Raiders pin their defensive hopes on Chandler Jones
The Las Vegas Raiders reached the playoffs last season, and quite frankly, we’re still trying to figure out how they pulled that off. One answer: They protected their questionable secondary with one of the most conservative defensive schemes the NFL has seen in a decade. With massive turnover on the roster and the coaching staff, however, they’re almost certain to play more aggressively in 2022.
The Raiders used exactly four pass-rushers on 87% of opposing dropbacks in 2021, while blitzing with five pass-rushers or more only 10% of time. In our game charting data that goes back to 2005, only the 2005 Colts rushed four more often than last year’s Raiders, and only the 2005 and 2008 Colts blitzed less often. When you’re blitzing so rarely, you’re really counting on your front four to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. By and large, Maxx Crosby and company were up to the task, ranking slightly better than average in pressure rate despite Las Vegas’ vanilla game plan. (The correlation coefficient between blitz rate and pressure rate last year was a not-insignificant 0.251—generally, teams that blitz more get more pressure, though there are many exceptions.)
|Lowest Blitz Rate, 2005-2021|
|Team||Year||Rush 4||Blitz||DC, HC|
Crosby will return to anchor the Raiders’ pass rush this fall, but most of his supporting cast is gone. Yannick Ngakoue (second on the team with 34 hurries) was traded to the Colts, one year almost to the day after signing a two-year, $26 million extension with Las Vegas. Defensive tackles Quinton Jefferson (third with 25 hurries) and Solomon Thomas (fourth, 16) both departed in free agency and now play for the Seahawks and Jets, respectively.
Reinforcements were needed, so the Raiders signed Arizona’s Chandler Jones to a contract that will pay him $51 million over three seasons, plus a pair of void years. (Yes, Jones technically signed with Las Vegas a few hours before Ngakoue was traded, but the narrative works better in this order.) Jones led the Cardinals with 25 hurries in 2021, though it’s a little concerning that Arizona had the league’s third-highest blitz rate but third-lowest pressure rate. On the interior, Bilal Nichols arrives from Chicago, where he had 16 pressures last season. And … that’s it. No other veteran on the Raiders roster had more hurries in 2021 than off-ball linebacker Kenny Young, who had six hurries in seven games with the Rams before the Von Miller trade sent him to Denver, where he had zero hurries in six games. Las Vegas also used a pair of Day 3 draft picks on defensive tackles Neil Farrell (fourth round, LSU) and Matthew Butler (fifth round, Tennessee), but at a combined weight of 627 pounds, they project more as run-stuffers than as pass-rushers.
The biggest change on the defense, however, may have come on the sidelines, not on the field. Gus Bradley, hired by Jon Gruden in the middle of the 2020 season, left Las Vegas and took his slavish devotion to Pete Carroll’s Cover-3 with him. Replacing him is Patrick Graham, a Bill Belichick disciple who has spent the last three years coordinating defenses for other Belichick disciples in Miami and New York. When he joined Brian Flores with the Dolphins in 2019, his defense just missed the top 10 in blitz rate, because if your top edge rusher was Taco Charlton, you would blitz like crazy too. Graham was more conservative under Joe Judge, ranking 27th in blitz rate in 2020 and 19th last year. How will Graham fare under yet another Belichick disciple in Josh McDaniels? This Raiders front is not built for blitzing, so we’ll probably see them finish in the 20s in blitz rate, but that’s still a far sight more aggressive than what we saw in Nevada last year.
What does that mean for the Raiders’ corners? Las Vegas saw as much turnover here as it did on the defensive line, losing three of last year’s top four corners by playing time. That’s not terrible news because last year’s corners needed to be replaced—31-year-old Desmond Trufant was starting by the end of the year—but the current talent doesn’t look much improved. The incumbents are Trayvon Mullen and Nate Hobbs. Mullen, a 2019 second-rounder, started every game in 2020 but missed most of last year with a toe injury. When he did play, he was horrendous, with a coverage success rate below 50% and an average depth of target over 20 yards; in plain English, half the balls thrown his way were caught 20-plus yards downfield. Hobbs, a fifth-round rookie out of Illinois last season, had some unusual splits, ranking dead last among qualifying cornerbacks in both target rate (because zone corners don’t see a lot of targets) and success rate (because he wasn’t very good).
Newly arrived is Rock Ya-Sin, acquired in the Ngakoue trade with the Colts. Though he undeniably has one of the coolest names in NFL, Ya-Sin is a pretty mundane corner, failing to secure a starting role in three seasons in Indianapolis. He was typically the third corner on the Colts but might be the best in Las Vegas. If not, that dubious distinction might go to Anthony Averett, a 2018 Baltimore draftee who started double-digit games for the first time in 2021, mainly because Marcus Peters missed the whole year. Averett did play well, especially considering the historic disaster going on around him, but it’s telling that Baltimore opted not to re-sign him, acquiring Kyle Fuller in free agency instead. Most likely, Averett will battle Mullen for the starting spot opposite Ya-Sin, with Hobbs manning nickel duties. That’s the cornerback crew the Raiders hope will lead them to victory over Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Russell Wilson.
You know what? Maybe the Raiders won’t blitz more often this season after all.
Now let’s look at how the other defenses around the NFL fared by number of pass-rushers.
