When Defensive Coordinator, Ken Norton Jr., left the Seahawks for the Raiders, the organization hoped that he would not only bring some of the magic that made Seattle a perennial top five defense but take some of their ideas with him. The NFL is a copy-cat league and everyone wanted to replicate what Pete Carroll was doing. Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn were both Carroll’s defensive coordinators in Seattle before they both were hired away as NFL head coaches. In 2015, the Raiders gave Norton, a long time position coach, his first crack at being a defensive coordinator. However, being a defensive coordinator for a team with a defensive minded head coach (Jack Del Rio) usually means that there is going to be a certain level of collaboration involved. In his first interview as defensive coordinator he said, “I have certain ideas that I have that I know that work. [Del Rio] has certain ideas that he has that he knows that work. We’re going to bring them together and obviously make them the Raider way.” The marriage of ideas resulted in a base 3-4 front with a lot of the single-high safety coverages that Seattle was known for. Norton was given the freedom to bring a lot of the same ideas and principles that made the Seahawks so dominate, but with some adjustments and additions from Del Rio. The 2015 Raider defensive unit struggled in the beginning of the season, but as the players and coaches got more comfortable with the scheme the unit vastly improved and finished the year on a strong note. In 2016, Norton and the defense are looking to build on that finish with experience and help from some offseason additions.
Although we cannot be sure about the terminology that is being used by the Raiders without their defensive playbook, Carroll’s influence is clear. Therefore, I will be talking about the Raider defense through the basics that former Seahawk’s DC, Dan Quinn uses to explain Carroll’s defense. Quinn says, “[the Seahawks] happen to have lots of 3-4 looks, but we are a 4-3 team.’’ In Oakland, the base alignment is opposite, which is probably an adjustment from Jack Del Rio. The 3-4 was his base alignment while he was the DC in Denver and the Raiders personnel is more suited to run the 3-4. The Raiders are a 3-4 team with some 4-3 looks.
The Defensive line consists of one nose tackle (N) and two defensive ends (E). The defensive ends in the Raiders base are players that are considered “tweeners” in 4-3 defenses. They are too big to play on the edge full-time and are too small to play inside full-time. In my opinion, an end in a 3-4 is the perfect position for Mario Edwards Jr. who isn’t quick enough to make a huge impact on the edge. Last year, the rotation of Ben Mayowa, Denico Autry, and Justin Ellis took a majority of the snaps at end, while Edwards took snaps at the outside linebacker spots after Aldon Smith was suspended. The addition of Bruce Irvin and the eventual return of Aldon Smith will allow Edwards to kick back inside to end. The other end spot will be up for grabs between Autry or second round draft pick Jihad Ward. The nose tackle spot will have a solid rotation between Williams and Ellis.
Although not all of the defensive linemen are athletic enough to contain the passer or shoot gaps if necessary, all of them have the power to use a two-gapping technique, a forgotten art in the NFL. Being able to effectively two- gap gives the defense is a huge advantage in the run game, but requires a lot of strength and being fundamentally sound.
At the play-side end position, Mayowa does a great job of two-gapping, while Justin Ellis holds strong at the point of attack playing nose tackle. The defensive end on the back side of the play gets doubled and that leaves the outside linebacker, Khalil Mack unblocked. The defensive line plays their gaps perfectly and holds strong, which causes the running back to be indecisive and cut right into Mack.
There will be a lot of movement and position switches depending on looks and opponents but to the best three in base are Edwards and Autry at end and Williams at nose. The starting line up is fluid because of the Edwards injury and a wild-card in Ward, but the group is deep and the rotation will be very difficult for opposing teams to match up with.
In Carroll’s defense, the “Leo” is name of the weak side defensive end (L), who plays on the edge and primarily rushes the passer, while the Sam (S) lines up on the strong side edge and could rush or drop back into coverage.
Because the Raider’s base is a 3-4, both the sam and leo are on the line of scrimmage and are more interchangeable, which is why I grouped the Leo with the outside backers. After Smith’s suspension last year, Edwards played the Leo position and Mack played the Sam. Irvin will be a great addition because he will assume the Sam position, which would allow Mack to play Leo. While the positions are similar in the Raiders base, the Leo will naturally have more snaps rushing the passer, while the Sam will have more snaps dropping back.
Mack is lined up as the Sam to the top of the screen and Edwards is the Leo at the bottom of the screen. Once Mack realizes that it’s a pass he drops back into coverage, while Edwards rushes the passer. Mack is effective in coverage but Irvin is much better in coverage. Irvin playing the Sam will give Mack more snaps rushing the passer, which is always a good thing. Of course, when the Raiders go Nickel, the Raiders will shift into a 4-3 or 4-2 look and Mack and Irvin will rush the passer as defensive ends.
