3 Oakland Raiders Ready To Get 'Defensive' in 2012

Justin Smith – May 27, 2012

Entering the season with playoff hopes in 2011, the Oakland Raiders had a tumultuous first few months as they navigated a difficult early schedule. On the heels of losing the team's patriarch and NFL icon, Al Davis, came the losses of both starting quarterback Jason Campbell and star running back Darren McFadden for the season.

Through mourning, adjustments, a rusty Carson Palmer and other setbacks, the season bumped up and down like a Model T Ford. 

The Raiders offense produced well in 2011, ranking ninth in the NFL overall in yardage, 11th in passing and seventh in rushing. As the season wore on, particularly during the final game of the season when the Raiders had a chance to beat the hated Chargers and vault the Broncos for a playoff spot, their defense continually let them down in situations they simply had to shine, greatly facilitating their disappointing end. 

Numerous coaching changes and franchise philosophy changes have come in the wake of Mr. Davis’ death, and new head coach Dennis Allen—the first defensive minded head coach since John Madden stalked the Raider sidelines—has spoken early and often of using multiple fronts and schemes to confuse offenses and create mismatches. Corners will no longer be locked man to man in perpetuity; there will be some flexibility on the back end.

New defensive coordinator Jason Tarver has installed a system designed to allow his players to make plays on the ball. This gives a few players on the roster a chance to step up and make their presence felt this season; some who have shown ability in game situations already, and others whose promise has yet to be revealed when it counts. But with more flexibility and opportunity, expect a few unexpected players to move to the defensive forefront.

Desmond Bryant-DT: Showing dedication by signing an injury waiver to participate in mini-camp while his contract is sorted out, the young Harvard alum has shown some stellar play in his short time with the Silver & Black.

Seeing spot duty in his first two seasons, Bryant produced three sacks in 2010 and showed the ability to hold stout against the run. Despite playing with a cast on his right arm last season, in the 10 games Bryant started he amassed three sacks and 18 tackles. His agility and speed on the inside allow him a seamless transition to defensive end in three-man fronts which will only amplify his pass rushing abilities.

A big season lies ahead with the return of Matt Shaughnessy and the steady presence of big Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly beside him.

DeMarcus VanDyke-CB: Van Dyke was considered a reach when the Raiders drafted him in the third round last season. Whispers of a “Typical Al Davis speed reach” grew louder over the course of the season as Van Dyke validated that school of thought by being injured much of the season and struggling on the field when healthy. He gave up some big plays, and showed little in the way of run support.

Here’s the thing: if you check the tape on many of the completions he gave up, he was right there—seriously, RIGHT there. Just a fingertip here, an inch to the left there, and he’s got a pick or two more and some deflections.

That’s why he’ll thrive this season. He is already fluid in his hips and able to turn and run with receivers; it’s his sense for the ball and press coverage he needs to work on. He’s tall at 6’1, but very lanky. He’s bulked up some this off season, but still has a way to go before he’s able to jam a receiver with any effectiveness. However, with his speed and agility that’s not his game.

He showed a nose for the ball last season, but without an ability to put it to much use. A year of experience and a healthy off season coupled with freedom to roam and use his speed will change all that.

Philip Wheeler-LB: With the losses of Quentin Groves and Kamerion Wimbley compounded by the uncertain Rolando McClain situation, the Raiders linebacking corps is in a state of flux—like driving to reach 88 mph flux! Add in a new face in Philip Wheeler and an emerging Travis Goethel and you’ve got a bit of a mess to sort out. 

Wheeler is currently slated to start at "Sam," (a.k.a. Strong side) linebacker, replacing Wimbley. Wimbley wasn't much in the run game, but he was a beast as a pass rusher off the edge. The Raiders will not be asking Wheeler to rush the passer as much, instead relying more on his run stopping ability and his agility in pass coverage. 

After seeing limited action his first few seasons, Wheeler grew into the starting role in Indianapolis last season, tallying 84 tackles in just 13 games for the Colts. He will be running behind a larger and more talented defensive line in Oakland, and with the play calling of Tarver putting him in position to make plays, he should do just that early and often. 

The Raiders will have to look elsewhere to replace Wimbely's sack production, but rushing the passer hasn't been the Raiders problem. Stopping the run? Another story, to say the least.

Wheeler shores up the strong side in that respect and gives the Raiders the solid, proven presence that they need to steady their defense in the midst of adjustments and uncertainty.

In Closing: The Raiders defense is going through a major metamorphasis this off season and it will take a little time to gel. This team has always had talent on defense, but has often sabotaged itself with a terrible combination of poor coaching, lack of experience, no discipline, and an abject absence of understanding regarding good situational football.

The new regime has made these unfortunate, traditional weaknesses focal points in both personnel acquisition and OTA practice sessions and promised to eradicate the demons of the past. It's been said before,but couple it with the scheme flexibility and freedom brought to the table and you get the sense that this defense could really be something special in the 2012 NFL Season. 

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