How John Pagano plans to impact Raiders defense: ‘There is always room for change’


How John Pagano plans to impact Raiders defense: ‘There is always room for change’

ALAMEDA – John Pagano can’t implement his scheme in a week. He can’t import his plays and preferences cultivated during five seasons as Chargers defensive coordinator. Full offseason programs and training camps are required for that.

Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was fired on Tuesday. Pagano will call his first Raiders game five days later against Denver at Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders’ assistant head coach – defense believes he can impact how the Silver and Black does business.

“There’s always room for change and there’s always room for doing things better,” Pagano said Thursday. “Without telling you our game plan, it’s about how we go out and execute the call, bottom line.”

Head coach Jack Del Rio said the Raiders weren’t playing fast enough. They weren’t creating enough turnovers, weren’t doing well enough on third down and weren’t regularly affecting the quarterback due to a lack of both rush and coverage.

That’s why Norton had to go.

Pagano’s first objective, which must get accomplished in a few days, is getting the Raiders to play with confidence. Then he can add some design wrinkles with some of his personality.

“You have to have that ability of going out there, knowing your assignment and playing faster,” Pagano said. “It’s not to say that there have been times where we’ve simplified things, but taking the thinking out of the game and making them react is, I think, most important. Going out there and playing fast and that’s doing the little extra things, the attention to details of studying and getting those things processed. See ball, go get ball.”

That last sentence sums up how Pagano wants his guys to play. He’s a quality play caller and creative blitzer with a knack making simple plays look complex. He can find and exploit opposing weak links. His defenses have always been good creating pressure and turnovers alike. The Raiders need more of both.

To do that Pagano wants to relieve a player’s mental burden and keep them focused on using talent well.

“The one thing I’ve always stressed and always been about is technique, fundamentals and unbelievable effort,” Pagano said. “I think those three things can get you home.”

The Raiders haven’t been home much as a defense. They’re tied for last with 14 sacks. They’re dead last with six turnovers. They’ve gone 10 games without an interception, the longest single-season drought in NFL history.

A lack of big defensive plays has killed the Raiders this season. It obviously increases points allowed. Good field position has been hard to come by. The offense has to earn everything the hard way. That’s a recipe for losing football, a maddening turn after the Raiders finished second with 30 takeaways last year.

Pagano has a chart listing “MOPs,” short for missed opportunities. There have been many, especially in a secondary he oversaw before this week.

“I talked to these guys this week about we need to do simple better,” Pagano said. “What is simple? It’s fundamentals of covering. It’s tackling. It’s communicating. It’s catching the ball when it comes. We’ve had opportunities. It’s not like we’re out there struggling and straining to dive and layout for the thing. It’s hit us in the hands where we’ve had many, many opportunities.”

Missed opportunities have also plagued a pass rush featuring reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack. Pagano brought up a moment early in Sunday’s lost to New England, when Treyvon Hester forced a fumble near three teammates that the Patriots somehow recovered.

Pagano’s goal is to improve performance. Players must buy in to do that. Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin headline a large group close to Norton, one with enough pride and professionalism to get behind a new playcaller in Pagano, who could be here long term.

“There is a human element to this,” Pagano said. “We are family. It’s sad any time a member of your family gets dismissed or something. At the end of the day, we have the Broncos coming in here on Sunday and we have to get our minds right to go play this game. That’s something that they’ve done a great job with this week, truly focusing in on what we need to do.”

Raiders (still) looking for interior pass rusher

Raiders (still) looking for interior pass rusher

The Raiders need an interior pass rusher. Pretty bad, in fact.

Head coach Jon Gruden expressed that fact recently, the need is nothing new. General manager Reggie McKenzie has attempted to remedy the situation with second-round picks in consecutive drafts, but Mario Edwards Jr. has been inconsistent and Jihad Ward has been ineffective.

The Raiders want to pair an intimidating interior presence with edge rusher Khalil Mack, to take focus away from the team’s best defender. Coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme is particularly effective with strength inside, especially a havoc-creating three-technique.

He had Geno Atkins there under Guenther in Cincinnati, but talents like that aren’t easily cloned.

They may not be readily available when the Raiders select at No. 10 overall. Washington’s Vita Vea is the draft’s best interior defensive lineman (more on him later), though the Raiders don’t have to address such a big need with the top pick.

Count respected NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock among those who believe the Raiders could wait to address this position.

"If you want to get a sub rusher, it doesn't have to be in the first round,” Mayock said in a conference call. “They've got (selections No. 41 and No. 75). You can drop down a little bit. It's not a great interior defensive line class, but there are some different guys throughout it.”

Mayock understands the steady links to Vea, a Milpitas product, but doesn’t believe the Raiders have to select him 10th.

“People want to place him there,” Mayock said. “The way I look at the Raiders, again, is at 10, they can get a significant player at 10, and it doesn't have to be an interior sub rusher or an interior rusher. They signed Tank Carradine, who's going to be on outside guy, or Armani Bryant, who can be an inside-outside guy. I think they've got to get Vanderdoes going a little bit, but there's no doubt that, again, I think they can take a safety, they can take a corner.”

There’s some talent available early and later on, as Mayock suggests. Let’s take a look at some options at this key position.

