Between Khalil Mack (19 sacks in 2015), Bruce Irvin (22 career sacks in four seasons), Aldon Smith (47.5 sacks in 59 career games), Mario Edwards Jr. (three forced fumbles in 14 games in 2015), the Raiders have a strong group of elite pass rushers. Oakland was tied at 14th in the NFL last season with 38 team sacks. So adding additional pass rushers to compliment Mack will surely result in a much improved pass rush. But in order to actually analyze these pass rushers, and glimpse into the future of next season, let’s get to the film room to discuss just how good this pass rush can be.
Impact of Bruce Irvin Opposite of Khalil Mack
Perhaps no off-season acquisition was bigger than outside linebacker/defensive end, Bruce Irvin. The 28 year old spent four years in Seattle, three of them under the guidance of Raiders defensive coordinator, Ken Norton Jr, who was the linebackers coach back in Seattle. In 12 starts a year ago, Irvin had 5.5 sacks. Irvin does not have flashy statistics, but his play that helped elevated the Seahawks over the past four years cannot be overlooked. Seattle has had a formidable front seven for the last four years, but they have ranked inside the top 10 in total sacks just once. In fact, in that time span, they have had just one player (Chris Clemons, 11.5 in 2012) record 11 or more sacks. Having a freak of nature like Mack opposite of Irvin should really boost his pass rushing, which has been questioned by some since his rookie year.
Here against Green Bay last season, Irvin (#51) can be seen on the right hand of the screen lined up in a five technique over the outside shoulder of the left tackle, David Bakhtiari. Seattle is in their nickel “wide nine” defense, with their outside linebacker, K.J. Wright, out wide in coverage. Irvin gives Bakhtiari a subtle, quick move and then plows him into the lap of Rodgers. Rodgers is able to dodge a sack, as he rolls to his left and completes a 13 yard pass to receiver Davante Adams:
Opposite of Irvin is Cliff Avril, who is lined up in a nine technique outside of the right tackle, Don Barclay. This defense is used to maximize speed edge rushers, and is used primarily on passing downs. While Avril has been a very productive player for the Seahawks in his career, he’s not quite the player that Mack is. Point being, Irvin never had an elite pass rusher opposite of him in his four years in Seattle. He had some very good ones, but no one quite like the hulking monster Mack is.
Now, with that being said, imagine Irvin being on the opposite side of this:
Mack bulldozes his way over left tackle Ryan Harris, who looks foolish as he tips over. With #52, on the other side of Irvin, there will be some pressure taken off the shoulders of Irvin. Mack was a one-man wrecking crew a season ago. Key:one man, now with Irvin, Teams will have to fixate their attention on both players, while also not forgetting about the other pass rushers on this Raiders depth chart.
The Double Team Effect
The Raiders have a Christmas wish list full of pass rushers. Minding this, it’s impossible for everyone to get double teamed. Mack saw his fair share of double teams last season and was still able to accumulate 19 sacks. Here’s a look at Mack (#52) flushing out Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, despite a double team:
The Raiders run an inside stunt with outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Mack at one point is actually blocked by three linemen, and still applies pressure. The result of the play was actually a sack by Mario Edwards , who tackled Bridgewater as he was running towards the sidelines.
Come next fall, when teams game plan for Oaklands pass rush, they’re going to have to account for everyone and that leaves plenty of one on one matchups on the outside. Whether it’s Irvin, Mack, Smith, Edwards, or someone else, there will be someone on the prowl opposite of the double team. This is what happens when Mack is left one on one with a tackle:
Lined up in a five technique on the outside shoulder of former first overall pick, Eric Fisher. Mack bull rushes Fisher, making him look not so much like the first overall pick he once was.
Back in San Francisco, Aldon Smith was thought of as one of the best pass rushers in the game. He also was the beneficiary to a lot of favorable matchups with guys like Justin Smith being double teamed on the inside. Here’s a great look at how Smith benefited from one on ones along the outside:
Justin Smith, lined up in a three technique between the left guard and tackle, stunts over the A gap, leaving a gaping hole for Smith to stunt through. Smith gets double teamed as does outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and Ray McDonald. If Smith can get back to this level of play, there’s no doubt the Raiders will have the best pass rush in the game, which leads me to my next point.
Aldon Smith Emergence
Smith played in just nine games last year for Oakland, starting seven of them. He was signed the friday before Week 1 against Cincinnati. In seven starts, he recorded 3.5 sacks and 21 tackles. He did look a bit rusty at times, but he had no offseason training with Oakland and was thrown right into action. As mentioned earlier, he’ll be suspended for till mid November and will be eligible to apply for reinstatement in September, 60 days before the suspension was handed down. If all goes as planned, he should be playing for Oakland by Week 10.
Mack and Smith combined for 62 hurries, nine sacks, and an additional eight quarterback hits while the two were on the field together. While we didn’t see the full potential of what the duo would look like together in 2015, we may see it in 2016.
