ALAMEDA – The Raiders know full well their pass rush wasn’t good enough last year. There were only 13 sacks to show for 16 games. They could’ve doubled that total and still come in last in the NFL.
Only seven of those sacks came from defensive linemen, and only five from returning players. Better is mandated, which is why Clelin Ferrell was taken No. 4 overall and Maxx Crosby and Quenton Bell were added in later rounds.
It’s tough to expect much from rookies, even highly touted ones. That’s why the second-year pros have to step up.
Maurice Hurst, P.J. Hall and Arden Key played a ton during their rookie years, maybe more than they should have for a defensive line gutted by trades, cuts and injuries.
There wasn’t much production from young or old in 2018, leaving pass rush as the greatest team weakness. That’s no secret, a reputation the Raiders hope to overcome in 2019.
“Every single game we play, they’re going to mention our pass rush,” Hurst said after Tuesday’s OTA session. “We control the narrative on that. Last year obviously wasn’t good enough, and we’ll take the criticism for it. There are a lot of eyes on us to be special this year, to change the narrative and what people say about us. That starts with a change in attitude and how we approach it.”
New position coach Brenston Buckner has brought a new perspective to the group, and his message is already getting through. Will that turn into greater production down the road? That’ll be uncertain until the Raiders start playing, but improvement must come from young players now operating without veteran leaders gone from last year’s squad.
“We learned from some great guys, but it’s our time to take it over and start to develop a new identity,” said Hurst, who led the team with four sacks. “That’s something we didn’t do last year, and that’s something we’re going to try and accomplish early on. We want to set a tone throughout the season.”
Young players will be tone-setters in 2019.
“We want to be relentless, and never make excuses,” Hurst said. “We’re going to play hard, play tough and play aggressive. There are a lot of things Coach Buckner is teaching us that isn’t new, but it’s a way of going about your business. He played a long time in this league, and learning from someone like that has been a useful tool.”
Buckner has plenty of experience as a player and coach, but needs the talent to get the job done. Ferrell’s expectations will be high, as is customary for such high picks, and he’ll play enough to create opportunities defending the run and pass.
Better is assumed from Hurst and Hall inside and from Key has he moves back to more of a situational role after playing away from his strengths too often last year.
Key especially must start finishing well after managing just one sack last year.
“We drafted Arden to be a third-down rusher,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “We didn’t expect him to be a 260-pound slug out there. He knows where we want him to be, and his strength and conditioning is a process.”
All three pass-rushing members of last year’s draft class will play vital roles in generating quarterback pressure, and they simply must be better.
“We’re going to count on them to take a big leap,” Guenther said. “I always say the biggest should come between the first and second season. I just think, as a rookie player, you don’t know what the next hour’s about. Now they understand (NFL life) and they can concentrate on their jobs. They have really picked up the system well.”