Best Defensive Scheme for the Oakland Raiders In 2016

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” – John F. Kennedy

The Oakland Raiders have traditionally had a tough, hard-nosed 4-3 defense which has been in effect since Al Davis took charge of that team in the 1960s. The Raiders have implemented a 3-4 before, but mostly, a 4-3 defense is and has been their bread and butter. It is no secret that Davis, who had full control of that team, held the Raiders back from change and progression.

As the game of football became quicker and more focused on what the quarterback does, Davis stuck to the same 4-3 scheme that worked for the Raiders when Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long was still there, and the NFL was more run-oriented. After Davis passed, current general manager Reggie McKenzie was hired to replace him, and he has done a wonderful job remaking the team. This is obviously the most talented team that the Raiders have had since they went to the Super Bowl in 2002 and with that talent, some traditions might need to be forgotten.

Best Defensive Scheme for the Oakland Raiders In 2016

The Defensive Line

The Oakland Raiders have a lot of talent on the defensive side of that ball, especially in the front seven. The defensive line and linebackers have a splendid mix of pass rushers, run stoppers, and athletic freaks with high IQs. On the defensive line, Mario Edwards holds a defensive end spot when he’s healthy. The healthy aspect has been an issue, with Edwards suffering a severe neck injury at the end of the 2015 season, and going down with a hip injury in the first preseason game of 2016, that will keep him from playing between a month and six weeks. When he’s on the field, he’s been a monster. He recorded 42 tackles, two sacks, forced three fumbles and also batted down two passes in ten starts in his rookie year. On the other side of the line, football fans now know the name Khalil Mack, who had a breakout year as a sophomore. Mack starts at defensive end, but has the versatility to play all over the field in the front seven.

On the inside of the line, the Raiders have two, 6’2” 330 pound, run-stuffing nose tackles in Justin “Jelly” Ellis and Dan Williams who were dubbed by teammates last year as “Meat and Potatoes.” Since Ellis is already nicknamed “Jelly”, it would seem appropriate to nickname the two “Peanut Butter and Jelly”, but to each his own.

With that being said, those two are monster tackles that command double teams and collapse the middle, forcing running backs to bounce to the outside, as well as freeing up lanes for the pass rushers. The Raiders second round pick of the 2016 NFL Draft was Jihad Ward of the University of Illinois. Ward was viewed as very raw coming out of the draft and a questionable pick in the second round. According to the analysis of Raiders insiders Levi Damien and Vic Tafur, Ward is the “real deal” and has been tearing up offensive linemen in practice. Ward is listed as the starting defensive tackle next to Ellis/Williams. The depth of the Raiders is good, with experienced Denico Autry as the first defensive end off of the bench and Stacy McGee backing up Ward at defensive tackle.

The Linebackers

One of the best free agent signings that the Oakland Raiders made during the off-season was giving former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin a four year $37 million deal. Irvin is one of those freak athletes mentioned earlier that can do so many things on field. Irvin’s ability to drop into coverage, rush the passer and defend the run makes him very valuable. Irvin is listed as the strong side linebacker (SAM) right now, which is most likely where he will be most of the season. The weak side linebacker, or the WILL, is going to be manned by another former Seahawk, Malcolm Smith. The WILL plays on the weak side of the line (where the tight end is not lined up) in a 4-3 defense. If the Raiders go to a 3-4, Smith will be on the inside with Ben Heeney. One of the positions that has really gone through a change is the middle linebacker position or the MIKE.

Instead of the hulking monsters like Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis that we used to see, smaller, “undersized”, and more versatile players are manning the middle. The game has changed and the game has gotten faster and more focused on the passing game. The big middle linebackers that stuff the run are a bit outdated. There are still questions about whether Heeney is the right man for taking full control of the MIKE, but the coaches have full confidence in him and are convinced he’s the man for the job. He was given the green-dot helmet, which means he is getting the calls directly from defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

All three of these linebackers, Irvin, Malcolm Smith, and Heeney are great in pass coverage, rush the passer well, and defend the run adequately. Another important linebacker position is the LEO. This is a hybrid linebacker and defensive end that has pretty much one job: rush the passer. Three players on the Raiders are perfect for this role.