Three or Fewer Pass-Rushers
Remember those Belichick disciples we were referencing earlier? This is their playground, led by Sir William himself. This is the ninth straight year that Belichick and the Patriots have made the top 10 in rate of three-man rushes, including five first-place finishes since 2015. Other coaches who have used a lot of three-man rushes in the past include Matt Patricia in Detroit and Bill O’Brien in Houston.
Most defenses don’t use three-man rushes very often—the Bills only used five all season—so many of the DVOA numbers here are meaningless. For the record, the Browns had the best DVOA using fewer than four rushers; in 19 plays, they intercepted four passes and added a pair of sacks. Meanwhile, the worst defense with fewer than four rushers was in Las Vegas, where the Raiders gave up six touchdowns when using three or fewer rushers. Five of those touchdowns came in the red zone, a curious place to use such a passive tactic.
|Three or Fewer Pass-Rushers, 2021|
As noted, the Raiders used four-man rushes the most, and we discussed last week how the Dolphins used them the least. By DVOA, the best defense with exactly four rushers belonged to the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo surrendered 14 touchdowns with four pass-rushers while collecting 18 interceptions, including a pick-six. (This is one of the reasons the Bills were historically effective without getting pressure.) The Bills’ defensive rivals, the Jets, gave up 18 touchdowns with only five interceptions, finishing last in DVOA with four-man rushes.
|Four Pass-Rushers, 2021|
We repeat: The Dolphins used the most blitzes and the Raiders the fewest, and 80% of blitzes are five-man rushes, so it’s only natural that Miami and Las Vegas are at the top and bottom of the five-man table.
It’s the Chiefs, however, who lead the way in DVOA with five-man rushes. They only allowed four touchdowns on five-man rushes all season, and three of those came against Justin Herbert and the Chargers in Week 3. Meanwhile, they intercepted four passes, adding two sacks that lost a combined 30 yards and an intentional grounding for a loss of 18.
The Ravens were last in five-man DVOA by a mile. They only intercepted one pass on a five-man rush all year while giving up six scoring plays, including touchdowns of 29, 42, 55, and 76 yards.
|Five Pass-Rushers, 2021|
Six or More Pass-Rushers
This is another category that is inherently a product of small sample sizes. Interestingly, by DVOA, we find the reigning Super Bowl champions at the bottom of the table. The Los Angeles Rams did not collect a single sack or interception on a big blitz all year, letting opposing quarterbacks to go 7-of-13 for 87 yards and four touchdowns. It’s interesting that their Super Bowl opponents, the Bengals, had the second-best DVOA on big blitzes … until the very end, when Cooper Kupp scored a championship-winning touchdown against a big Bengals blitz.
The Chiefs led the league in big blitzes, sending six or more pass-rushers after the quarterback 12% of the time. It was not an effective tactic, though, as they allowed nine touchdowns on big blitzes with only one interception.
|Six or More Pass-Rushers, 2021|
As you might expect, results here are very similar to what we saw in the five-man blitz table. It’s worth noting that the Dallas Cowboys were second-best when using five-man rushes and first when using six rushers or more, so naturally they’re first in DVOA in total blitzes. That said, they were also third in DVOA when using four-man rushes, so blitzing was hardly a necessity for them.
The San Francisco 49ers had the league’s worst DVOA when blitzing and also the worst drop-off between DVOA on blitzes and on four-man rushes. This is what happens when you have Nick Bosa and Arik Arstead up front but 34-year-old Josh Norman and a rotating cast of warm bodies at cornerback. It’s also why the 49ers signed Charvarius Ward to a $40-million contract.
Speaking of the Bosas, it’s Nick’s brother Joey and the L.A. Chargers that improved the most between four-man rushes and blitzes, and I won’t lie to you, I’m at a loss to explain that one. Perhaps five-man rushes meant more one-on-one opportunities for Bosa and Uchenna Nwosu? Nwosu is now in Seattle, his spot in Los Angeles filled by Khalil Mack, while J.C. Jackson is the new top corner in town. In short, the Chargers should be just fine on defense this fall whether they are blitzing or not.
|Five or More Pass-Rushers, 2021|
Defensive Back Blitzes
We close with defensive back blitzes, which are their own little animal in the blitzing world. As discussed last week, the 2021 Miami Dolphins used defensive back blitzes more than any team on record. Their opposites were the Green Bay Packers, which blitzed a defensive back only 3.0% of the time, the lowest rate since the Falcons in 2017.
The Rams had the worst DVOA on defensive back blitzes, as in 39 plays they failed to record a single interception and only collected four sacks. Though they only gave up one touchdown on a DB blitz, that one play was a 63-yard scoring strike on 3rd-and-9 by Detroit’s D’Andre Swift. Between big blitzes and DB blitzes, it’s clear that the best tactic for Los Angeles is to knock off the exotic plays and just let Aaron Donald ruin people’s lives on his own.
As for the best defense on DB blitzes, that brings us back to the Giants, Patrick Graham and the Raiders. New York allowed four touchdown passes and recorded three interceptions on DB blitzes; on all other plays, those totals were 23 and 12. Graham deserves credit for helping the Giants be best at anything (seriously, did you watch New York play last year?), and perhaps he’ll be able to work similar magic in Las Vegas.
|Defensive Back Blitzes, 2021|