The breakdown of the Oakland Raiders continues with the linebackers and secondary. The back seven in Oakland contains many good players, but also some players that can make fans cringe.
The Raiders finished 29th in the NFL in total defense and 27th in passing defense last season after finishing 11th and 2nd respectively in 2010. While most of the drop-off in the passing statistics can be contributed to the loss of Nnamdi Asomugha, nobody expected them to fall off the map as much as they did. The bigger concern for the Raiders is the ineffective rushing defense which finished 27th and 29th in the last two seasons.
The Good: The linebackers are by far the best unit of the back seven with three strong starters and a group of quality backups. The leader of the linebackers is Rolando McClain in the middle. The third-year player out of Alabama was second on the team with 99 tackles including five sacks and is a disruptive force in the middle of the field. On the weak side is rookie Miles Burris is coming off a first team All-Mountain West season in which he led San Diego State with 78 tackles, 19 1/2 of which went for a loss.
The versatile outside linebacker will help Oakland blow up screen passes, but can be picked on in the passing game with his below average skills in coverage. Attacking on the strong side is the newly signed Philip Wheeler, who spent his first four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. He made 84 tackles in 13 games last season with the Colts and his postseason experience will be an asset for the Raiders as the season draws to a close.
The fourth linebacker to keep an eye on is Keenan Clayton, who the Raiders signed Saturday. The third-year linebacker from Oklahoma made an impact for the Philadelphia Eagles last season as a reserve, compiling 31 tackles in 14 games. He can make a huge impact as the primary backup on the outside and will be a suitable replacement if injuries plague the unit.
The Bad: The safeties are only here because of how poorly they did in pass coverage last season. Tyvon Branch led the team with 109 tackles a year ago for his third straight year of more than 100 tackles. The issue is he has only defended seven passes in the last two seasons combined and only has two interceptions. Michael Huff is great in pass coverage with eight interceptions and 25 passes defended in the last three years.
The problem for him is he is inconsistent in tackling, making 94 in 2010, but no more than 60 in any of the other season since 2008. The backup safeties, Mike Mitchell and Matt Giordano, have made significant contributions for the Raiders in the last two years, but were not consistent. Giordano had five interceptions last season, but has only picked off three in the previous six years of his career.
If he can continue to make the big plays than Oakland should be fine. The same goes for Mitchell who has made a combined 82 tackles in the last two seasons and will need to continue to get to the ball and make the tackle to help the Raiders secondary.
The Ugly: The cornerbacks may be the most experienced unit on the defense, but it is also the weakest. Only one cornerback on the roster had an interception last year, Phillip Adams, who Oakland also signed on Saturday. The starting pair of Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer has had some success in the past, but neither one made a huge impact last season, making a combined six tackles, three of the other four corners had more tackles by themselves.
If the Raiders have success in the secondary, Bartell and Spencer will need to revert back to their old form and start making plays again. Joselio Hanson is the wild card of the group with some success earlier in his career, but that success has also been as a non-starter and he will need to make plays when Oakland calls on him if the Raiders want to successfully defend the pass.
Oakland’s defense is a big concern and will most likely add a lot of pressure on the offense to score lots of points. The key for these two units however is to prevent the sort of collapse they had in Oakland’s Week 2 loss to the Buffalo Bills in which they gave up 35 points and 326 yards in the second half. In that loss, the Bills found a way to exploit the Raiders’ linebackers in the passing game by using the slot receiver and tight end. At the same time, Buffalo attacked the Oakland secondary and Stevie Johnson made eight catches for 96 yards and a score.
The Raiders will be tested in the back seven, but the good news is there is some talent for them to work with.