I am very excited to have GipsySafety debut his first article on RaidersAnalysis.com. He has done some great, very detailed analysis on the Raiders and is going to make this site better. He is going only going to add to this website’s dedication to detailed breakdowns and we are lucky to have him. In this week’s article, he focuses on how the Raiders improved in one facet of run defense and looks at other areas of run defense that the Raiders need to improve on.
The Preseason is such a strange time; there’s real honest-to-goodness NFL football going on with all our beloved players going up against other real NFL players. And time and time again, we fans are told to not take the results too seriously, that what we see in Preseason may not be truly representative of what we will get in the regular season.
Few fans really care about each individual score in the pre-season. Win or loss, it’s not really that important, but what we do notice are how the various players and units perform while they are on the field. While the coaches are assessing each player, the fans are carrying out their own evaluations and there are certain elements that really stick out.
The two worst : Lack of Effort and Lack of Discipline.
These are concerns because they indicate a potential problem that could carryover and cascade into the regular season.
Fans are inherently impatient and inherently prone to panic, but the team showing improvement can allay those fears substantially.
The goal of the pre-season is to get better.
Each season is a new combination of players and experiences and the preseason is a key part to bringing them together to function as a single entity. That unification process can take time.
Last week against Green Bay, the run defense performed poorly enough to rise the panic level a few notches and so the Raider Nation was eagerly awaiting an improved showing against the Titans this week.
This is what they got. Here’s a comparison of the first half rushing defenses from Weeks 2 and 3.
That does not look like progress. In fact, that’s the opposite, and if that’s true, it’s TIME TO PANIC!
On the surface, it does appear that there were some problems (and there were), but the statistics don’t tell the entire story.
Indeed, there was some key important progress and improvements from last week, but if you weren’t paying close attention, it was easy to miss.
Here’s a closer look.
* * *
Week 2 v Green Bay
Green Bay’s run game is based on the Outside Zone scheme. The goal is to stretch the defense horizontally and then to cut it in half.
It’s their bread and butter play and has been for quite some time; they are well-schooled in it and execute at a high level.
Here’s an example of the play they ran against the Raiders :
Take a look at the following two images. They sum up the play pretty well.
From Left to Right on the line :
- Bruce Irvin playing force on LT #69 Dave Bakhtiari
- Denico Autry turning his shoulders and being run out of his gap by LG #71 Josh Sitton
- Justin Ellis running laterally but getting no penetration against C #73 JC Tretter
- Jihad Ward being pushed downfield by RG #70 TJ Lang
- Khalil Mack backside against RT #75 Bryan Bulaga
Malcolm Smith blitzing from the slot is unblocked, but the play is running away from him, which leaves Ben Heeney all alone as 2nd level support.
There are two giant gaps in the line and so much open space for Eddie Lacy. He has a clean path to run to and easy eyelines to pick his path.
The FB gets to the 2nd level and gets a piece of Heeney. No one else is anywhere close and Lacy sprints downfield.
In Week 2, Green Bay’s offense was playing fast and efficiently, while the Raiders defenders appeared slow and weak and, worst of all, uninspired.
It was ugly, but there are some straightforward corrections to make.
- Alignment (Malcolm Smith)
– Set up in a fundamentally sound formation to defend the run. Discipline and control (Autry) – Control gaps instead of running out of it.
- Power and Pushback to collapse the lanes (Jelly, Jihad)
– Have to win those 1-on-1 matchups, get penetration. Close down the gap, dirty up the runner’s lanes, and clutter his view.
- Keep the 2nd Level clean (Jelly) – Take on extra blockers (either other linemen or the FB) to keep the Linebackers free to run to the ball.
- Hustle to the ball (Backside players)
– Need to get more defenders near the ball
Going into Week 3, it would be interesting to see if the defense would make those adjustments and how they would play against the Titans’ running attack featuring former rushing leader DeMarco Murray and the Heisman Winning rookie Derrick Henry.
* * *
Week 3, TEN
In the first half, out of 20 first half running plays, Tennessee used the outside zone play in the manner of Green Bay twice.
Here is a look at how they responded.
Play 1 : 1-10-TEN 29 (1:51) D.Murray left tackle to TEN 29 for no gain (M.Smith).
