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Raiders defensive line pointed in the right direction

The good news for the Raiders is their defensive line accounted for 32 sacks in 2019, or 22 more than their defensive front accounted for in 2018. That is a significant improvement.

On the flip side, the Raiders did not get a single sack from any other position in 2019. For their defense to take a decisive step forward, they need to create more pressure from the second level of their defense. As an example, the dominant defensive line of the San Francisco 49ers totaled 41 sacks, but they got seven more from other positions to go with 29 of their 174 quarterback pressures.

The Raiders helped the second level by adding free-agent linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, both of whom have shown pass rush ability while combining for 6.5 sacks and 13 quarterback pressures last year. They also added Damarious Randall, who had 2.5 sacks last year with the Cleveland Browns.

Meanwhile, young safety Johnathan Abram, who missed almost his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury, showed proficiency in blitz packages at Mississippi State, coming up with five sacks over his last two seasons.

The pass rush flexibility of Abram and the three newcomers could encourage Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to dial up blitz calls to help create pressure. In addition, they can assist the front four by providing better pass coverage, especially the new linebackers, which creates more time to get to the quarterback.

The help goes both ways, though, and the second and third levels of the Raiders’ defense will benefit from the improvements up front, which includes the natural progression of young players like Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, the additions of interior lineman Maliek Collins and reserve edge rusher Carl Nassib and the hiring of longtime defensive line guru Rod Marinelli.

A more dominant front four means more success against the run — the Raiders were eighth against the run last year, giving up just 98.1 yards per game — which will put teams into more known passing situations. That is when defensive coordinators get creative.

Marinelli replaced Brentson Buckner in a move that had nothing to do with Buckner’s performance and everything to do with Marinelli.

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said Buckner is a good young coach, but that “I just happen to think Marinelli’s the best in the world at what he does.”

Ferrell, in particular, seems poised for a big sophomore season after going through some ups and downs as a rookie. The former Clemson standout finished with 38 tackles, 4.5 sacks, eight tackles for loss and 14 quarterback pressures. Those are solid rookie numbers, although not the impact one would expect from the fourth overall pick in the draft.

In Ferrell’s defense, the Raiders put a lot on his plate, moving him up and down the line of scrimmage. Plus, he suffered through a midseason setback, getting sick during the Raiders’ trip to London resulting in a 15-pound weight loss.

Ferrell vowed to learn from the rookie experience and return a much-improved player. If so, the combination of his development and the help provided by Marinelli could unleash Ferrell.

Crosby is still just scratching the surface after coming up with 10 sacks, 14 quarterback hits and 31 quarterback pressures in his first NFL season. The addition of Marinelli could push Crosby to a whole other level.

Arden Key, a third-round pick out of LSU in 2018 who has yet to reach his potential, could also be in line for a big nudge forward under Marinelli.

“They’re going to be stronger, bigger people, and they’re going to be more experienced in the NFL and in our system,” Gruden said. “I just think with Marinelli in the room with those guys, hopefully, Arden Key comes back stronger and healthier than he has been, and perhaps we add another player or two so the competition fuels it all. That’s what I’m after.”

Meanwhile, the four sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 21 quarterback pressures Collins came up with last year with the Cowboys would have led all Raiders interior defensive linemen. Nassib, who had six sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 16 quarterback pressures last year for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, adds pass rush and run defense ability off the bench.

The addition of Collins and Nassib creates depth and flexibility, with P.J. Hall moving into a reserve role to form a productive interior rotation among Collins, Maurice Hurst, Johnathan Hankins and Hall. The Raiders also added former Cowboys defensive tackle Daniel Ross, who missed all of last year with an injury, for added depth.

Nassib’s ability to create heat off the edge, either upright as an outside linebacker or out of a stance, could mean Ferrell moving inside in known passing situations to create a four-man pass rush group of Nassib and Crosby on the outside and Collins and Ferrell on the inside.

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore onTwitter.

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