Season review -- Raiders LBs


Season review -- Raiders LBs

Having been totally rebuilt in 2010, the Raiders linebackers corps promised to be a strength in 2011. It was anything but. The second line of defense, coached by Greg Biekert and assisted by Ricky Hunley, was burned early and often. So much so that Biekert is purportedly on his way out of Oakland. Was it scheme? Desire? Talent? Injuries that hurt the group's depth? In a word, yes. Expect a new look in 2012.
Grade: FLINEBACKERSAaron Curry -- Acquired on a Thursday from Seattle for a seventh-round draft pick, Curry started at weakside linebacker for the Raiders three days later, supplanting Quentin Groves while bringing more energy and activity to the position than seen in years. But while the word on him that he lacked something in coverage skills was proven, Curry did seem reborn in Oakland. And yet, there was the occasional over-the-top moment, such as the poorly-timed 15-yard penalty, like the flag he received for boxing up the goalpost after returning a fumble six yards for a touchdown against Detroit that portended the Lions' comeback. Still, Curry did not have a sack for the Raiders but his 46 tackles ranked eighth on the team, despite his not joining the team until Week 6.RELATED: Aaron Curry 2011 game logs
Rolando McClain -- Oh boy, where to start? The No. 8 pick of the 2010 draft entered camp seemingly a changed player, saying he did not like the way he played as a rookie. And yet, many of the same issues arose -- unable to shed blocks, easily re-directed, taking bad angles. No, McClain is not (yet?) the game-changing MLB the Raiders envisioned when they took him out of Alabama in the mold of Ray Lewis or Patrick Willis. But those guys play inside in 3-4 alignments, same as McClain in college. Still, it was painfully obvious when he was not on the field. And his arrest in his hometown of Decatur, Ala., for allegedly firing a gun next to a man's head, cast a pall over the organization, especially his grinning-like-a-fiend picture as he was put into a police car. The Raiders lost four of five after the arrest, even as no disciplinary actions were taken against McClain by the Raiders. And yet, though it all, McClain wracked up the stats, going for 99 tackles (he had 85 as a rookie) with five sacks (he had 12 of one in '10). And get this -- he averaged 8.4 tackles per game and had three sacks and a safety after his arrest.RELATED: Rolando McClain 2011 game logs
Kamerion Wimbley -- After leading the Raiders in sacks with nine in 2010, Wimbley was due to get a bump in pay from 685,000 to almost 4.2 million thanks to a 3.5 million "buyback option." But the deal was found in violation of the league's "30-percent rule," so the Raiders used the franchise tag on him, guaranteeing him 11.3 million. But in an effort to create cap space, his deal was re-worked to a five-year, 48-million contract, with 29 million guaranteed. So Wimbley went from 685,000 to 29 million in a few months time. Did the strongside linebacker's play reflect the jump in paychecks? You be the judge. His tackles rose from 57 to 62, but his sacks fell from nine to seven. And four of those sacks came in one game, at San Diego, when Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeil was knocked out of the game by Curry.RELATED: Kamerion Wimbley 2011 game logs
Quentin Groves -- Despite being part of Oakland's rebuilding of their linebackers in 2010, Groves never seemed to have the complete faith of the coaching staff. It came to fruition after five games, when he was replaced by Curry. Still, Groves did not sulk. Rather, he became a high-energy standout on special teams and finished the season with 24 tackles. A looming free agent, even he admitted the day after the season finale that he had probably played his final game with the Raiders.RELATED: Quentin Groves 2011 game logs
Darryl Blackstock -- The UFL refugee had a history with defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, made the team coming out of camp and became the backup middle linebacker after Ricky Brown was lost for the season following Week 3. Blackstock appeared in all 16 games and had 20 tackles. But he struggled mightily in his one start, in place of the injured McClain, against Denver and Tim Tebow.RELATED: Darryl Blackstock 2011 game logs
Ricky Brown -- Signed late in camp after being released by New England, Brown was familiar with the Raiders having been in Oakland the previous five seasons. But the backup MLB suffered a concussion in Week 3 and was placed on season-ending Injured Reserve a week later.Travis Goethel -- The oft-injured sixth-round pick of the 2010 draft was being groomed to replace Groves on the weakside but blew out a knee early in camp and was placed on IR on Aug. 30. He was working out at the end of the season with trainers. Might he join McClain on the inside of a new 3-4 defensive alignment in Oakland next season should the Raiders decide to implement a new base defense?

Why firing Ken Norton Jr. won't solve the Raiders' bigger, deeper problems

Why firing Ken Norton Jr. won't solve the Raiders' bigger, deeper problems

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.

Raiders fire defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

Raiders fire defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

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.