Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Raiders’ defensive players and coaches shot down any reference to the past throughout training camp. To them, the struggles of last year, two years ago or anytime before that are ancient history and totally irrelevant.
New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley preached a blank slate when he was hired after last season, and his players have committed to the idea. “Other years don’t matter anymore,” edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue told reporters during a Zoom call earlier this summer. “It’s a whole new era.”
The Raiders might not want to acknowledge it, but defense has been the primary reason they have been mired around .500 the past two years and been unable to break into the playoffs. Las Vegas has ranked 26th in the NFL in back-to-back years, giving up just shy of 6 yards per play. Only three teams—Cincinnati, Jacksonville and Houston—have been worse over the past two years.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas’ offense has sat eighth in the league with 5.9 yards per play in back-to-back years. Only two other teams—Kansas City and Tennessee—have rated that highly consecutively in the same span, and both of those clubs have multiple postseason wins to show for it.
So, breaking a 19-year drought without a playoff win will require defensive improvement—and the Raiders know it. “We put a lot into our defense, made a lot of changes,” coach Jon Gruden said during a recent news conference. “We still have a long way to go. We’ve got a lot to prove.”
Those changes started with Bradley, who replaced Paul Guenther, and trickled down to the rest of the unit. After hiring Guenther, the former Jacksonville head coach best known for building Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” defenses, Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock sat down with him and plotted exact details of the turnaround.
The conversation got as precise as the preferred weights, heights and other measurables for players at every position of Bradley’s system. The front office then went out to bring in personnel that matched up as closely as possible.
The headline acquisitions were free agents Ngakoue, one of the NFL’s best pass rushers since he broke into the league in 2016, and Casey Hayward, the dependable veteran cornerback the Raiders have previously lacked. They didn’t stop there. Las Vegas notably used five of its first six picks in this year’s NFL Draft on defense, with two of the selections—second-round free safety Tre’von Moehrig and fifth-round slot cornerback Nate Hobbs—currently projected as Day 1 starters.
After a rash of linebacker injuries, the Raiders capped training camp by signing Pro Bowl free agent K.J. Wright and trading for veteran Denzel Perryman. Las Vegas could now start new players at six of 11 defensive positions.
Ngakoue, Hayward, Wright and Perryman have all played under Bradley previously, so they’ve helped teach teammates the intricacies of the coach’s hybrid Cover 3 defense that emphasizes getting pressure without blitzing and excelling in zone coverage.
“This is a learning curve for everybody, especially on the defensive side,” Hayward says, “but hopefully as the game goes and the more games we get, the defense will turn into one of those defenses where people say, ‘Hey, those guys fly around and are not a weak link of the team.’”
The encouraging part is that the Raiders have shown definitive progress, even though it didn’t come immediately. Hayward admitted to feeling down when the first-team offense was getting the best of the first-team defense for the first week or so of training camp. But then it started to flip.
The defense was suddenly holding its own leading up to a fateful day two weeks into practices, when it dominated with five turnovers.
“If anyone walked off that field excited, it was definitely me,” quarterback Derek Carr said of the defense’s performance during a news conference the next day. “This is a team game, and it’s the best game because it’s a team game. Every man in that locker room matters in order for us to end up with the goal that we want. … I’ve been around [in past years] where [the offense] wins 100% of the time [in practice], and that’s hard … whereas [this year] it’s been competitive.”
Las Vegas showed strides against another team, too. Although practically all the starters sat out three preseason games to avoid potential injury, the Raiders held a pair of joint practices and scrimmages with the Rams in LA, and everyone played.
By all accounts, Las Vegas’ long-struggling defense outplayed the Rams’ lauded offense, including intercepting quarterback Matthew Stafford three times on the first day. Linebacker Cory Littleton snagged one of the picks against his former team, a welcome sign for a player who performed poorly a year ago after the Raiders signed him to a pricey contract in free agency.
Cornerback Damon Arnette was also reportedly sharp in the sessions; the former first-round pick at cornerback is looking to recover from a disappointing rookie season. Hayward has displaced Arnette from the starting lineup, but with a promising summer, there’s now hope the latter can be a valuable piece off the bench.
Ditto for Clelin Ferrell, the former No. 4 overall draft pick, whom Ngakoue pushed out of a starting spot. Ferrell hasn’t lived up to his draft position, but he might suddenly be one of the best backups in the league.
That sort of depth is a luxury the Raiders haven’t enjoyed on defense in many years, but they’re still refusing to make comparisons to the past.
“We’ve got a chance to be a really good defense,” Hayward said. “Obviously, I wasn’t here last year so I can only tell you what I see now.”
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.