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Breaking Down the Raiders Defense

Posted Dec 27, 2013

Independent analyst Andrew Mason examines a Raiders defense led by defensive tackle Pat Sims and defensive end Lamarr Houston.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Raiders prepare for their final game of 2013, their defense has one last shot to recapture the form it displayed in its first seven games, when the unit was a respectable 10th in total defense and 12th in points allowed. That was before the Eagles visited -- and before quarterback Nick Foles began transforming himself from unsteady backup into folk hero.

Foles' shredding of the Oakland defense was the demarcation point of the season for the unit -- and for the Raiders overall. He matched Peyton Manning's NFL single-game record of seven touchdown passes. Oakland had held six of its first seven opponents to 24 points or less. Since then, the Raiders have allowed at least 24 points in six of eight games, and have been gashed for 150 points in their last four games, a 37.5-point average.

Oakland had gone 3-4 before the Eagles game and had held opponents to 21.4 points per game and 2.29 offensive touchdowns per game. Since that 49-20 loss, the Raiders have allowed a league-worst 33.6 points per game and 3.5 offensive touchdowns per game, the league's second-worst tally in that span.

The comparisons are revealing across the board. Oakland has seen its average yardage allowed per play increase by 17 percent (from 5.14 to 6.03 yards), its average per pass play increase by 25 percent, and its average rushing yardage per game rise by 35 percent, from 89.9 yards a game to 121.8.

The end of the Raiders' season could also force a defensive makeover. Oakland's list of pending unrestricted free agents includes defensive tackle Pat Sims and defensive end Lamarr Houston, the two most consistent forces on their defensive line. Houston had the only sack of Peyton Manning in Week 3 Broncos-Raiders tilt, leads the team in quarterback hurries and is second in sacks, with five. Both will look to make a final impression Sunday -- both on the Raiders and anyone else who might pursue them.

But even with the ability of Sims and Houston to disrupt by winning their one-on-one battles, the Raiders' pass-rush fortunes have plummeted.

Oakland's sack rate in Weeks 1-8 was one every 13.05 pass plays, a respectable 14th in the league. Since then, the Raiders have logged one sack every 19.21 pass plays, 25th in the league. The Raiders also had three games with four or more sacks in their first seven contests, but have been limited to one sack in two of their last four games and three of their last eight. Worse, they have only posted more than two sacks once since Week 9 -- when they faced Jets rookie Geno Smith in Week 10 and sacked him three times.

The Raiders have also been susceptible to big plays through the air; they have allowed one gain of 20 or more yards every 10.06 pass plays, seventh-worst in the league.

No one exploited this like the screen-pass-happy Chiefs. In Week 15, three of their four longest gains came on screens to Jamaal Charles or Knile Davis. Another 71-yard gain came on a deep pass from Alex Smith to Charles, plays that powered the Chiefs to a 56-31 rout.

Kansas City's game plan accounted for the threat of the Raiders' pass rush and their strength in run defense. Oakland ranks ninth in the league in yards allowed per carry, thanks to the ability of Sims to clog gaps on the inside -- and for linebackers Kevin Burnett and Sio Moore to prevent runs from reaching the second level.

Oakland's proficiency against the run may prevent the Broncos from achieving their typical run-pass balance (39.89 percent of Denver's plays have been runs, 22nd-most in the league). But if the Broncos can use play-action and screens to take the edge off the Raiders' pass rush and their ability to push upfield against the run, then the Broncos could be in line for another big day in a season filled with them.

How the Raiders respond to this will determine whether their defense can go into the offseason on a high note, or if it endures a downbeat performance that spurs another offseason overhaul.