John Pagano

Norton firing galvanized Raiders defense: ‘We really felt terrible’


Norton firing galvanized Raiders defense: ‘We really felt terrible’

The Raiders defense has done an about face. A previously porous unit has tightened up the past five weeks, showing remarkable growth with the same personnel.

The statistical swings are shocking, but we’ll get to that later.

Let’s focus instead on the dividing line. It was not arbitrary.

Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was fired following an embarrassing loss to New England in Mexico City that dropped the Raiders to 4-6.

John Pagano became the new play caller, and things got better fast. Pagano has received significant credit for that.

It’s deserved. We’ve written extensively about Pagano’s positive impact in a short amount of time. He has added disguise to his pass rush. He’s moving Khalil Mack around and scheming favorable matchups for the reigning defensive player of the year. He has cornerbacks shadowing receivers to great effect.

Pagano has provided clarity on assignments, asking his players to do simple better.

Coaching is one side of the turnaround. Execution is another, and improvements has come from a depth chart motivated by a traumatic event.

Norton was immensely popular in the locker room, among all defensive position groups. His firing was met with anger, frustration and, eventually, regret.

Norton took the change hard. His players did, too.

“It trickled down to a lot of people,” defensive co-captain and free safety Reggie Nelson said. “One thing about it: we’re out there performing, not him. You sit there after and you question yourself. Did I not do my job for this man? Did I not do everything I could?”

There was a feeling in the locker room that Norton didn’t deserve the axe. Many were immediately upset. Anger wasn’t going to bring Norton back on staff. Players couldn’t do anything about the switch, and eventually chose to channel the emotion in a positive way.

“For that situation to happen, we really felt terrible,” cornerback TJ Carrie said. “We really started to dive in and be more accountable of ourselves. It’s not that we weren’t before, but you take one, then two, then three looks at how to improve yourself and your game to benefit the unit.”

Nelson agrees.

“The sense of urgency picked up – not that it wasn’t there before – and we’ve been making a ton of plays,” he said. “Hats go off to the coaching staff for getting us prepared the past couple weeks. We’ve got to continue to finish strong and continue to compete.”

Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers is the last chance to keep this good thing going.

The Raiders are a top five defense in third-down conversion percentage, yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, first downs per game and sacks since Pagano took over.

They had six turnovers and no interceptions in 10 games under Norton. They’ve had eight since the switch, with five picks. They had 14 sacks over the first 10 games, and 16 since.

The Associated Press found a crazy stat that illustrates this defensive surge. Quarterbacks who faced the Raiders in the first 10 games had a 113.3 passer rating versus the Raiders and 89 against everybody else. Since Pagano took over, quarterbacks have a 72.1 rating against the Raiders and 91.6 against everybody else.

The play-calling switch was impactful with scheme adjustments and players who turned an unwelcome turn into something positive. Now they’ve created hope for a better 2018 – if they upgrade certain positions – and given beleaguered head coach Jack Del Rio something to champion this offseason.

“Our defensive production has clearly gone up, and something abrupt and shocking like that can have that kind of affect,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “If anything, it causes people to look around and realize -- it’s a reminder. We all know the business we’re in. It’s a competitive, production-oriented business.”

How Raiders' defense turned up the heat when John Pagano took over


How Raiders' defense turned up the heat when John Pagano took over

PHILADELPHIA -- Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio hoped firing defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.  would spark his defense.

It’s easy to say it has; basic metrics have improved. The pass rush is more impactful. Takeaways are up, opponent passer rating and third-down conversions are down.

That was clear early in this four-game stretch, but the Raiders were cautious crediting new play caller John Pagano for the surge.

Norton was immensely popular in the locker room, especially among defensive leadership who already felt he was scapegoated. Del Rio was sensitive to that fact.

Improved production was explained with platitudes, typically saying rush and coverage have worked better together. There’s truth to that, with plenty of credit to spread around for defensive improvement.

Pagano deserves some.

“I think he’s done a good job of providing clarity on assignments,” Del Rio said Monday. “I think he’s a good teacher. I think he does a good job with the group. I’m pleased with the way he’s worked at it, but it’s exactly what I expected him to do. Want him to continue to deliver and us to continue to grow and improve as we finish up.”

The Raiders have two games left, starting with Monday night’s game in Philadelphia. The Raiders finish up in Carson against the Chargers, where he spent the last 15 season on staff and final five as defensive coordinator.

Del Rio said last month he envisions Pagano calling Raiders defensive plays next year as well, with a full offseason to put a larger stamp on this unit. This unit hasn’t been perfect under Pagano. His charges have made mistakes, given up costly points and proven deficient in stretches, even in two games against lackluster competition.

Pagano has, however, made some quick adjustments in season that have paid dividends.