The Raiders value speed in their inside linebackers more than size. In their base, they have five players on the line of scrimmage to help prevent offensive linemen to get to second level, so that they don’t have to worry as much about taking on blocks. Quinn said “[The Seahawks ILBs] are most of the of the time inside-gap control players in the run game and … they are hook players a lot of the time in the pass game. They have to have speed, and one of the things K.J. and Bobby have is that kind of speed.’’ The same could be said of Malcolm Smith and Ben Heeney. Although Smith was one a Super Bowl MVP in Seattle, there was too much talent at the inside linebacker position for him to earn significant playing time, but he has the athletic ability to be a big time player and in his first full season as a starter he has made some major strides. He still needs to improve to be considered a long term solution. Heeney cracked the line up midway through the season and replaced Lofton who proved to be much too much of liability in the passing game to be a starter. Like Smith, Heeney made some strides and made some huge plays down the stretch including causing a fumble that helped the Raiders beat the Broncos, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
The Raiders are paying man coverage more specifically, Cover-1 Robber. Heeney is the robber meaning, he is dropping back to help on inside breaking routes. He reads pass so he drops back but once he sees linemen releasing downfield he reads the screen, breaks on the ball, rips through a block, and causes the fumble. The play displays his athleticism, ability to diagnose plays, and knack for making big plays.
The most obvious similarities between the Raider and Seahawks defensive scheme are in their coverages. The Raiders are mainly a single-high team (one safety in the middle of the field). They run several variations of Cover-3 and Cover-1. One difference is that they’ll mix in Cover-2 in some situations. Although the Raiders don’t play Cover-2 often, they actually played it surprisingly well, which is strange to say considering how opposed Al Davis was to playing the coverage. Del Rio in all likely hood is responsible for adding Cover-2 to the playbook.
The Raider’s bread and butter however is Cover-3 with some variations and adjustments. I’m not sure what these adjustments are termed in Norton’s playbook, so I will use Nick Saban’s terminology to describe them.
To the bottom of the image, CB David Amerson and TJ Carrie are in “Rip” coverage and are essentially playing man coverage on any vertical routes. On the other side, DJ Hayden and Taylor Mays are playing a more traditional Cover-3 with Hayden bailing to his deep third and Mays playing the flat. The adjustment in Saban’s terminology is called “Sky Fist” which just means the safety will run with slot receiver for 12 yards before jumping any routes in the flat.
The tight end to the bottom of the screen runs a vertical route, so Carrie plays him man to man. At the top of the screen, Hayden bails using a zone turn (turn towards the inside of the field) revealing that he is playing a deep third rather than man. Mays the is using the “fist” technique. The tight end on his side runs a vertical and he runs with him until a Osweiler throws the ball to the outside receiver running a hitch and Mays breaks on the ball. The “fist” variation is important because its takes away the seam from offenses and quarterbacks that like to attack that area of the field, it’s weakness is in the flat area. When the Raiders play a quarterback like Alex Smith that likes to check down and attack the flat, Norton will call for a traditional “curl to flat” technique that will put the strong safety, nickel, or outside backer in that area right away.
Instead of running with the slot running a vertical route, Carrie passes him off and goes immediately to cover the slot. Smith might not have expected Carrie to do so and tries to force the ball in and Carrie intercepts the pass. The different variances in Cover-3 along with the mixing and disguising with Cover-1 is very difficult for quarterbacks to hone in on and the Seahawk’s recent success and the Raiders improvements in second half of the season is evidence of that.
The entire secondary has been revamped this year with three new expected starters. Reggie Nelson with take on Charles Woodson’s role in the deep middle of the field. He will have some freedom to roam, like Woodson did, and his smarts and veteran savvy will be a welcomed presence. Sean Smith will play corner opposite of David Amerson. He is a perfect scheme fit for the Raiders, as he had a lot of success for the Cheifs who pay a lot of the same coverages the Raiders did. Karl Joseph could provide a major upgrade at the strong safety position with his physicality and ability to play man to man. A lot of the coverages will require that the strong safety man up slots and tight ends, which Joseph showed the ability to the do in college. If his skills translate like the Raiders hope they will, the secondary could be a major strength for the Raiders. Like the inside linebacker position, depth is still an issue and I expect the Raiders to make a couple of veteran signings sometime in training camp.
Although things looked rocky in the beginning of the season, the collaboration between Norton and Del Rio started to bear fruit towards the end of the season even with some major holes in the roster. The additions to the roster will allow Mack, Edwards, and Carrie to play in positions that are more natural for their skill set. The 2016 defensive outlook seems to be very promising and the defense has the players to be a potential top ten defense, but depth in some positions are still an issue. Also, anytime you have to integrate four new potential starters there is going to be a gelling period. The new defense will get chance to prove that they aren’t all hype with a tough test against Drew Brees in Week 1.