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December 6, 2021

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Gus’ Guys: Defensive coordinator’s ‘disciples’ elevate the Raiders

Nearly half of Las Vegas’ defense consists of starters with experience under Gus Bradley

Aug. 12: Raiders Training Camp

Steve Marcus

Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Casey Hayward (29) warms up during Raiders Training Camp at the Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center in Henderson Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

With the game on the line last week at Pittsburgh, Las Vegas linebacker Denzel Perryman mustered up everything he had and went all out.

The Steelers got the ball back with six minutes to play desperate for a scoring drive to cut into the Raiders’ 23-14 lead, but Perryman pounced on tackles to prevent any significant yards after catch on three straight plays. He exerted so much energy that he appeared to cramp up and had to come out of the game after yet another stop, but the tone was set.

His teammates stepped up on two plays without him, holding Pittsburgh to a 56-yard field goal attempt to help Las Vegas eventually win 26-17 and improve to 2-0.

“He’s got a presence about him,” Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said of his middle linebacker on Thursday. “I think when he’s in the huddle, they feel him.”

Not bad for a Carolina Panthers’ castoff that Las Vegas acquired in a trade for a seventh-round pick less than a month ago. The seven-year veteran is the Raiders’ leading tackler through two games and one of many new faces who’s helping to turn around the fortunes of a long-struggling defense.

More specifically, he’s one of several new faces handpicked by Bradley to key a turnaround that’s off to a good start going into a game against the Miami Dolphins at 1:05 p.m. Sunday at Allegiant Stadium. The Raiders’ defense has six new starters this year including four who had played under Bradley at previous stops — Perryman, linebacker K.J. Wright, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. Players say it’s been invaluable to have so many veterans around to help ease the transition to a new scheme.

“You have Gus’ disciples at all three levels — the back end, linebacker and the D-line,” Wright said. “It’s just really cool to see. Everywhere Gus has gone, he’s been successful and for him to come here and have the same successful start, this 2-0 start, it’s really cool to see.”

Wright goes back the longest with Bradley, who was the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator during his first two seasons in the league. Seattle maintained most principles of Bradley’s Cover 3 system after he left to take the head coaching post at Jacksonville, where he drafted Ngakoue in 2016.

So even though Perryman has spent the last four seasons under Bradley’s watch with the Los Angeles Chargers, he says the 11-year veteran Wright is the most knowledgeable player on the unit.

“K.J. is like a big brother, man,” Perryman said. “When he speaks, everybody listens.”

Wright and Perryman arrived to Las Vegas after the team had already selected captains at the end of training camp, but they’ve assumed honorary leadership positions. They’re constantly communicating with teammates during games and have encouraged them all to ask for help if they need it while preparing during the week.

It’s exactly the type of role Bradley knew they could fill.

“Everybody is listening and holding themselves accountable and they are kind of creating a standard to what it should look like,” he said. “You’re hearing the players talk, it’s not just the coaches holding you to it, so that’s a good sign.”

It certainly appears like Bradley has gone 4-for-4 on his reunions with former players. Ngakoue doesn’t have a sack yet but he’s “bringing us more than people know,” according to coach Jon Gruden, with constant pressure.

Hayward has been the best of all. Another former Charger, Hayward is on pace for a career year through two games. He’s the top graded cornerback in the league by Pro Football Focus, which tracks him as having not allowed a completion all year.

Fellow free-agent pickup Quinton Jefferson, a defensive tackle, had never played under Bradley before but spent four years in the Seattle system the coach once implemented. He's been disruptive in the middle, and forced a late fumble that helped the Raiders come back against the Ravens in Week 1

All the Bradley-inspired additions — the latest was adding defensive tackle Damion Square to the practice field last week after Gerald McCoy went down with an injury — go against the perception of Gruden as a control freak. Bradley has continued to want his own guys to make their mark with the Raiders, and Gruden has obliged.

“Usually that’s what happens: When a new coach comes in, he tries to bring in a couple guys that he had been with in the past,” Gruden said.

But this has gone beyond standard operating procedure. The Raiders have given Bradley more resources and decision-making power than the typical defensive coordinator.

He’s largely wielded it by bringing in players he’s already familiar and comfortable with. And so far, it’s paid off.

“It helps a lot,” Perryman said. “Some of these guys, it’s their first year in this defense and bringing in guys that have been in this defense a while, this system, it’s helping out these guys.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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