Vita Vea, Washington
-- The former Husky has surprising athleticism for someone weighing 347 pounds. He should be a good run defender right away, and has more pass-rush ability than people assume. He isn’t elite in that area, but is versatile enough to play several techniques across the line. Analysts say his college tape showed some inconsistent effort. He doesn’t perfectly fill a need, but has the type of disruptive talent the Raiders need on the inside.
Projected round (per 1

Maurice Hurst, Michigan
-- There’s little doubt Hurst is this draft’s best interior pass rusher. A heart condition discovered at the NFL Scouting Combine has made him a wild card. He was cleared to participate in his pro day, and wasn’t asked to submit to a combine re-check. Then came reports about him being removed from consideration by some teams, and a possible fall to Day 3 of this draft. That could be a smoke screen. We may never know its validity. That said: it takes but one team to believe in his prolonged health to go for him early. He could be a Raiders target in the second round if he lasts that long.
Projected rounds: 1-3 (or 4)

Taven Bryan, Florida
Scouts believe Bryan’s best football lies ahead. He doesn’t have great stats, but Bryan’s a freak athlete which the burst and ability to fit well in the Raiders’ one-gap scheme. He’s a tick behind Hurst in terms of raw pass-rush skills, but finds ways to penetrate the pocket. Bryan is considered a first-round talent, and would have to be a trade-down candidate to end up in Silver and Black.
Projected round (per 1

Nathan Shepherd, Fort Hays State
-- The small-school talent has great size (6-4, 315), athleticism and pass-rush ability, though he’s considered a raw prospect that needs some development time. Analysts say he’s coachable and could be a productive player if he combines improved technique with his physical tools. He wants to be good, and could prove a worthy project for this new coaching staff.
Projected rounds: 2-3

P.J. Hall, Sam Houston State
-- Another small school guy with tremendous college production. Mayock mentioned him when offering Raiders possibilities at defensive tackle, and seems to have the physical talent to be a good pass rusher. He stands 6-1, 310 and played nose tackle in college, but created havoc inside against his level of competition. He’s athletic, with power and quickness, though it’s uncertain how he’ll fare against NFL competition. He showed well at the Shrine Game, which helped increase his profile.
Projected rounds (per 3-4

R.J. McIntosh, Miami
Here’s another project for the Raiders staff. This is a talented athlete, who could be a solid pass rusher. Analysts say he needs to improve his hand technique, but has potential in a one-gap scheme like the Raiders employ. He could play outside in a base defense and bounce inside. He’ll take some time to develop, and could be available later in the draft.
Projected rounds (per 3-5

Raiders must 'hit some home runs' in NFL Draft, get more from previous classes

Raiders must 'hit some home runs' in NFL Draft, get more from previous classes

Reggie McKenzie has made some excellent draft picks. The Raiders general manager built a young foundation through amateur selection, including prominent players at vital positions.

Franchise quarterback Derek Carr, elite edge rusher Khalil Mack, stout guard Gabe Jackson and dynamic receiver Amari Cooper have all heard their name called on draft day.

One problem: Those guys have been given contract extensions or will get one soon.

In other words, it’s been a while since McKenzie struck gold.

The 2014 draft class is his signature, an elite collection among the NFL’s best over the last decade. Then he nabbed Cooper in 2015. And not much since then.

2016 first-round Karl Joseph is a consistent starter, and that’s the nicest thing you can say about anyone drafted recently.

Only three members of the 2015 class remain on the roster. The 2016 group includes defensive lineman Jihad Ward, edge rusher Shilique Calhoun and quarterback Connor Cook, taken in round 2-4, respectively, who haven’t made significant contributions.

Last year’s crop was decimated by injury, with the top three draft picks all undergoing major surgery their rookie year.

It didn’t take new head coach Jon Gruden long to acknowledge that. He said at the NFL Scouting Combine that the Raiders need more from their last three draft classes, singling Cooper out as that group’s only impact player.

Building depth and top quality through the draft is vital on a Raiders squad with so much money going to Carr right now and Mack in the near future. They can’t afford to swing and miss so often.

The Raiders need to hit a home run in this week’s 2018 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday evening. They must also mine more from guys already here. The jury’s still out on these young players, but they must show better posthaste.

“I’m not closing the book on last year’s draft of two years ago draft,” Gruden said Tuesday. “Our job is to develop players. That’s what coaches are here to do. We’re not here to draft people and sign the contracts and do all that stuff necessarily. We’re here to develop the players that are in the building. We need to do a better job getting more out of those three classes.

“At the same time, we have to hit some home runs in this draft. We have to get some players that can come in and help us.”

The Raiders have 11 selections, starting with the No. 10 overall pick. They have plenty of roster needs and must start filling them now.

Insufficient recent returns, however, won’t add urgency to this year’s proceedings. Each year is independent, with an opportunity to find impact players.

“What we want to do is just bring in some good players, really good football players,” McKenzie said last week. “We’re not going to beat up on some of these guys who physically were not able to get out there and play. Hopefully some of these guys from the past drafts, we can get them out there, keep them healthy and see what they can do. Hopefully this is the year. Even the guys we draft this year, we have no idea if they can make it through OTAs or training camp and preseason healthy. You just hope and pray they can be there for us and see what they can do during the season. We’re hopeful that we can stay healthy and let the guys play.”