Shilique Calhoun out of Michigan State University was drafted in the third round this past April, and is considered one of the best pass rushers of the draft class. Along with Jihad Ward, Calhoun has also been getting a lot of praise during training camp. Aldon Smith, when he’s on the field, is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. The last time he played a full season, in 2012, he racked up 19.5 sacks, good for second in the league. The problem for Smith has been staying out of trouble. He has been in a lot of legal trouble, from weapons charges to driving intoxicated. He has been suspended a few times already and is serving a ten game suspension at the start of the 2016 season. As long as he stays clean, and stays out of trouble, he will be back and will take over that LEO spot. He is there to rush the passer and that is what he is best at. Khalil Mack is another player we will probably see at the LEO, like we did last year.

4-3 or 3-4? That is the Question.

Traditionally, this is what the Oakland Raiders have been about. This also seems to be what the Raiders are rolling with as of now, as their base defense. Mack and Mario Edwards are at the defensive end spots and Jihad Ward and Justin Ellis start at defensive tackle. Bruce Irvin, Ben Heeney, and Malcolm Smith are the SAM, MIKE, and WILL linebackers in that order. Rotating in and out of the defense will be defensive tackle Dan Williams, defensive end Denico Autry, and Shilique Calhoun. Those will be the first three off of the bench, and will give Ellis, Edwards, Mack and Irvin breathers when they need them. This seems to be the wrong base to have. The 4-3 traditionally focuses on defending the run, and having a base 4-3 is the wrong move when having a galore of pass rusher like the Raiders have.

A 3-4 base defense with some 4-3 looks makes the most sense. With a 3-4 base, Ward would move to defensive end, Ellis and Williams would play their natural nose tackle spots, Malcolm Smith moves inside, still as the WILL, and Mack stands up on the outside as the LEO. Smith and Heeney are the best two coverage linebackers and both of them would read the defense, make adjustments, and defend the tight ends, slot receivers and linebackers. At the SAM, Bruce Irvin’s job will be dropping into coverage or rushing the passer, depending on what play is called. There are a lot of looks this team can give.

Staying within this 3-4 look, whenever Ward or Edwards need to come out, Mack can drop to a 3 point stance as a defensive end, and Calhoun would assume the LEO. A 4-3 wouldn’t be ideal for that situation, since Mack would be a defensive end already, so if Edwards needed to come out, Denico Autry would replace him. Autry is good, but Calhoun is a better option and having him on the outside standing up with Ward and Mack on the ends is scarier.

When Aldon Smith comes back, the 4-3 becomes easier to work with. In this situation, Smith would take over a defensive end spot. That means that either Edwards or Mack is bounced out. It seems more likely that Mack would be bounced out to the outside linebacker spot, moving Malcolm Smith to the bench or to the middle, putting Heeney on the bench. Either way, there will be a starter on the bench, which goes to show how deep the Raiders are. Still, the smartest decision looks like the 3-4, with instead of Edwards or Malcolm Smith getting replaced, that makes Aldon Smith replacing Ward at the defensive end more likely. That keeps Edwards at the other end spot, Malcolm Smith is still inside with Heeney, and Mack and Irvin are at the LEO and SAM spots. Come Week 11 when Aldon Smith comes back, the Raiders will be in an even better situation than they already are, by having to move a starter to the bench. There are a lot of 4-3 and 3-4 looks that could be made and will be used by Ken Norton Jr.

4-2? 5-2? 2-5???

Yes, there is a good chance some unconventional schemes will be put out there by the Raiders this year. A 4-2 isn’t that unconventional, but it is worth mentioning because it is not a 4-3 or 3-4 which has been the main topic so far. When the Raiders go from the 3-4 to the nickel on obvious passing downs, Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin should shift down to defensive ends, Jihad Ward and Mario Edwards will move inside as defensive tackles, and Malcolm Smith and Heeney will be the two linebackers behind them, most likely in coverage, or one will rush. When Aldon Smith comes back, this gets interesting, and a bit exciting.

