After two weeks of the NFL season the Oakland Raiders find themselves with an 0-2 record following a close 19-14 loss to the Jets on the road and a 30-14 defeat at home to the Houston Texans. While rookie quarterback Derek Carr grabs the headlines, the new-look Raider defense may be Oakland’s most important storyline during the 2014 season. Offseason acquisitions added depth to their front seven, with OLB LaMarr Woodley and DE/DT Justin Tuck joining rookie DE/LB Khalil Mack. Meanwhile the Raider secondary gained a veteran presence with CBs Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers both migrating across the bay from San Francisco and CB/S Charles Woodson making his return to Oakland.
The Raiders, as previously discussed on this site, use a number of combinations on their defensive front. They typically have four defenders on the line of scrimmage while deploying a variety of defensive tackles, defensive ends, and linebackers into that unit. Here are the usual suspects:
Defensive End – Justin Tuck #91
This former Giant, well known to Patriots fans after his performances in the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowls, is entering his tenth NFL season after playing collegiately at the University of Notre Dame. Listed at 6’5” and 265 lbs, Tuck helped pioneer the Giants’ vaunted “NASCAR” front that has revolutionized the way defenses use interior pass rushers. Oakland uses Tuck as a situational defensive end, rotating him up front with linebackers Woodley and Mack, though rarely on the interior
The Jets and Texans were able largely to neutralize Tuck in their early-season matchups. Against Houston the Raiders used Tuck mainly as a 3-4 defensive end in short-yardage situations, though on special teams he was able to block a field goal attempt. In his return to the Meadowlands, Tuck whiffed on his attempt to deflect a five-yard flip pass from Geno Smith in the last minute of the first half (a play that went for a Chris Johnson touchdown), and the lineman missed most of the final 20 minutes of the game after taking a helmet to his ribs late in the third quarter.
Defensive Tackle – Antonio Smith #94
A savvy veteran in his 11th NFL season, the player nicknamed the “Ninja Assassin” is a 6’3” 274 pound former 3-4 defensive end with the Texans. The Raiders now use him inside as a defensive tackle nearly every time he is on the field. In this role, Smith can use his athleticism and quickness either to beat interior linemen and rush the passer or play a pivotal role in stopping the run. In Week 1, he used a textbook swim move to beat left guard Brian Winters and hold Chris Ivory to a minimal gain.
Smith is playing an inside alignment on Winters, but at the snap he immediately executes his swim move. He brings his left arm up and over Winters while using his right arm to initiate contact and pull Winters forward (or, more precisely, toss him to the turf). This is perfect technique. To handle Smith, the interior of the Patriots’ line will need to use perfect technique of their own.
Defensive Tackle – Justin Ellis # 78
A rookie from Louisiana Tech, Oakland uses this big body (6’2”, 334 lbs) as a defensive tackle to clog holes and gaps along the line of scrimmage. However, Ellis is more than a simple roadblock in the Raider scheme, as evidenced by this play from Week 2.
Ellis is aligned as a nose tackle shaded to the right shoulder of the center. Houston attempts a stretch play to the left, away from Ellis. Watch as he quickly hits the A gap and uses strength and a low center of gravity to hold off the right guard. The rookie follows the stretch play down the line of scrimmage and makes the tackle in the backfield for a one yard loss.
Ellis can also use his physicality to stand up a lineman and control gaps, as shown in this next play. Houston is backed up near their own goal line and they run Arian Foster off tackle towards Ellis. The rookie stands up the right guard off the snap and controls the B gap, the intended hole. Foster has nowhere to run and Ellis finishes off the play with a solid tackle.
Linebacker/Defensive End – LaMarr Woodley #58
Woodley, the longtime Steeler, enters his 8th NFL season a newly minted Raider, having signed with Oakland as a free agent this offseason. Oft-injured in recent years, Woodley showed flashes of his old self in Week 1 against the Jets, but he was a complete non-factor against Houston. Here is an example of what Woodley can do when healthy and effective. On this play, the Jets face a 1st and 10 from their own 15-yard line. They have a tight end, Jeff Cumberland, on the left side of their line and they try to run Chris Ivory on the stretch play to that side. New York pulls two linemen to get out in front of Ivory and help Cumberland create a running lane
Woodley is lined-up as a defensive end over Cumberland in a three-point stance. Immediately off the snap of the ball he gains outside leverage on the tight end and sets the edge for the defense. He then uses his speed to string the play out to the sideline, giving the rest of the defense time to swarm to the ball carrier and hold this play to no gain.
