Raiders defense needs more inside push in midseason report card

The Raiders’ 5-2 record could be even better with just a little more push into the pocket.

Here’s a full evaluation of the Raiders defense, broken up by position group, and what it all means going forward.

Defensive line

Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin haven’t exactly packed the stat sheet the way they were expected to thus far into the season. But don’t fault them, at least not entirely.

Irvin and Mack have been a force this year, but the reason they haven’t been terribly effective statistically is that the interior pressure has been awful. This is the most obvious thing to point to when figuring how a defense that looked so good on paper entering the season has been wildly sporadic.

It’s also the most important.

Rookie Jihad Ward has not developed quickly enough to continue as a starter if the Raiders are going to be successful this year. The contrarian argument for Ward’s draft position being way too high is his inability to get off blocks, despite his impressive size and strength combination.

Ward, in fact, has earned the lowest grade of any Raiders defensive starter from Pro Football Focus, a 38.7 red mark that aligns with some of the worst players in the league.

That’s not to say he won’t grow, but those looking to point fingers, can easily find Ward on gameday looking like he’s content being blocked by players with lesser physical ability.

Rushing the passer isn’t an overly complex assignment, you use your hands and some judo moves, and get after the guy with a single digit on his jersey. For some reason, though, Ward has never been able to do the things he’s needed to do, in college or the NFL.

He’s a player that could probably benefit from taking a backseat and working with a martial arts instructor during his normal practice time, since he has all the tools that can’t be taught but isn’t able to use them.

Denico Autry has been effective at times, but appears to get gassed after about 50 snaps, and the same could be said for Justin Ellis. Dan Williams remains one of the better run stuffers in football, but doesn’t have the help he needs to be effective in that role.

The Raiders, in order to regain some steam in the pass rushing department, need a few different things to happen.

Getting a healthy Mario Edwards Jr. back would be the best case here, but it’s tough to determine whether that will happen this season. The clock is ticking, and Edwards hasn’t been practicing with the team yet.

Oakland has until week 11 to activate him.

Aldon Smith stepping in at defensive end, and having Irvin drop three yards back to replace Malcolm Smith at linebacker, is another. Whether that makes a huge impact is tough to determine, and though the pass rushing Smith has supreme talent, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he’ll be reinstated immediately, and what kind of impact he’d make.

The third option is to negotiate a trade for an interior pass rusher with credentials.

Kawann Short of the Panthers, perhaps, or Nick Fairley of the Saints. Neither team appears to be going anywhere this season, and both players could be on the move after this season.

Short is coming off his rookie deal, and has youth on his side — making him the more expensive and risky option. Fairley, though, could be much more affordable and provide a similar impact.

In fact, he might be the best option in general — contracts for players like Short have hit quarterback levels in terms of length and guaranteed compensation, but Fairley could be retained for around $5 million per season from 2017 until 2019.

More than that, we’ve yet to see a team win while paying a free agent defensive lineman the kind of cash that Ndamukong Suh got from Miami two years ago.

Regardless of what happens, the Raiders desperately need a boost in the middle of the defensive line.

Linebackers

Perry Riley has been pretty darned good, hasn’t he?

The rest of the group has been in flux, though, and it’s entirely possible that Riley falls back down to earth.

Cory James, Malcolm Smith and the rest of the depth has failed to prove they can menace an opposing team, while not playing bad enough to receive much for harsh criticism.

One of the beautiful things about football, especially considering the nature of other sports, is that everything matters. Hand placement at the line of scrimmage, if for only a split second, can effect what happens 40 yards downfield.

Let us not take that too far, though, the Raiders linebacker group is average. Which is actually a good thing for the team since they haven’t used much of their resources on the unit — slightly strange considering general manager Reggie McKenzie, and coaches Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton Jr. all played linebacker.

Perhaps the belief is that there hasn’t been the right option waiting there for them to scoop up, or perhaps their feeling is that they have a solid group that know their assignments, and they just need things to come together a little more.

I think the latter would beĀ fair.

There’s no debating that Oakland lacks an elite playmaker at linebacker, but there’s a solid unit there at the same time. Shilique Calhoun has tremendous upside, but the holes in his game have prevented him from seeing the field as much as the Raiders would like.

And that’s not really a knock — there have been many greats who didn’t see the field right away, such as Mike Singletary.

If Calhoun can develop into an average player by the end of the season, the Raiders are in a very good spot. If he can develop into an above average player by the end of his second season, then holy cow, the Raiders would be feared.

And one or two elite seasons while Calhoun is on his rookie deal, and the rest of the defense still healthy? That’s a real deal Super Bowl favorite with the offense moving like it has.

Until that happens, though, Oakland shouldn’t take shame in having an average group — especially not after the last 15 seasons. This might still be the best in that time period.

Secondary

Karl Joseph can play some ball.

So can David Amerson and Sean Smith. Let’s talk about things we don’t know already, though.

The Raiders are one injury away from a pretty tough hole. Their depth beyond the established starters is thin, and though I believe highly that Keith McGill can play a really solid safety, he hasn’t staved off competition yet.

It’s also surprising to me that T.J. Carrie has fallen off the face of the earth like he has. Two years ago, Carrie was being compared to Denver’s Chris Harris. Now? He’s not even brought up during broadcasts.

Because he’s yet to face anything close to starting competition in practice or on gameday, an evaluation is impossible to complete. Not to mention how close to the vest the Raiders manageĀ their media availability.

I’d be willing to extent an olive branch and consider Carrie as a solid reserve, based on how he played during his last two seasons. But things happen quickly in the NFL, and the margin of separation between players can make an ant look big.

There’s also no sense in hammering Smith for a few blown plays.

He let Brandin Cooks off with a free release than turned into a 98-yard touchdown reception. A few more big plays have gone over his head.

He’s already grabbed a pair of interceptions, though, and he’s never picked more than two balls off in any one season. He’s also on pace for his career average in passes defensed, with Amerson being avoided more by quarterbacks with every passing week.

And as Karl Joseph continues to develop — he’s already an average starting safety — the unit’s future appears very bright. Like that of a star, or another solar anomaly.

With Reggie Nelson‘s leadership, and Nate Allen being a capable backup, the Raiders don’t have to worry much about their roster, despite their horrid ranking among NFL defenses.

Bottom line

The Raiders defense has let too many big plays go, and even when they faced quarterbacks not named Ryan or Brees, a lot of mistakes have been made.

They need some production on the interior line in the worst way. Without that, a playoff berth might be wasted, and a better team could be left behind.

But seven or eight games does not make a season, especially when there’s some depth returning — maybe.

I’m a fervent believer that the Raiders should aggressively pursue adding a defensive tackle in the trade market, especially if they can nab Fairley for a third rounder, or maybe someone drafted when Dennis Allen was head coach — like Carrie.

A deal that doesn’t include the next two seasons would be a waste, though there are players out there that could represent a major upgrade between Mack and Irvin.

If the market for Fairley is too tough, since every contender could stand to improve from the veteran pass rusher and his cap hit is almost non-existent, perhaps they should go bigger. Maybe Suh could be had, since the Dolphins are going deeper underground and they might as well punt while they have the most leverage.

If the Raiders find a way to manufacture some interior pressure, then this defense should be flying high. Until then, though, it’s an average unit with too much above average talent.


Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.