Legendary Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis used to say, “The quarterback must go down and he must go down hard.” That’s true more than ever now that the NFL is such a passing league. The Raiders’ defense wasn’t very good last year is because they didn’t make the quarterback go down often.
That doesn’t make sense when you have 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the year Khalil Mack on one edge. But they had little else to get after the quarterback, finishing last in the NFL with 25 sacks. While Mack had 11 of those sacks, there was no one else on the team that had double digit sacks.
The biggest problem for the Raiders last year was they didn’t didn’t have an interior pass rush. So when Mack beat his man off the edge, the quarterback simply stepped up and still had time to throw. Opposing teams were also able to make it hard on him, sending triple-teams at him.
If he beat his man outside, an RB was waiting to chip him and if won inside, the OG was waiting. Opposing centers could simply slide over and take the DEF-INT one on one on Mack’s side. If Mack doesn’t have to face that every game, he just might get those 30 sacks QB Derek Carr expects from him.
So the key is putting something around Mack to rush the passer and it looks like the Raiders have done that. Over the last few days the defense has been able to put heat on Carr in training camp. And even though left OT Donald Penn is holding out of camp, they’ve been doing it against a great O-line.
The Raiders gave up the least amount of sacks in 2016 so getting to Carr means something in camp. It means the Raiders are already much better at rushing the passer than they were last season. That’s because they have given Mack and the help they need to rush the passer much better in 2017.
Mario Edward Jr. is back
There’s nothing more helpful to an EDGE than a DEF-INT that’s great at rushing the passer inside. And Mario Edwards Jr. is great at that as he makes a huge difference in Mack’s production. In his rookie season, he helped Mack sack the quarterback 15 times, the most he’s had as a pro.
As a rookie in 2015, Edwards took over and got comfortable around Week 10 became very disruptive. At that point, opposing teams started to double him with the C and OG to try to contain him. That would leave Mack with a lot of one-on-ones and he had his way with 11 sacks from Week 10 to Week 15.
When Edwards was out of the lineup for the last two games with an injured neck, he didn’t have a sack. So Mack had only four sacks before Edwards became a factor and none after his injury. That made Raider Nation excited for what Mack and Edwards could do together in 2016 but it never came off.
Edwards would end up sustaining a hip injury and have to miss all but two games in 2016. So Mack’s sacks went down because the Raiders had no interior push and no one to take double-teams. Edwards started camp with a strained hamstring but is healthy now and according to reports, he looks good.
Eddie Vanderdoes emerging
When you have one stud DEF-INT and two EDGEs, you usually have a great pass rush to work with. When you have two of them, you can very well end up leading the NFL in sacks that season. And it looks like the Raiders have another one as Eddie Vanderdoes has taken over as a starting DEF-INT.
He is a top-10 talent the Raiders stole in the third round because of injuries in his college career. But now healthy, he has shown his top-10 talent in training camp after missing the offseason with school. It has been reported that he has dominated one-on-one drills and sacked the QB in team drills.
At 6’3″, 305 pounds, Vanderdoes is strong as a bull and runs the 40 in under five seconds. He is also agile with a quick spin move for his size, technique with his hand fighting and a high motor. He’s another guy that’s so dominant, opposing teams may have to pay extra attention to him.
The most dangerous man to the quarterback is the closest one to him so Vanderdoes will draw attention. Opposing O-lines will have to make up their minds about doubling him or Edwards. There’s only five O-lineman so you can only double one, giving the other an opportunity to make a play.
Bruce Irvin to get first 10-sack season
Bruce Irvin came to Raider Nation talking a big game but wasn’t consistent with just seven sacks last year. Eight is his career high but with the cast he has around him this year, he’ll get 1o or over. He now has a cast around him that’s perfect for him to produce with the skill-set he has.
Irvin is a speed rusher the depends on beating his man around the corner in order to get his sacks. Last year, the Raiders didn’t have an interior rush so all his speed did was run him past the QB. On a few of his sacks last year, Irvin ran two laps around the pocket before bringing the QB down.
With Edwards and and Vanderdoes bringing the heat inside, opposing QBs will have nowhere to go. So when Irvin uses his speed to get around the corner this year, it will mainly result in sacks. Offenses usually have one RB stay in to block and the other in a route if there’s a good pass rush.
And in one-RB sets, he’ll go to Mack’s side as he is the one opposing teams were most concerned with. So like last year, Irvin won’t see too many doubles while the DEF-INT keeps the QB in check. So Irvin is set up to have a breakout year as a speed-rusher that doesn’t get doubled and has help inside.
Marquel Lee to chip in
ILB Marquel Lee is another steal the Raiders were able to get in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. After many wondered what would come of him, he has come in and performed well in camp. And so far, he has shown that he is perfectly capable of starting at the MIKE ILB for the Raiders.
Most of Raider Nation already knows Lee is a thumper and regulator in the middle of a defense. But he’s also one of the best at his position coming out of the 2017 NFL Draft at getting to the QB. Wake Forest blitzed him quite a bit and he rewarded his team with seven sacks, great for an ILB.
They ran a lot of Cover-1 robber, allowing him to play that underneath zone with everyone else in man. When they played against running QBs, Lee would be the spy in that defense. And when he didn’t have one of those two responsibilities, that’s when he got his opportunities to blitz.
The Raiders run plenty of that Cover-1 robber themselves and when they blitz, they bring their ILBs. When the Raiders couldn’t get there with four last year, they ran a cross-dog to pressure the QB. So Lee will help the Raiders in the passing game outside of just covering RBs and TEs.
When the Raiders are in their 3-4, they could blitz their two EDGEs like they did Mack and Aldon Smith in 2015. Having a guy like second-round SS Obi Melifonwu to cover opposing TEs allows that. Mack and Irvin will also have studs lined up just inside them so there will be a push in the interior.
Then in sub-packages, Mack and Irvin will be at the DEs with Edwards and Vanderdoes at the DTs. And the Raiders defense will have the same dynamics with pass rushing inside and outside. I don’t know about 30 but Mack will be set up to have a big season of sacks this coming season.
That DEF-INT also sets Irvin up to have the first season of his NFL career with 10 sacks or more. And as teams make up their mind who to double, Edwards and Vanderdoes will get theirs. CBs David Amerson and first-round pick Gareon Conley won’t have to hold their coverage for too long.
Mack finally has the front-seven he needs built around him to do big things!