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Breaking Down the Raiders Pass Rush

Posted Sep 21, 2013

The Raiders are currently tied for the league lead in sacks. Independent analyst Andrew Mason takes a look at how Oakland has accomplished that feat.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Beyond Charles Woodson, many of names on Oakland's defensive roster will elicit shrugs from all but the most knowledgeable of football fans.

But you would make a mistake if you confuse the lack of star power with a lack of pass-rush power. And while it takes players to execute plans, the Raiders' pass rush has become one of the league's most effective through two games because Defensive Coordinator Jason Tarver and Head Coach Dennis Allen have used myriad blitzes to confuse the Colts and Jaguars the last two weeks.

The result has been nine sacks from seven different Raiders. Five of the sacks have come from defensive backs: one each for safeties Tyvon Branch and Brandian Ross and 1.5 for safety Usama Young and cornerback Tracy Porter -- a testament to the frequency and variety of the Raiders' blitzes.

"They do a good job of freeing guys up," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. "That’s a good coaching staff over there, I’ve been lucky enough to work with quite a few of those guys. It’s a very intelligent group. They do a great job of using their personnel and that defense is playing as a group right now.

"That’s what our challenge is going to be — to match their intensity and make sure we’re on it because what they do is a good defensive scheme.”

ProFootballFocus.com credits the Raiders with 23 hurries -- 12 of which belong to defensive end Lamarr Houston, who justifiably attracts the most attention from opposing offensive lines. He's used as a stand-up edge rusher as well as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, and the way the Raiders move him around often forces mismatches against tight ends and running backs that are forced to pick him up if he stunts or delays his pass rush. They are at a 45-to-90-pound disadvantage against the 300-pound Houston, who has the speed of a pass rusher 30 pounds smaller. The attention Houston draws sets up much more than the sacks he notches.

Despite Houston's performance, their total of quarterback hurries is a middle-of-the-pack rate; Oakland was credited by PFF with hurries once every 3.04 pass plays, good for 15th in the league (one spot behind Denver, which has recorded quarterback hurries once every 2.9 pass plays).

Where the Raiders have flourished is in finishing the job for sacks; the Raiders' total of nine ranks second behind the Chiefs, who have played one more game. But Oakland's sacks are more frequent, they've posted one sack per 7.78 pass plays; that leads the league and is more than twice as often as the league-wide sack rate this season of one sack every 15.65 pass plays.

Against Jacksonville, the Raiders frequently rushed Chad Henne with at least five defenders, but they also got a key red-zone stop with a 180-degree turn when the Jaguars were in a goal-to-go scenario in the second quarter last Sunday.

Jacksonville faced third-and-goal at the Oakland 4-yard-line -- and eventually lost five yards on a delay-of-game penalty.

However, the play was allowed to run before it was nullified thanks to a boisterous crowd that shouted down the official's whistle, and the Raiders brought a six-man pass rush that discombobulated the Jaguars, leaving former Bronco Jason Hunter unblocked to force a hurried throw.

Given a reprieve thanks to the penalty, the Jaguars had third-and-9, and the Raiders responded to the change in field position with a different look: three down linemen, safety Brandian Ross creeping near the line of scrimmage and seven men dropping back in coverage -- which became eight when Ross began peeling back just before the snap. Henne and the Jaguars didn't respond by changing the call at the line of scrimmage, and an incompletion and a field goal was the result. The Jaguars might have had better luck by audibling into a screen pass to get some blockers out in front, but the Raiders had successfully confused the Jaguars by changing their look.

This is not something the Raiders expect to do to Peyton Manning; as a result, disguise will likely be the Raiders' best friend.

"One (way) is to blitz guys from different angles having different coverages behind it," said Tarver. "If a guy is pressuring from a certain angle, when we change the coverage behind that, it controls where we want it, as well.

"That's the guessing and cat-and-mouse game that we play all the time. These good ones like (Drew) Brees and Manning and many others in this league are the best in the world. You have to vary your coverage behind your pressure."

But that doesn't mean Tarver has increased the cerebral demands on his defenders -- many of whom are adjusting to new surroundings. Nine defensive starters are offseason arrivals, which only amplifies the success Oakland's defense amassed the last two weeks.

"Our job is to execute, so what we do is have multiple looks that are the same call for us," Tarver said. "The activation and what we do is one of my favorite things: multiplicity through simplicity.

"It can be the same blitz out of a different personnel group, so hopefully it looks different to the Denver Broncos."

A Manning-led offense isn't easily confused, even when it's absorbing a change as massive as the one it faces at left tackle this week in exchanging the injured Ryan Clady for Chris Clark. Oakland will surely try to test Clark, who is making his first career start at left tackle after starting six games as an extra tight end in 2011; how he responds will have an outsized impact in determining whether the Broncos can preserve their spotless start.

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