This was the first play of their 3rd drive of the game and it looks much better than the play v Green Bay. Here’s a closer look at the individual plays that made this happen.
The first thing to notice is that the defense is certainly in a Run Defense alignment. There are 8 defenders are in the box– including rookie safety Karl Joseph–with 5 defenders on the line of scrimmage. The Front 5 are in a Bear Front. Jihad, Jelly, and Dan are lined up over the three interior offensive linemen while Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin are positioned outside as containment players.
This zone run will wisely go to the left (away from Mack). Two linemen (LG Spain and RG Warmack) will release to the 2nd level and are assigned to block Cory James and Malcolm Smith.
The FB will lead and DeMarco Murray will follow.
Here is the key moment in the play :
There are four very nice, very important plays being made, but in real-time it’s sometimes difficult to see. Here’s a closer look at those plays.
1. Bruce Irvin has Force responsibility, which means that his role is to contain the play, prevent the RB from getting to the outside and “forcing” him to turn back up inside where there is help.
Bruce is matched up with the TE #80 Anthony Fasano and here Bruce gets a nice push back to make DeMarco Murray cut up inside.
2. Inside, Justin Ellis wants to get penetration, controls the inside, and to squeeze the running lane and limit Murray’s cutback choices.
Here Jelly does exactly that; he takes on the center Ben Jones and pushes him 2 yards into the backfield and towards the runner. Jelly gets penetration as well as keeping control on the interior.
3. Jihad Ward wants to control the gaps between Bruce and Jelly, collapsing the lane if possible and disrupting the lead blocker.
Jihad does a good job of holding his ground against LT Taylor Lewan, but his biggest contribution to the successful play is seeing the FB #45 Jalston Fowler and absorbing his block as well.
Rex Ryan calls this “Picking off color in the hole” and his philosophy is “We won’t trade one-for-one, but we will trade one-for-two.” Right here, Jihad unselfishly does exactly that and his linebackers benefit from it.
And at the second level :
4. Malcolm Smith gets a quick read on the play, beats #70 Chance Warmack in space, and aggressively explodes into the gap.
DeMarco Murray has nowhere to run but straight up into Malcolm Smith’s tackle.
Zero yards gained.
The Raiders defense played this quite well and here are some of the key plays that were better than in the Green Bay game :
- Alignment (Bear Front)
- Force by Bruce
- Penetration / Push back by Jelly
- Jihad controls his gap and does not get run out of it
- Jihad takes on the FB so he can’t get to the LBs
- Malcolm beats the G in space
* * *
Play 2 : 1-10-50 (8:17) D.Henry left tackle to OAK 49 for 1 yard (J.Ellis; M.Smith).
The next time the Titans run the outside zone play is with rookie RB Derrick Henry in the 2nd quarter. The Raiders’ defense plays it very well again, this time giving up one yard, some of the mechanics of the play are the same, but there are also some minor differences.
Here’s a closer look at the details.
Once again, the Raiders’ have a Bear Front, but this time it’s a 7-man box with the safety just out of frame. Stacy McGee and Keith McGill sub in for the two rookies, Jihad Ward and Karl Joseph.
Here is how the Titans’ blocking on the outside zone will play out. The FB is leading the play to the outside.
Notice that LT Taylor Lewan is releasing to the 2nd level. That is not unusual, but the fact that only one lineman is downfield is unusual. More on that later.
There’s a scrum at the point of attack. Three Titans (TE Anthony Fasano, LT Taylor Lewan, and LG Spain) v 2 Raiders (Bruce Irvin and Stacy McGee).
Notice the FB and the edge blocking; the play is set up to go to wide.
If the tight end can make the block, both the FB and RB can get outside of Bruce Irvin and that puts almost 500 lbs running downhill on the Raiders’ defensive backs. 205 lb Keith McGill really doesn’t want that to happen.
The FB gets to the outside, but Bruce Irvin wins his 1-on-1 matchup with Fasano in a major way.
Bruce gets great hand placement and leverage (it only looks like he’s got a hand in his face) to disrupt Derrick Henry’s running lane.
Bruce drives the tight end backwards and this cuts off Henry’s path to the outside. Instead, the rookie runner has to make a sudden sharp cut back up inside.
This accomplishes two things :
- The sharp cut makes him less dangerous than if he’s able to just run full-steam downhill, which gives the lighter Malcolm Smith a better chance to make the 1-on-1 tackle.
