EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Raiders used seven linebackers last season. All of them were in camp with the Raiders, and those numbers only altered after a few veteran cuts and a practice squad promotion.
This season has been a different story. The Raiders have used nine thus far, with Preston Brown set to be the position group’s 10th contributor here on Sunday against the New York Jets or, more likely, later this season.
All those additions extend position coach David Lippincott’s days and work nights while devoting significant effort into getting new guys up to speed in a hurry.
Why is he working overtime? The Raiders lost Marquel Lee to the injured reserve. Vontaze Burfict has been suspended for the rest of this season. Brandon Marshall had two stints with the Raiders but never stuck.
The Raiders turned over every rock looking for help, signing rookie Dakota Allen and promoting practice squad players Justin Phillips and Quinton Polling for spells. Veteran Will Compton was added a few weeks before Brown, as the Raiders tried to find functional depth behind Tahir Whitehead and Nicholas Morrow.
None of those new guys worked with the Raiders this offseason, leaving Lippincott to get them ready to contribute during the season while game-planning for the next opponent.
That’s no easy task.
“You definitely try to streamline what you do,” Lippincott said. “And you can’t give it all to them right away. You have them come in a little bit early and meet with them in the morning to figure out what you need to hit in a small period of time. If you overload them, they generally can’t handle it. It’s too much, too fast. Whatever game planning time we have, I have to go meet with the staff and then come back to the new guys. You really have to manage the time well.”
Lippincott and his fellow position coaches have done an excellent job getting new guys to making contributions quickly. Receivers coach Edgar Bennett had to do it several times, especially after the Raiders traded for Zay Jones and Trevor Davis. Secondary coach Jim O’Neill had to get D.J. Swearinger ready to start in a week. Brenston Buckner got Dion Jordan up and active in just a few days.
The results have been overwhelmingly positive to this point.
“That’s a sign of a high effort coaching staff,” head coach Jon Gruden said, “ ... and a group of guys that are willing to give anybody a chance if they deserve it.”
Gruden’s right. Getting new guys ready to play well on the fly takes significant time and effort. Lippincott detailed that process from a linebacker’s perspective in a Thursday interview with NBC Sports Bay Area.
“The first thing we do is find out what they’ve done and how it relates to what we do,” Lippincott said. “You have to establish what you have to teach them and what you can skip over. It could be anywhere from rules of coverage or run fits or fronts. Some people make run similar coverages with different techniques, and those are things we have to address. From there, you have to shore up the run game and the coverages. The blitzes they have to do on their own. It’s more of an individual assignment they need to execute.
“The good thing about defense is that it’s somewhat universal. Guys are going to run a handful of coverages the same way. It helps that, in that instance, we’re just changing terminology.”
The players have to remain committed to an intense process that doesn’t let up after the first week. Coaches teach the basics and specific packages, and then hone on the week’s game plan. The latter will vary based upon the opponent, so new guys are always learning and developing and absorbing things most teammates learned during the offseason program.
Two things make this process a bit easier: Technology and no need for transportation.
Lippincott made teaching tapes for his new linebackers that are downloaded on an iPad that include game-film examples, slides with defensive rules and illustrated breakdowns of a given assignment.
It also helps that most of the new players are staying close by. There’s a hotel close to the Raiders facility where newcomers generally stay, meaning they’re always walking distance of more instruction.
“You give them a little bit, then you let them get away from it and work on their own while I go game plan with the other coaches,” Lippincott said. “After that, they can come back and we’ll have dinner together and attack another concept. After they go home that night, the install for the week is done and they can study that and go over my teaching tapes again.”
After a week’s practice, assistants have to relay what the new player has mastered and what he’s able to do right away. If a player has to replace and injury unexpectedly, and perform without full mastery, Lippincott will relay which plays the new guy is ready for. Swearinger, Compton and Jordan were able to contribute right away in specific packages. Receivers have to know a ton, so Jones sat out a week and Davis didn’t do much his first game.
Brown has had an easier time adjusting than most, but there's still plenty of work to be done. He joined the Raiders following two years with the Bengals, who essentially ran defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s defense in 2018 after he left to join the Raiders. He knows most of the concepts and even some of the terminology but has been attached to Lippincott most of the prep week, learning a scheme he'll apply this week or the next.
“Coach has been outstanding,” Brown said. “I have been spending a lot of extra time with him trying to get everything down and getting ready to contribute. Any time I can steal to learn is helpful. I know a lot of what we’re doing here, but it’s all the little things, the checks, motions and shifts that I have to get locked down. I know the base plays, but there’s still plenty of work to go this week and after that.”
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Roles will expand with knowledge and competence proven in practice. Not every addition works out, but new players that have panned out kept the Raiders afloat at positions of weakness, especially on a defense beset by serious injuries.
“We’ve had a lot of guys at all three different levels that we had to get and bring in and get ready to play,” Guenther said. “You’ve got safeties, you got [Will] Compton, you got Dion Jordan coming in here. The coaches have done a tremendous job getting these guys ready to play and getting them to understand how we do it. The technique, the footwork, all that stuff. Not just the call and, ‘hey this is where I go,’ but how to do it the right way. The coaches deserve a lot of credit for that.”