Linebacker/Defensive End – Khalil Mack #52
Oakland used their top 2014 draft pick (5th overall) to nab this versatile defender from the University of Buffalo where he tied the NCAA record for career tackles for loss (75) and set a new NCAA career record for forced fumbles (16). Mack played outside linebacker in college, but the Raiders have rarely used him there in their first two games, aligning him instead as a defensive end in a three point stance.
When watching film on Mack, what stands out is his incredible speed. On this play, he lines up at DE with an outside shade on the tight end. The Jets run a quick wide receiver screen to Eric Decker, who is split to the right side of the New York offense. Watch both the recognition from Mack and how quickly he closes on Decker to hold this to a short gain.
The awareness shown here is impressive: A veteran play made by a rookie in his second NFL game. At the snap he slips what looks to be a double team but is actually the two linemen pulling to get in front of Decker. Rather than continuing on towards Geno Smith (and likely arriving a few steps late,) Mack begins his pursuit to the ball. He tracks down Decker shortly after the reception and makes an immediate tackle.
Here is yet another example of Mack’s pure speed. The Jets have their 11 personnel on the field with Geno Smith and running back Chris Johnson in the pistol formation. Oakland has a 4-2-5 alignment on defense with Tuck at one defensive end and Mack at the other. The Jets try Johnson on a stretch play towards Tuck, and away from Mack. Watch how quickly Mack closes down on Johnson to tackle the once-speedy running back behind the line of scrimmage.
Mack gets an assist from Tuck but the ground Mack covers from snap to tackle is phenomenal. On Sunday New England needs to design ways to neutralize Mack’s quickness and speed, which will not be easy as he is not a typically over-aggressive rookie who lacks field awareness
Final Word on the Defensive Line
After a solid effort from this group in Week 1, the defensive front looked to take a step back against the Texans last week. New England must avoid complacency against the Raider front this week. Mack and Ellis look to be extremely talented rookies who at times make plays on par with many veterans. Their ability coupled with the experience of Smith, Woodley and Tuck can pose serious problems for an offensive line that has struggled so far this season.
For the majority of their defensive snaps, Oakland sets up in a nickel 4-2-5 alignment with Sio Moore and Miles Burris most commonly at the linebacker slots.
Weak-side Linebacker – Miles Burris #56
Expected to back up Nick Roach (who is suffering from the lingering effects of a concussion), Burris has started Oakland’s first two games. The Raiders primarily position him on the weak side, as they align Mack at either strong-side linebacker or defensive end.
Previously, we highlighted Burris in This Week in Running: Oakland Preview and discussed how New England could run a power game at the linebacker. The Houston coaching staff evidently saw the same thing in their review of the tape. On the first play of the game last week, Houston runs Foster off tackle right at Burris.
The end zone view shows Burris at linebacker stacked over the left guard. The Texans run Foster on a simple lead play up the middle. Burris identifies the play, steps up into the hole, and then nothing happens. Burris – for lack of a better phrase – just throws his hands up and looks around for someone else to make a play. Specifically, as detailed in TWIR, he avoids the block, taking himself out of the play and making minimal effort to engage or fight through traffic. This is the first snap of the game and it looks as if Burris has already quit on the day. If the linebacker puts in a similar performance in Foxboro, New England must exploit it. If they do not, the fault lies with them.
Middle Linebacker – Sio Moore #55
The University of Connecticut product enters his second NFL season after starting 11 games for the Raiders in 2013. While he has difficulty in the counter run game (as explored in the TWIR piece), Moore is a very capable run defender when teams try to run power or lead plays in his direction. Here is an example of Moore defeating a blocker on a lead play and still making the tackle. Houston has 1st and 10 on the Oakland 27-yard line midway through the first quarter. The Texans come out with a slot to the left and Foster in the I-formation using 21 personnel. Oakland is in a base 4-3 look with Moore aligned on the weak-side. The Texans try to run Foster off left tackle with the fullback, rookie Jay Prosch, leading the way.
Moore is quick with his play recognition and beats Prosch to the hole. The linebacker then stands Prosch up and immediately sheds the rookie, wrapping up Foster and holding the running back to a minimal gain.
Middle Linebacker – Kaluka Maiava #50
Moore suffered an ankle injury against Houston and has yet to participate in practice this week. Fifth-year linebacker Kaluka Maiava replaced Moore against the Texans and will likely start Sunday if Moore is too hobbled to play. A product of the University of Southern California, Maiava’s best NFL season was in 2012 when he started 13 games and recorded 53 tackles. This year, Maiava has made 6 tackles while seeing limited action. He is an intelligent linebacker who shows solid play recognition and flows to the ball well, traits both illustrated in this play against the Texans.