Against Chicago last year, Smith got his first sack as a Raider. This clip shows Mack and Smith applying pressure from the outside:
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is able to step up into the pocket to evade the pressure. But the pressure from Mack and Smith did reattle him enough to make a high throw in the back of the endzone. When Smith returns from suspensions, the Raiders will have plays like these to look forward to. And with the addition of Irvin, they will be able to insert someone inside for interior pressure as well.
Depth Behind the Big Guys
It’s time we start talking about some of these other players up front. Shilique Calhoun was drafted in the third round at 74th overall. The 3x All-American has a lengthy build, very similar to Smith. The two have similar playing styles as well; both feast on getting to the quarterback. His 10.5 sacks were the most on his team by 5.5. He also had 15 tackles for loss, also the most on his team. In his upcoming rookie year with Oakland, he’ll likely see limited action. Look for him on third down and mainly passing downs as Oakland brought him in primarily to rush the pasher.
Here against Oregon a year ago, Calhoun records a sack early on in the first quarter. Michigan State goes into their dime defense, with three down linemen, two linebackers, and six DB’s. Lined up in a five tech between the left tackle and tight end, Calhoun gives a little jab to the tight end before using his agility to record one heck of a sack:
You can really get a feel for just how athletic Calhoun is. He was able to track down one of the fastest quarterbacks in all of college football last season in Vernon Adams. Even though he’s not at full speed, Adams was deadly last year when able to roll out of the pocket, but not here as Calhoun tracks him down for the sack. For what it’s worth, Calhoun had the number one pass rush grade for all edge defenders in 2015 by Pro Football Focus. The kid can get to the quarterback, I’d expect him to record 5-7 sacks next year, in limited playing time for Oakland.
Jihad Ward was a second round pick, 44th overall by Oakland in this past draft. Not the pass rusher that Calhoun is, (just 5.5 sacks in two years at Illinois), Ward will see playing time when Oakland needs another big man as he stands at 6’6″ 295 lbs. Plenty of critics were quick to give their two sense on this selection. Saying that this was a very big reach for the Raiders and that there were other directions Oakland should’ve gone. While he’s a raw player, there is no doubting the drive and heart that Ward has. Before Illinois, Ward attended a junior college in NYC. During the season, Ward would endure a 24.5 mile round trip journey just to get from school, to practice, to home. His demeanor off the field, shows in his play.
His relentless effort will serve him very well at the next level. Though this isn’t a sack or quarterback hurry, it shows you just what a motor this guy has:
Edwards started 10 games for Oakland last year. In those 10 games he notched 2.5 sacks, 33 tackles, and a forced fumble. He played essentially every position in the trenches including nose tackle, three tech tackle, and five tech end. Before injuring his neck in Week 15, Edwards proved to be a very versatile, but also a powerful piece for the Raiders up front. His size enables him to play any position on the defensive line. As long as Edwards retains his health, it’s hard not to imagine he won’t see at least 50% or more defensive snap counts per game next year.
At 6’3″, 282 lbs, Edwards has ideal size but plays quicker and more agile for a bigger man. Here against the Vikings last year you can get a good feel for his quickness. He’s in a five technique over the right tackles shoulder. He gives the tackle a swift move and swims right past him, forcing Bridgewater to roll out.
Versatility of Defenders
While watching the Raiders last year, it would be difficult for the average fan to deem the base defense of the Raiders. Well, going into 2016, the Raiders base defense is a hybrid front. You’ll see variations of the 3-4 and 4-3, similar to what Seattle has been doing over the course of four years now. Bringing in Irvin allows Oakland to be much more flexible up front. While he was primarily an outside pass rusher his rookie year in Seattle, he was asked to play more of a strong side linebacker in both the 3-4 and 4-3 in 2013. With Oakland however, head coach Jack Del Rio has made it clear that they will use him as more of a rusher.
Which means he’ll be getting back to this:
This was his first full sack against Green Bay back in 2012. Lined up on the left side of the defense, Irvin aligns in a nine technique over the outside shoulder of the tight end. Seattle is in their dime defense with three linemen, two off ball linebackers, and six DB’s. He powers his way through the left tackle and spins around Rodgers for the sack.
Mack was the first player ever to be named to first team All-Pro at two different positions, defensive end and outside linebacker. In 4-3 looks this season, expect Mack and Irvin to tend to the end spots, with defensive tackles Dan Williams and Justin “Jelly” Ellis in the middle. In 3-4 variations, Mack and Irvin will likely play outside linebacker, with Edwards at end, Williams at the nose, and Ellis on the opposite end.
Barring injury, there will be an ample amount of rotational pass rushers for Oakland. When one guy gets drained, another guy will be plugged right in, being asked to meet the same production level as the man before him. There are a ton of different combinations that you’ll see Oakland run in 2016. Whether it’s Mack at end and Smith at OLB both rushing the passer, or Edwards and Irvin lined up on the same side. The combinations are endless.