- It isolates him from his lead blocker, meaning he’s on his own.
Malcolm Smith reacts to the play so quickly that he meets Derrick Henry deep in the running lane before the rookie is able to get to full speed. Because of that Malcolm is able to hold the Henry to a minimal gain. This is a great play by Malcolm.
But what allowed Malcolm to run so free and clear?
Recall from earlier that we noted that only one Titans’ lineman was releasing to the 2nd level.
In fact, this play calls for two linemen to release and take on the two Raiders’ LBs. While Taylor Lewan goes after Cory James, Center Ben Jones is supposed to block Malcolm. To do so, he and RG Chance Warmack will need to work a nice combination block.
Here’s a example of what the Titans want to do. From the Packers in week 2 :
If the Titans had managed to execute this block and passoff like this, then Malcolm Smith would have had a big body to contend with and may not have been free to make the tackle.
But against the Titans, Justin Ellis improved his play against this exact situation.
Here’s a closeup still image :
Center Ben Jones is looking at Malcolm Smith. Jones wants to get downfield to make the block, but Jelly’s having none of that. This time, Jelly clamps down on the center and refuses to let him get downfield no matter how much Chance Warmack mashes on him.
With Jones trapped at the line of scrimmage, Malcolm has the luxury of running to the ball without worrying about being a big body looking to hit him.
This type of play is crucial to run defense success, but it is also the type of play that goes unnoticed nearly all the time. Jelly does a great job here and the team is rewarded for it.
The Raiders’ defense again played the run well and again it was important that multiple defenders execute their assignments well.
- Bruce Irvin forcing the cutback and isolating the FB
- McGee keeping presence in the middle
- Jelly taking on two blocks and keeping Malcolm Smith clean
- Malcolm Smith quickly running to the ball and attacking his gap
In these two plays against Tennessee, there’s a common theme : The aggressiveness and urgency with which the defensive line was playing. Against Green Bay, the Packers’ Oline were the aggressors and were taking it to the Raiders’ defense; this time, the Raiders’ defensive linemen were on the attack, striking and pushing the would-be blockers.
In week 3 Eddie Lacy had so much room to run, but in these two plays, Murray and Henry had shrinking running lanes. Lacy had multiple big gaps and so could choose where to run, but Murray and Henry were being funnelled into one single lane where there was an awaiting tackler.
I imagine Ken Norton summoned the fire and brimstone during the week to give the defensive players the suitable motivation.
While against Green Bay, the defense seemed a touch lethargic, a step slow, and just a touch weak, against Tennessee they were exploding and swarming to the ball and they were hitting and pushing blockers with intensity. The energy, aggression, and urgency with which the defense played was how we expect the defense to play each and every time out.
It was a step forward and an important improvement.
* * *
The Bad News
The Good news : the two plays that the Titans ran the outside zone were well-defended.
The bad news is that means the Titans rushed for 98 yards on the other 18 carries. What is interesting about those plays is what types of plays they were. Interestingly, they were almost all misdirection plays of some sort, the type of play that takes advantage of an overly aggressive defense.
The adjustment from the prior week was to get the defensive line to play with more urgency. And the Titans’ gameplan was to use counter plays and fake counters and zone reads that all gave a strong initial Run read in one direction but actually ran the opposite way.
This now provides Ken Norton Jr with his next step : be aggressive while maintaining discipline and without losing backside containment.
* * *
On paper the Pre season week 3 Run Defense looked absolutely terrible. The Titans were able to seemingly run at will against the Raiders, But on closer inspection, we have some mitigations. Tennessee was using lots of misdirection plays that was using the Raiders’ aggression against them and causing them to lose discipline. The result was a lot of mistakes and missed assignments. But when they did run the outside zone play, the Raiders’ defense rose to it.
There has been progress and the defense has taken a step forward during the week. The main deficiencies in the Week 2 Run defense appears to have been addressed and the front line defenders were doing some very good work and this will pay huge dividends throughout the regular season when they face these types of outside zone runs (notably Kubiak’s offense in Denver).
Getting better each week is important and taking the long-term view can ease our collective minds. The team made key improvements from week 2 to week 3. Now we can look forward to the continued improvement from this point forward.
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