From this view, two things stand out about the linebacker. First, his play recognition is efficient. Watch as Maiava diagnoses this off tackle run from the snap, directing his teammates to the hole. Second, he flows downhill well and makes the tackle for a short gain. If Maiava gets the start, expect a solid performance from the veteran.
Final Word on the Linebackers
Both Burris and Moore have strengths as defenders but there are weaknesses to exploit. The Patriots and Tom Brady need to be cognizant of where each linebacker is on the field, especially in the run game. Power or lead running plays need to be sent towards Burris, while counters need to be directed at Moore. The New England offense must adjust run calls at the line of scrimmage to ensure they are sending the right play the right way. If Moore cannot play on Sunday, New England will face two backups at linebacker, which could create many opportunities for the Patriots both on the ground and in the air.
The Oakland secondary contains a mix of youth and experience among starters, with Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers at the cornerback slots and Woodson and Tyvon Branch as the safeties. When the Raiders go with five defensive backs they bring Rogers inside to the slot and have T.J. Carrie come on as the right outside cornerback.
Cornerback – Tarell Brown #23
A product of the University of Texas, Brown is in his first year with Oakland following seven seasons with the cross-town 49ers. Brown is a solid man-to-man cover corner, as evidenced by these two plays. In the first clip, Brown is aligned over DeAndre Hopkins who comes in motion from left to right and sets up as the inside receiver in a trips formation. On the snap of the ball, the Texans run a pick play designed to free Hopkins on an out route. Andre Johnson looks to run an in cut but is really trying to create traffic for Brown to avoid. The cornerback does a good job fighting through Johnson’s attempted pick and, aided by Hopkins’ slight bobble, Brown is able to hold this play to a short gain.
In this next sequence, Brown is at the top of the screen showing man-to-man coverage on the tight end. The Texans bring Johnson in motion towards Brown and the cornerback shifts his alignment to cover the wide receiver. Johnson runs an option route, but Brown diagnoses the play immediately and is in great position on the receiver. Unfortunately for Brown, Johnson is able to use his body to shield the defender and secures the reception and a first down. It takes a smart play by Johnson and a well-thrown ball to prevent Brown from making a play on this pass.
Cornerback – Carlos Rogers #27
The Auburn University product enters his 10th NFL season, his first with the Raiders, after three years with the 49ers. Through two games this season, Rogers has tallied 10 tackles, 8 of them solo. Oakland uses Rogers primarily in the slot when they employ nickel personnel, and on the outside when they have their base package on the field.
In Week 2, Oakland had Rogers giving receivers a big cushion on a number of plays. Looking at the film, it seemed this strategy might not be beneficial for the Raiders. In this clip, Rogers is giving DeAndre Hopkins about 9 yards of cushion, visible at the top of the frame. Hopkins runs a deep in cut and even though Rogers recognizes the route, he cannot close down on the receiver quickly enough to prevent the completion.
Safety – Charles Woodson #24
Although he is listed as a free safety on Oakland’s depth chart, the Raiders often use the 37-year-old Woodson as a “robber/spy” defender, rolling him up towards the line of scrimmage and letting him rely on his experience to read quarterbacks and make plays. Earlier in the week we highlighted a Week 1 interception of Geno Smith where he read the quarterback from a robber position and cut underneath Eric Decker for an interception.
Since he plays near the line of scrimmage on a number of snaps, Woodson is also called upon to make plays in the run game. He is very willing to aid against the run, as shown on this play.
Houston has their 11 personnel on the field with Foster lined up as a singleback. The Texans have a trips formation to the right using a tight end on the line of scrimmage. Oakland has nickel personnel on the field in a 4-2-5 alignment and they show Cover 2 in the secondary; Woodson is the weak-side safety in this alignment. Houston runs Foster off tackle to the weak side, and watch how Woodson cuts down the angle very quickly to make the tackle.
Safety – Tyvon Branch #33
Listed as a strong safety, this versatile seventh-year player from the University of Connecticut is used both as a deep safety in a traditional free safety alignment and as an extra defender in the box in a standard strong safety alignment. When Oakland uses him as a deep middle defender, teams have had success attacking him in the passing game, especially with vertical routes. One such example was discussed in This Week in Passing.
When the Raiders bring Branch into the box he is aggressive in run support. Here, Houston runs Foster off tackle away from Branch but he quickly recognizes the play, flows to the ball, and brings the running back to the ground.
Final Word on the Secondary
This is a solid group in run support and each player is a capable tackler in space. Of the four players, Woodson is likely to pose the biggest threat in the passing game, especially when he is used towards the line of scrimmage as a robber in Cover 1 type schemes. For New England to have success throwing the ball in those situations, they need to be able to attack Branch down the field, as the safety has shown an inability to diagnose plays when tasked with playing a deep middle alignment.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.