009, opponents attempted a league-low 27.4 pass attempts per game against the Raiders' secondary.

However, even though some of the Silver and Black faithful would take that as a point of pride (that offenses are afraid to throw against Nnamdi Asomugha and company), that stat is trumped by the fact that opposing offenses ran the ball a league-high 34.3 times per game against the Raiders.

There isn't simply one reason for the Raiders' failure to stop the run.

Against the Chargers in the first game of the season, the Chargers' offense was able to drive down the field with relative ease thanks in large part to the Raiders' overaggressive man-to-man coverage.

Often times in that final drive, it seemed as though the Raiders only had four or five men in the box thus leaving them vulnerable to draw plays up the middle or to short dump off passes to then-Chargers running back Darren Sproles in the soft middle zone.

And even when the Raiders stuffed the box against the run, poor positioning of the line and equally poor tackling at the next two levels led to an average yards per carry of 4.5 for opposing runners.

Of the Raiders' top five tacklers last season, three of them were from the secondary (Tyvon Branch—2nd, Chris Johnson—4th and Michael Huff—5th).

Even middle linebacker Kirk Morrison, easily the most consistent Raiders during the past few seasons, is not without some fault. Despite leading the team in tackles for the fifth straight season, Morrison has yet to enter the discussion of the league's best linebackers due to his passivity as an attacker.

That is, many of Morrison's tackles come simply out of necessity rather than being the product of proactive activity.

Due to the uncapped year in free agency, the pickings are slim in the free agent market. On top of that, the Raiders have equally pressing needs on offense as well.

Placing a franchise tag on Richard Seymour and retaining him for another year was a step in the right direction. Seymour can play both inside and outside, but for the purposes of this current team, he is better suited to play the strongside end spot where he is excellent in containment and holding the edge.

The Raiders let veteran pass rusher Greg Ellis go on Monday, and even though he tied for the team-lead in sacks, Ellis was primarily employed in passing downs because he struggled against the run.

The thought is that second-year man Matt Shaughnessy can take over for Ellis at weakside end. Although prone to play stiff at times, Shaughnessy impressed the coaching staff in limited play last season and they hope he can make a huge jump in his development this offseason.

In the interior, more is expected and needed from the trio of Tommy Kelly, Gerard Warren and Desmond Bryant. Kelly has yet to live up to his monster contract and at 29-years old, it is unlikely he ever will. Still, as it stands, Kelly is the Raiders' best option at tackle outside of Seymour, and if they can at least get some more consistent production out of him, then it would go a long way.

Gerrard Warren is little more than a serviceable player at this point. He has his moments on the field, but ideally, a player like Warren would be a very good first option off the bench for an elite team. Desmond Bryant was a pleasant surprise as a rookie last season and it will be interesting to see if the coaching staff gives him the opportunity to supplant Warren as the team's other starter at tackle.

In Part Two, S&BI discusses what the Raiders can do in the draft to address the issues on the defensive line.

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