SARASOTA, Fla. – The Raiders want defensive lineman Jihad Ward to stop acting like a robot. The rookie second-round pick is a bit too rigid at times, trying too hard to play by the rules.
With his agility and athleticism, coaches want him to riff a little bit and make more plays.
“The message is, don’t be so rigid,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “Yeah, you have the B-gap, but you can whip that guy and go make a play in the A or B or C or somewhere else in the backfield. Sometimes young guys are so conscientious on being exactly where they have to be that they just don’t play football. So, we want our guys to express themselves, want them to let it flow and just trust their instincts to help play football.”
Ward is learning on the fly this season. He’s playing far more that anyone expected, largely because Mario Edwards Jr. is on injured reserve with a hip injury. He’s on the comeback trail, and hopes to join an improved Ward and Denico Autry on the interior defensive line.
“I’m just taking it to the next step,” Ward said. “You have to keep learning and learning and getting better. I have learning to do. I feel a little like a robot, you know what I’m saying? It just takes time. Everything takes time.”
Rookies often worry to much about following the letter of the law, and the Raiders hope Ward realizes how much talent is locked inside.
“He’s an effort-filled guy. I’m waiting for him to kind of recognize how athletic he is,” Del Rio said. “He’s a lot more athletic than some of the linemen he’s allowing to actually get their hands on him. So, as he gains that experience and recognizes that more and more, I think we’ll cut him loose more and more.”
Interior pressure has been missing from the Raiders defense, though Ward provided more of it in a victory over Jacksonville and has shown better in recent weeks. It still isn’t good enough for the Illinois product, who was always as a high-ceiling player who needed some polish.
That has come through experience in a busy rookie year where he’s playing 60 percent of Raiders defensive snaps.
“With me first coming up in the NFL, I’m wondering, ‘Why am I thinking too much?,’” Ward said. “I have it, ain’t no point in thinking. … I just have to keep trusting it, keep trusting it and that’s all I have to say on that one.”