There are a few obvious ones. Khalil Mack has moved around the defensive line in search of advantageous matchups. Bruce Irvin’s coverage snaps have dropped way down, allowing him to rush the passer most every drop back. Defensive line rotations are up, even off the edge.

Pagano is using disguise to his advantage, with a willingness to bring extra pressure up the middle. He has allowed cornerbacks to travel with specific receivers, a move that has helped Sean Smith in particular.

Raiders coaches don’t divulge much, as is custom across the league. Offensive-minded Eagles head coach Doug Pederson didn’t have a problem breaking his opposition down.

“I think you’re seeing a little more pressure out of this group,” Pederson said. “I don’t want to say it’s complete overhaul, but structurally it’s probably I would say it’s the pressure. A little more single-high, cover one, playing a little bit more man. Really that’s about it. Other than that, it’s been kind of what they’ve done for most of the season.”

Increased pressure has worked well. The Raiders had a league-low 14 sacks through 10 games. They have 14 in the last four games. Takeaways are equally symmetrical. The Raiders had six through 10 games and six more after that, including the season’s first four interceptions.

Khalil Mack has five sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery under Pagano, though he always gets hot later in the year. Bruce Irvin has really come on strong, with five sacks, two forced fumbles and a quarterback that resulted in an interception.

“The effort the last four games has been outstanding,” Pagano said. “I think having an understanding of the pass rush of how we want to attack teams has been outstanding and those guys are great edge rushers that help us on the edge. You got to get the guys inside pushing that pocket. I think there’s been some timely things that have helped us defensively with the rush and it just keeps growing, keep getting better off that. I think it’s having a true understanding going into the game how we’re attacking them. And I think the guys have done a great job of focusing in on those things.”

John Pagano forges unique path while staying in the family business


John Pagano forges unique path while staying in the family business

ALAMEDA – John Pagano was born into the coaching profession. His father Sam was a legendary high school coach in Boulder, Colorado. His older brother Chuck rapidly rose through the NFL ranks and has been Indianapolis Colts head coach since 2012.

John idolized them both, and was determined to follow in their footsteps without riding coattails. He didn’t want favoritism from his family, nor did he get it. John Pagano has forged his own path to this current post as a Raiders assistant head coach and the Silver and Black’s defensive play caller. It’s a long one. John Pagano has been an NFL assistant coach since 1996, though most of those 22 years were spent in one spot.

He coached 15 seasons for the then San Diego Chargers, the tenure’s last third as defensive coordinator. He was let go last offseason after Anthony Lynn was hired, and Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio snatched him up quickly as an assistant head coach on defense.

He absorbed play-calling duties when Ken Norton Jr. got fired. It isn’t expected to be a temporary post. Del Rio said he could envision Pagano sticking around, which will allow him to really make a mark on this defense.

Pagano comes from his family’s coaching tree, but considers Wade Phillips key in shaping his defensive philosophy. Pagano worked under Phillips from 2004-06 in San Diego, and considers that an important time in his growth as a coach.

“I learned a lot from my father and my brother, but the biggest influence is probably Wade Phillips,” Pagano said on this week’s episode of the Raiders Insider Podcast, which focused on Pagano’s coaching influences and philosophy. “Understanding how he talked to the players, the philosophy of how he wanted to teach things and the opportunity he gave me (in San Diego) to grow in the National Football League. I’ve taken a lot from Wade, and what I’ve learned from him is to focus on putting guys in position to make plays. That’s our job. …Ultimately it’s about the players, and 11 guys hunting with unbelievable effort.”

John Pagano wants Raiders defenders playing fast, loose and aggressive. His message: Do simple things right. Don’t overthink. Read and react instead. See ball, get ball.

Leave the complexity to him. Pagano’s defenses should be masters of disguise, giving simple instructions complex looks. Or, in other cases, doing different things from the same look.

The immediate goal, especially since taking over as Raiders defensive play caller last week, is to unburden his guys. He simplified things heading into a victory over Denver to help the Raiders defense play faster.

“I thought they played fast,” Pagano said. “That’s what you’re looking for effort-wise. Doing simple better is a simple process. It’s doing the things back when we were kids, tackling, covering and communicating. We have to keep doing simple better. That’s our motto here these next couple weeks.”

Pagano made some defensive tweaks after taking control following Ken Norton Jr.’s firing. Cornerbacks shadowed preferred matchups. He moved Khalil Mack around the defensive front. He also made it less certain uncertain where the pass rush was coming from.

“You have to be able to disguise, to make things look very similar, whether it’s a coverage or a pressure,” Pagano said. “Our guys are starting to understand it’s about being in certain positions. It’s more than just the ball being snapped. It’s about understanding pre-snap rules and pre-snap alignments. It’s an opportunity for our guys to excel at a higher level.”