A four-man defensive line of Irvin, Aldon Smith, Edwards and Mack is scary for quarterbacks. In the 4-2 nickel, those four would be on the line, Heeney and Malcolm Smith would be the linebackers, and the Raiders would have five players in the secondary. A 4-3 nickel would put Neiron Ball, one of their best coverage linebackers, as the other linebacker. However, if this is a regular 4-3 with that defensive line, Calhoun, Malcolm Smith and Ben Heeney would be the linebackers, and Calhoun would most likely be rushing the passer as well. Quarterbacks beware.

A 5-2 look is really rare, but that could be something seen during the 2016 season too. Instead of having that extra player in the secondary, the defensive line would have five up front. The Raiders could manage this any number of ways as well. Ellis or Williams could play the nose tackle, Ward and Edwards would be inside at defensive tackle, and Mack and Irvin would be the defensive ends. This is probably what a 5-2 set would look like pre-Aldon Smith.

Scary, because that means either Irvin or Mack will have a tight end attempting to block them with the nose tackle taking two offensive lineman. That doesn’t bode well, for opposing quarterbacks. However, the Raiders probably won’t show a 5-2 look until Aldon Smith comes in Week 11, and then that is some real scary stuff. Ward, Ellis, or Williams will be the nose tackle. Edwards and Mack will be at defensive tackle spots next to the nose tackle. Aldon Smith and Bruce Irvin will be the ends, again, with one of them matched up with a tight end.

For a Raiders fan, that will be fun to watch. Someone is getting double teamed in that 5-2 look, and that leaves four other defensive linemen one-on-one with their matchups, where the Raiders defensive linemen will win that more often than not. Is this a sack every time? No, but it will definitely put pressure on the quarterback, resulting in a hurried pass that will could result in an interception or incompletion. When the Raiders play a team with an elite quarterback, it would be difficult to see Ken Norton Jr. put a 5-2 set out there. But when the Raiders are playing the Denver Broncos, who as of now have Mark Sanchez and something called a Trevor Siemian listed as their number one quarterbacks, this lineup could easily end the play with a sack, interception, or incompletion.

The last lineup the Raiders could throw out there is a 2-5 look. This is another really interesting pass rushing lineup. Mario Edwards will definitely be on the line, next to probably Aldon Smith, just so that there is the threat that Mack will either rush or drop into coverage as a linebacker. With Edwards and Smith on the line, Mack, Irvin, Heeney, Malcolm Smith, and Calhoun will be the five linebackers.

The only definite pass rusher is Calhoun, since he never dropped into coverage with Michigan State, one would assume his coverage skills need work and he wouldn’t be trusted to drop back very much, especially in this lineup. With the other four, all have the ability to rush the passer or drop into coverage and defend the throw. With five linebackers standing up on the line, the opposing offensive line will have a difficult time trying to figure out their matchups which leads to a wasted timeout, or one of these pass rushers going unblocked and getting to the quarterback.

A 5-2, 2-5, or 4-2 can reap big rewards if they are executed properly and successfully. The Raiders have the personnel to make these sets works, but they have to be used sparingly and wisely, because it could result in a huge play for the offense.

Conclusion: 3-4 Base With 4-3 Looks

A 3-4 base is the best option for the Oakland Raiders. Change is inevitable and necessary for teams that plan on succeeding as the new eras come and go. With Al Davis running the team, the Raiders were stuck in a loop, continuing to go for players that just didn’t work. Eras change, players change, and schemes change. The Oakland Raiders have the right personnel now, and it’s time to fit the personnel in the right scheme. Setting “Meat and Potatoes” at their natural nose tackle spots, giving Jihad Ward/Aldon Smith and Mario Edwards the end positions, and putting Mack, Irvin, Malcolm Smith, and Ben Heeney out as the linebackers is the best situation for the Raiders. This gives them all sorts of flexibility and lineup variations that Norton Jr. can dish out. The 2-5 and 5-2 sets are high-risk but high-reward options, and it will be rare to see either one of those lineups. But when Norton Jr. does call one of those sets, expect a big play to happen. This is the best Oakland Raiders team that the NFL has seen since 2002, and they will be exciting to watch.