ALAMEDA -- No doubt with starters Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer injured, the Raiders are thin at cornerback. So thin that Oakland signed Brandian Ross off Green Bay's practice squad and starting free safety Michael Huff took some snaps at corner on Wednesday.So how comfortable, or uncomfortable, is coach Dennis Allen with the Raiders' current depth at cornerback?"Listen," Allen said, "it is what it is. Our deal is, weve got NFL football players and we got to go out and play at a certain level and we hold all our guys accountable at the same level."Currently, the Raiders have healthy cornerbacks in Pat Lee, Joselio Hanson, Philip Adams and Ross. Even Coye Francies was out with a concussion suffered Sunday in Miami.So the Raiders even considering moving Huff to a corner makes some sense."Hell probably take some reps there this week," Allen said.So what makes Huff so unique among safeties that he might be able to make the move?"Speed and athleticism," Allen said. "Thats the biggest thing. Youve got to be able to run and play out there on the edge and he can certainly do that."There had been rumblings out of Hue Jackson's staff that they were considering switching Huff. And this regime?"No, no," Allen said. "That really wasnt a consideration."What made the Raiders consider Ross, though, was his physicalityand the familiarity general manager Reggie McKenzie had with him from their days in Green Bay together."He's a big guy (and he) has got some coverage skills," Allen said. "He's a guy that Reggie knew from being there with him, so he was a guy we thought could come in and compete."Ross said he planned on playing against Pittsburgh on Sunday, regardless of any learning curves."It's just different fronts," Ross said. "As far as coverages, coverages don't change that much throughout the league. It shouldn't take long."That's the plan -- try to pick up (the schemes) ASAP so I can help get this first 'W' here."Said Allen: "I think well have to wait and see how this week plays out. I dont know that right now just because today was kind of the first day he came out to practice. So were going to evaluate that as we go through the week and see where hes at."
ALAMEDA – Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio was twice asked about making in-season changes at his Monday press conference.
He wouldn’t rule it out. Del Rio said he would do anything necessary to help the team “win now,” and later said "we're not getting into staff questions this week."
Then he fired Ken Norton Jr. the next day, hoping the dismissal will provide a spark.
It might. More likely, it might not do enough.
It is a shot across the bow at its base, a signal that subpar play won't be tolerated.
“We played under our talent level,” defensive tackle Justin Ellis said, “Those things come with consequences.”
New play caller John Pagano has a unique style and knows how to bring creative pressure, disguise a simple play as complex and exploit weak links, but he won’t be using his system this season. He’ll still be working within Norton/Del Rio’s scheme and, more importantly, he’s still playing chess with existing, often inferior pieces. The Raiders understand that, and likely won't judge him on this final stretch alone.
Why? The defense doesn’t have enough talent in the secondary, the interior defensive line or the inside linebacker corps. That’s not on Norton or Pagano.
Pagano can’t do a thing about an offense struggling mightily to catch passes, block consistently and let plays develop downfield.
The Raiders have some major talent problems, with rush and coverage rarely working together as desired. That, and some uninspired schematics, have produced awful statistics.
The Raiders don’t have an interception, and are the first team to go 10 games without a pick. They’re on track to have the second-worst opposing completion percentage (72.3) and passer rating (113.3) in NFL history, per the Associated Press.
They’re also last in sacks for the second straight year, with just 14 this season despite having reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack.
They're thin because last year's second and third round picks, Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun aren't contributing. This year's draft class had to make an immediate impact, but Gareon Conley played two games, Obi Melifonwu spent eight games on IR and Eddie Vanderdoes as underwhelmed after a promising start.
Highly paid free agents haven't performed well enough, and many could be shown the door.
It’s possible roughly half of the starting lineup doesn’t return next season, with Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, Bruce Irvin and NaVorro Bowman likely out the door as free agents or roster cuts.
In sum, this isn’t all Norton’s fault.
He was, however, the easiest cut. You can’t fire players en masse during the year, and Pagano was an easy replacement without disrupting the position coaches. Pagano has extensive experience calling plays. He was the then-San Diego Chargers’ defensive coordinator from 2012-16.
Norton wasn’t an innovative play caller. He was passed over for coordinator jobs while serving as Seattle’s linebackers coach, after Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn were hired as head coaches. Del Rio, who played with Norton in Dallas back from 1989-91, hired Norton shortly after being hired by the Raiders.
The Raiders' defense has never been good under Norton/Del Rio, and Norton was on a hot seat most of last season. It was surprising when Pagano was hired that Norton was retained and allowed to continue despite underwhelming performance.
Norton was immensely popular in the locker room, especially with members of the front seven. Mack and Irvin in particular were Norton guys. Norton and Irvin go way back to Irvin’s Seattle days, where the coach helped the player get and stay on the right path.
That’s why this firing was deeply felt on Tuesday. The players were told in an afternoon meeting, following a walk-through focused on corrections from Sunday’s New England loss.
"The axe came down on everybody," free safety Reggie Nelson said. "Everybody felt it in this building. Players, we love Norton, regardless. Unfortunately, the production wasn't a high standard this year and it's a production league. He's not playing. We are.”
The Raiders are 4-6, and can’t afford to lose many more games. They might need to be perfect down the stretch to avoid a messy tiebreaker situation. That’s a tough ask for a team that’s been woefully inconsistent on both sides. This team was always expected to shoot for the middle defensively and have a potentially great offense score points by the bushel.
The offense has been most disappointing, performing far below its pay grade and talent level. There was no movement on that side of the ball. The Raiders hope, with fingers firmly crossed, this defensive change provide the spark necessary to create turnovers and quarterback pressure than has been lacking in a disastrous season to this point.
Ken Norton Jr.'s time with the Raiders is up.
With the team underperforming, Oakland has fired Norton as the defensive coordinator, the team announced Tuesday afternoon. John Pagano will handle the play calling duties when the Raiders take on the Broncos this Sunday.
Head coach Jack Del Rio issued the following statement regarding the news:
“After careful thought, I have made a difficult decision to part ways with Ken Norton, Jr. as defensive coordinator. I have the utmost respect for Ken as a person and as a coach, but I feel that moving John Pagano into the play-calling role will best utilize his wealth of experience. I appreciate Ken’s passion and commitment to the Raiders since coming aboard and wish him the best going forward.”
The Raiders defense under Norton this season ranks 26th in the NFL in yards allow per game (367.0), is allowing 24.7 points per game and has yet to record an interception through 10 games.
"We played under our talent level. Those things come with consequences," defensive lineman Justin Ellis told reporters shortly after the news broke.
"The axe fell on all of us. We love Coach Norton. We didn’t want to see this happen," safety Reggie Nelson said.
Norton joined Del Rio's staff prior to the 2015 season.