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Can the Raiders Field a Playoff-Caliber Defense?

Or will their recent performances prove to be just another early-season mirage? Las Vegas is 2-0 and looks legit—it just has to sustain its success this time.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2-0 Raiders will make the playoffs.

Sorry, that’s a 2020 headline. Let me get my head back into 2021.

OK, here we go: The 2-0 Raiders will make the playoffs.

Ah. I see our problem here.

One of the biggest early-season surprises is the Las Vegas Raiders, winners of two games against 2020 AFC playoff teams: the Ravens and the Steelers. The headline of that early success feels like Derek Carr. Ever the punch line of the “good, not great” quarterback joke, Carr looks strong to start the 2021 season. He’s completing 67 percent of his passes for 8.8 yards an attempt. His average depth of target is 9.5, which would be the deepest mark of his career; he’s thrown at least 20 yards downfield on 12.9 percent of his passes, which would also be a career-best number.

Carr’s strong play is certainly contributing to the Raiders’ early-season success, but it isn’t new. Carr has been doing this for a while now. When the Raiders started 2-0 last year, Carr completed 74 percent of his passes and posted 7.7 yards per attempt. It was a different formula—his average depth of target was 6.6, throwing deep only 8.0 percent of the time—but it still resulted in points. The 2020 Raiders hung 34 on the Panthers and Saints in back-to-back weeks, and beat the Chiefs 40-32 only a few weeks later.

So what happened to that 2-0 start with 34 points per game? Or the 6-3 team staring down a wild-card spot in the middle of November? It started to lose the shootouts it had been winning. Across the final seven games of the season—a 2-5 stretch for Las Vegas—the Raiders defense surrendered an average of 33.9 points per game. They ranked 28th in defensive DVOA and coordinator Paul Guenther was fired at the end of the season.

In the modern NFL, a strong offense can drag a middle defense through the playoffs; but the Raiders’ 2020 defense was simply too much dead weight. With a DVOA of 9.6 percent, it would have been the fifth-worst defense in the playoffs in the past five years, behind the 2016 Lions, 2017 Patriots, 2017 Chiefs, and 2020 Titans. Three of those four teams lost in the wild-card round; only the 2017 Patriots made it beyond that, and they gave up 41 points in the Super Bowl to Nick Foles. So while Derek Carr and the Raiders’ offense might look playoff caliber this season, that’s neither the big news, nor the edge the Raiders need to make the playoffs under Jon Gruden. The big news is the defense.

The Raiders overhauled their defensive approach and personnel this past offseason. Guenther was replaced with ex-Chargers DC Gus Bradley, one of the originators of the Seattle Cover 3 defense that dominated the early 2010s. That defense requires particular role players; Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock went and got them. They signed Yannick Ngakoue (whom Bradley drafted when he was the head coach of the Jaguars in 2016) to rush the passer and brought along a couple of ex-Chargers in linebacker Denzel Perryman and cornerback Casey Hayward, both of whom were multiyear starters under Bradley in Los Angeles. On the defensive line came ex-Seahawk Quinton Jefferson, who played under a Bradley disciple in Ken Norton Jr. in 2018 and 2019, and Solomon Thomas, drafted by Robert Saleh, another branch of Bradley’s coaching tree. Don’t forget about Seahawks defensive cornerstone KJ Wright signing a one-year deal late in the free-agency process. Are we starting to see a theme here?

Throw in the drafting of TCU safety Trevon Moehrig and a few more free-agent shuffles, and the Raiders’ 2021 defense is almost unrecognizably new. More than half of the defensive starters from Week 1 in 2020 were replaced by Week 1 of 2021.

The initial returns on the changes are exciting. The Raiders are fourth in the league in pressure rate and plus-2 in team turnover differential. Third-year edge rusher Maxx Crosby looks like a budding star with a league-leading 19 pressures (Arik Armstead is in second with 15); Nagkoue, with nine total pressures, is also knocking on the door of the top 10. Throw in some timely wins from Jefferson and incumbent nose tackle Johnathan Hankins, and the Raiders have a mean front four.

If the Raiders could keep up this level of defensive performance for the rest of the season, they’d certainly make the playoffs. But I’m not sure that they can.

The rate at which the Raiders are getting pressure without blitzing is astronomical. Las Vegas has blitzed on just four dropbacks through two games this season—that’s less than 5 percent of the possible snaps. Yet it’s pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 29.6 percent of dropbacks. Only the Steelers are generating similar pressure (29.5 percent of dropbacks) with a low blitz rate (10 percent). And critically, the Steelers and the Raiders do it in different ways. Pittsburgh is lining up with a number of potential rushers peppering the line of scrimmage, creating confusion for opposing offensive lines that should ensure elite rushers like T.J. Watt or Cameron Heyward get one-on-one opportunities. The Raiders are just lining up and going.

That’s always been Bradley’s way. Bradley’s Chargers blitzed less than any other team in each of the past two seasons, and the defenses suffered for it as a whole. They were 20th in DVOA in 2020 with a 23.8 percent pressure rate and 25th in 2019 with a 23.8 percent pressure rate. (Yes, the Chargers had the exact same pressure rate in consecutive seasons. I think that’s Bradley’s greatest defensive achievement to date.)

So the Raiders will do what the Chargers did before them, and what the Jaguars did before that, and what the Seahawks did before that. They’re going to line up with four down linemen, rush them all, and drop seven defenders in zone coverage. It’s a formula that has worked for Bradley before, and it’s working now. Through just a few games of the season, you can see how the Raiders’ zone defenders are learning how to overlap, connect, and communicate the way all top zone defenses do.

