Raiders defense season review: Inconsistent play at core of lowest grades
Plenty of praise and criticism to go around
The Raiders defense allowed far too many yards this season.
They ranked 26th in that category, and dead last with 6.1 yards per play. Those numbers aren’t great, though Raiders found ways to remain competitive. The team had 30 takeaways and the defense played decent on third down, which kept enough points off the board for a potent offense to surge ahead. The defense was also solid late in games, which allowed for so many of Derek Carr’s heroic comebacks.
There’s praise and criticism to go around in this inconsistent unit’s 2016 performance. Let’s take a look at each position group:
The Raiders recorded an NFL low 25 sacks this season. Can’t blame their outside presence for that. Khalil Mack is a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate who finished another excellent season with 11 sacks, five forced fumbles, three recoveries and a pick six. He was awesome in run defense, and closed two games with a strip sack where he recovered his own fumble. Bruce Irvin also had a strong year, with seven sacks and an NFL-high six forced fumbles. This group could’ve used Aldon Smith, but his reinstatement hasn’t been approved. Shilique Calhoun had a forgettable rookie year, and James Cowser was okay after Calhoun got hurt.
The Raiders interior defensive line missed Mario Edwards Jr. this season. He missed 15 games with a hip injury, taking away the team’s most dynamic interior pass rusher. They didn’t get much push inside, especially with Stacy McGee missing significant time due to injury. Jihad Ward was largely ineffective and remains a work in process, and Denico Autry dealt with wrist issues. Run defense was subpar as well. Upgrades should be expected in this group, which was called out by head coach Jack Del Rio after the season.
Newcomer Perry Riley stabilized the interior linebacker corps after Ben Heeney and Cory James struggled early in the year. The veteran was an effective, especially against the run. He was decent in coverage. Malcolm Smith had a decent year and played better against the run, but was part of the team’s issues covering tight ends. The Raiders don’t have much depth here, with James and special teams standout Daren Bates as the primary backups. The Raiders need speed and sure tackling at this spot.
The Raiders spent significant funds on cover men this season, and didn’t receive true shutdown play in return. Sean Smith and David Amerson gave up too many big plays, especially against speedy receivers. Both guys fared worse than a year ago, but weren’t consistently bad. Smith wasn’t targeted much, and Amerson made some big plays on the ball. DJ Hayden showed a knack for playing in the slot, and TJ Carrie was strong in coverage after Hayden got hurt.
Reggie Nelson took some time to function well in the Raiders defensive scheme, but he ended up with five interceptions and two fumble recoveries in a Pro Bowl year. He had three takeaways and one massive hit against Baltimore to secure victories, and was a quality leadership presence on the back end. Rookie Karl Joseph played well after taking over in Week 3, but a toe injury kept him out down the stretch. Nate Allen was a serviceable backup, who was reliable when called upon. Keith McGill was a disappointment.
Ken Norton Jr. spent most of his season under fire for running a defense that didn’t live up to expectation. He stayed the course and his unit improved over time, especially during a six-game winning streak near midseason. Head coach Jack Del Rio kept him around after the season, though secondary coach Marcus Robertson was let go this week. Del Rio is a defensive-minded coach who has serious say in this scheme, though it’s clear personnel upgrades are required to get this unit on the right track.