Riding high after a big win at Kansas City prior to the bye week, the Las Vegas Raiders defense heads into Week 6 with some questions and the need for consistency.
Coming off their best half of football in 2020, the Las Vegas Raiders defense should feel good about itself. Holding Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes to eight points (and those were garbage time points), it relieved some of the perceived pressure on defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Guenther has been under fire all season long, but last Sunday was a defining moment for is often maligned defensive unit.
It may sound crazy but despite having to scrape together bodies for the Raiders defense and defensive line, the Raiders posted their highest pressure numbers of the season. Down two key linemen in Maurice Hurst and Maliek Collins from the beginning, rotational lineman Carl Nassib broke his toe on his fifth snap on the field leaving Guenther to turn to an unlikely source – Chris Smith
Chris Smith made the most of his opportunity and came up huge on the biggest stage so far this season for the Raiders defense. Smith tallied five pressures, four hurries, and a sack in only 26 snaps on defense, setting the mark for the single-game production and season highs for the defensive tackle position group. Jones and reserve Kendal Vickers held up admirably and each contributed a pressure and a quarterback hurry.
While injuries were the challenge last week, the team is still waiting for its return on investment in Collins. Once healthy, Collins will need to increase his production and become “the key to the entire defense” as head Coach Jon Gruden once called him. The Raiders defense will be a force if he can achieve the success most think he can.
That middle of the Raiders defensive front with Collins is key and his ability to defeat double teams and rush the passer are what he was brought to Las Vegas to do. Unfortunately, even when healthy, Collins hasn’t been beating much of anything – not double teams nor one-on-ones. Because of the unknowns with Collins on the line, adding some quality help to the defensive line should be a priority.
Also worth noting: Cle Ferrell continues to improve each week and is coming off arguably his best week as a Raider. The Raiders defense needs him to continue to ascend to help the defensive front show more consistency as the season wears on.
The Great Safety Debate
Johnathan Abram has lived up to everything the Raiders expected from him when they drafted him back in 2019. An alpha male, his play has been energetically violent and emotionally charged providing the spark the defense feeds off of. Abram can do it all: chase plays down all over the field, creates pass breakups, big hits, and he can strike fear into the hearts of opponents. He is the heart of the back end of the Raiders defense.
Opposite Abram, the other safety position has at best been a mystery and at worst a weak-link in the defense.
Erik Harris has been struggling mightily in 2020 and has created a glaring need for the Raiders in the defensive backfirled. Jeff Heath’s crucial interception and return against the Chiefs set up the Raiders for their final touchdown of the game and showed an increase in production from the position. Heath has been primarily a special teamer who has seen more time at safety and the defense has improved. Heath is a lurker and is great at jumping deep posts and crossing routes coming at him. His increased playing time, and the fact he’s taken advantage of the playing time, make him the perfect safety to run opposite Abram
Harris, by comparison, has really struggled. He’s had difficulting keeping up in just about every facet of his game. Harris’s knowledge of the defense hasn’t translated to the field, creating a problem in need of addressing. Finding a more complimentary player to Abram is paramount to getting the most out of the defense.
The Great Linebacker Void
Nick Kwiatkoski is the gold standard of the Raiders linebacking corps even after missing time with a pectoral injury. Kwiatkoski was brought in to spearhead the Raiders defense and be the big thumper the team has lacked for quite some time. Without him, the defense left much to be desired surrendering 30 points a game and 362 yards rushing, including 250 to the New England Patriots. Teammate Cory Littleton was forced to play a game that isn’t to his strength, and many others played out of their positions.
Littleton was the big splash in free agency for the Raiders defense and so far things could be better. Allowing a 72.4% completion rate, 19.3 yards per target, a quarterback rating of 101.1, and missing 28.9% of his tackles is second among defensive starters to only Maxx Crosby (35.7%). In Littleton’s defense Nicholas Morrow having green dot duties the two games Kwiatkoski was out was far from ideal.
Morrow has been a mixed bag as well, great in coverage he provides solid pass defense. Playing the run has been another story. Moreover, the trade for Raekwon McMillian has yielded practically nothing. McMillian has played 31 total defensive snaps – two in the last two weeks and 19 against the Patriots. In a perfect world, the Raiders could combine the abilities of Morrow and McMillian. Producing a big thumping linebacker who knows Guenther’s 4-2-5 defense and has the speed to drop back in coverage.
From Bad to Good
Holding the Chiefs to 32 points isn’t exactly the perfect game nor was it impressive overall, but how the Raiders defense did it is. Matching eight second-half points allowed with a crucial turnover and limiting them to 115 second-half yards is eye-popping. Marking the first time the Chiefs offense has been dominated this season.
While many fans might not be satisfied yet, the Raiders defense took a huge step against Kansas City last weekend. After the rest of a bye week, the defense now must do something it’s failed to do so far through five games: play a complete, four-quarter game limiting an opponent to under 30 points.
The Chiefs win was a big one for Gruden and his remade Raiders roster. It was also a huge victory for Guenther. But, without consistency, it won’t matter. The Raiders must find that defensively to give this team the best opportunity to make a playoff run later in the season.