Here’s a good example: a ghost screen wheel route from Pittsburgh in Week 2. On this design, the Steelers are hoping to clear out Hayward with the vertical route from the outside receiver, then throw back into that zone with the wheel route from the slot receiver.

Post-wheel is a common Cover 3 beater because it stresses the deep outside cornerback. But the deep middle safety, rookie Trevon Moehrig, has no routes stressing his outside shoulder or challenging him up the middle, so he’s able to lean toward the post route and offer help to Hayward. Hayward, who has eyes on the quarterback, can read his intentions and see Roethlisberger open to throw the wheel. Amik Robertson, who is playing over the slot, is calling out to Hayward to alert him of the wheel before Roethlisberger has even loaded to throw—you can see his arm up, and Hayward can hear him calling out. This is nearly a pick.

The Bradley-era Seahawks defense famously played its cornerbacks up on the line of scrimmage where lanky bullies like Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell could thrive in press alignments. With a player like Hayward, who is better suited to reading routes from off alignments, Bradley has shown the ability to adjust and adapt to his personnel, and he still has a solid press man player in Trayvon Mullen on the other side. Despite a recent draft miss in Damon Arnette, Las Vegas’s cornerback room looks fairly strong.

But one nonnegotiable fixture of Bradley’s defense is the play of the linebackers. Bradley’s linebackers drop into the middle of the field and are responsible for a bevy of crossing routes from both sides of the formation. They have perhaps the most difficult jobs in pass coverage, and these are the jobs that got Bobby Wagner and Wright paid in Seattle for almost a decade. Now, Wright is more of a rotational player for the Raiders, as he’s a little long in the tooth. The Raiders have gotten solid play from Perryman and Cory Littleton, the latter of whom was considered a free-agency bust for the Raiders last season.

Here, the Ravens are trying to stress Littleton with a sit route in front of him and a dig route behind him. Littleton is dropping to one side of the field, but he’s keeping his eyes on the other side, alert for that potential dig route coming from opposite him. Once the receiver breaks, we can see Littleton drive upfield to meet him, while Perryman sits in the window that quarterback Lamar Jackson would like to hit. Lamar has to pull the ball down, giving Perryman time to drive on the sit route that Littleton left for him. This is the sort of synergy and understanding that linebackers in Bradley’s offense need in order to take away intermediate crossers, force checkdowns, and stay ahead of the sticks.

The fact that Bradley got this mercenary-heavy defense up to speed so quickly is a testament to his coaching, but the true tests are still yet to come. That Raiders pass rush has eaten against poor tackle duos so far this season. Against the Ravens, they faced Ronnie Stanley in his first game back from major injury—Baltimore put him on injured reserve almost immediately after the game—and Alejandro Villaneuva in his first career start at right tackle. Against the Steelers, they got a second-year starter in Chukwuma Okorafor and a fourth-round rookie in Dan Moore Jr.

That pass rush is covering up weakness in the back end, and because the Raiders are firing on all cylinders already in terms of communication and synergy, those weaknesses cannot be waved away as early-season hiccups. Teams know the weak points in Bradley’s Cover 3. They’ve been facing this style of defense a lot in the past decade, after all.

Take, for example, the “3 up is 3” rule. If you’ve ever wondered how a linebacker ends up in coverage on a receiver down the field, this is usually how.

When a Cover 3 defense has to line up against trips formations, they need to find a way to adjust to the overloaded grouping, because if they don’t, they’d have too few defenders on the side with three receivers. Accordingly, they bring the weakside linebacker over to add another number to the coverage shell against the three receivers. That weak side linebacker is responsible for most in-breaking routes, but in the event that the innermost receiver—the no. 3 receiver—runs vertical upfield, that weak side linebacker has to run with him.

In this case, Sammy Watkins is the third receiver, and Nick Kwiatkoski is the linebacker responsible for him. This is a matchup a defense hates, but when you want to live in Cover 3, this is a matchup you have to accept, and offenses will hammer it when they can. With a play-action fake and some chip help on Crosby, Jackson has plenty of time in the pocket to deliver this ball to Watkins for a huge, explosive passing gain.

The retooled Raiders back seven is playing about as well as can be expected, but it still allows routes to uncover as the scheme is just too familiar to opposing offenses. For as well as players like Mullen, Littleton, and Hayward are playing early in the season, Vegas doesn’t have the talent of those dominant Seahawks defenses, or even of the excellent 2017 Jaguars defense, when Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell, Myles Jack, Dante Fowler Jr. and AJ Bouye were all playing at the highest level. Unless the Raiders really get elite play out of Littleton, Hayward, Crosby, and Ngakoue—and I mean for the whole season, not just two weeks—the defense cannot sustain this level of play.

The good news in Las Vegas is this: The defense is playing well now, and it’s certainly playing better than it ever played under Guenther. Bradley’s defense may not end up being the engine of the Raiders’ playoff run, but that’s OK, because Carr has that covered, and he’s had that covered for a couple of years. All the defense needs to do is avoid being an anchor. It has to carry its own weight, keep the offense in games, and hopefully keep developing some of the existing cornerstone pieces into elite players.

The Raiders look like a playoff team … but they have before. Gruden’s second stint with the Raiders has been characterized by explosive flashes that never catch flame and sudden growth that lacks deep roots. Sustaining play is the name of the game here, and while a drop-off for Las Vegas’s defense seems inevitable, just how far that tumble goes will define the Raiders’ playoff aspirations.