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Raiders hope Gus Bradley the answer to problems on defense

The ringing endorsement chiming loudest for new Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley came not from his new boss, Jon Gruden, or any current or former players. In fact, the text message lauding the Bradley hire was from an NFL coaching colleague whose name had been bandied about for the Raiders’ job.

It offered hope for a beleaguered Raiders defense and a battered fan base shell-shocked by the frustrating ineptness of a group that gave up the third-most points in the NFL last year, came up with the third-fewest sacks and turnovers and ranked 30th in third-down defense.

“Gus is a stud,” texted Joe Barry, then the Rams’ linebacker coach who ended up being hired as the Packers’ defensive coordinator. “He’s going to do a great job.”

At the risk of turning up a spotlight on Bradley that already shines as brightly as any in the NFL, the truth is the Raiders can’t afford for him to be and do anything less than that.

With an offense that scored the 10th-most points in the NFL last year, a quarterback going into his fourth season under the same head coach for the first time in his career, a slew of playmakers all over the field and a young, rebuilt offensive line, the Raiders are in position to not just duplicate their 2020 offensive output but exceed it. That puts the playoffs squarely on their radar.

But for the latter to become a reality, the Raiders need their new defensive coordinator to fix a unit that has been an Achilles heel for the Raiders for far too long. As they gather for training camp on Tuesday, priority No. 1 is getting the defense squared away.

Otherwise, all those points will be for naught. Just like last year.

While a beefed-up defensive line bolstered by the addition of pass-rush specialist Yannick Ngakoue and a secondary strengthened by the additions of veteran cornerback Casey Hayward and rookie free safety Tre’von Moehrig will play prominent roles in the Raiders’ defensive effort, it is Bradley, one of the most respected defensive leaders in the NFL, and the veteran group of assistants he brought with him who could be the key that finally unlocks the potential in the Raiders’ defense.

Glass half-full approach

“I really look at this team as, ‘All right, here’s where they’re at,’ and it’s our job to build on what was already taking place,” Bradley said. “So I think there is some good young talent. We’re very impressed with them. I think that as far as the overall group, obviously we drafted some players on the defensive side, so creating more depth and creating more competition within. But like I said, I’ve been pretty impressed with their skill set and how they pick things up.”

The support staff includes holdover and long-time Bradley ally Rod Marinelli, who is in charge of the defensive line, secondary coach Ron Milus and linebackers coach Richard Smith. Milus and Smith coached with Bradley over the last four years with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Together, they bring a track record of development, teaching, communication and success that has been conspicuously lacking among the defensive staff the last three seasons. All of which painfully played out on the field, where far too often the Raiders looked disjointed and disorganized, specifically on key third downs and late in games.

Last year the Raiders stopped opponents just 48.7 percent of the time on third down, which ranked 30th in the NFL. They failed to hold late-game leads in three critical losses — with 1:43 remaining against the Kansas City Chiefs, 19 seconds against the Miami Dolphins and in overtime against the Chargers. In both cases, a failure to understand and execute basic assignments appeared to be as much a culprit as talent.

Enter Bradley, whose energetic style, friendly and approachable demeanor and formidable track record make him an easy buy-in for a young Raiders defense starving for direction.

For Bradley, that begins with an approach that values personal relationships above X’s and O’s. The belief being, once mutual respect is achieved, everything else will organically follow.

“The biggest thing is the man,” said Raiders defensive end Cle Ferrell. “Coach Bradley is a guy who is going to talk to you about your vision for your life when you sit down and meet with him. … So I think the biggest thing with Coach Brad, first of all, he’s a good dude. I think that makes you want to play for a guy even more.”

Way back with Gruden

It’s been Bradley’s M.O. almost from the moment Gruden plucked him off the staff at North Dakota State in 2006 to be his linebackers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The chance Gruden took on the young college assistant was the starting point for a career in which Bradley has overseen quality defenses in Seattle and Los Angeles and included four years as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Bradley ultimately failed as a head coach, but the talent he accumulated in Jacksonville set the foundation for the Jaguars’ AFC Championship game run in 2017. Bradley eventually landed in Los Angeles, where he spent the last four years calling the shots for a typically sound defense.

When the Chargers moved on from head coach Anthony Lynn at the end of the 2020 season, Bradley became available. Gruden, in need of an established and respected leader to get his defense turned around, immediately turned to his old friend from Tampa Bay.

Bradley, impressed by the investment the Raiders have made over the last few years in young defensive players like Ferrell, Maxx Crosby, Trayvon Mullen, Johnathan Abram, Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, and buoyed by the promise they would invest heavily on that side of the ball during the offseason, quickly accepted the offer.

“The thing that’s really crazy to me is that he’s the same guy. If not, he has way more energy,” said Ngakoue, who played under Bradley in Jacksonville. “He always was a high-energy guy, a guy that’s personable, a great coach and unfortunately in Jacksonville we didn’t do what we were supposed to do to keep him there.

“But here, he’s just putting us in great positions to make plays and allow us to be free. That’s a guy that loves the game, brings passion every day no matter what’s going on in his life. He’s always going to have a smile on his face.”

Heading in right direction

A full offseason into his first year with the Raiders and more than 2,000 practice reps under his belt, Bradley feels good about where things are headed. Ngakoue headlines a rebuilt defensive line that features fellow newcomers Solomon Thomas, Quinton Jefferson and Darius Philon.

The hope is the new additions mesh with Crosby, Ferrell, fellow holdover Carl Nassib and rookie edge rusher Malcolm Koonce to create more heat on the quarterback and greatly improve on the paltry 14.5 sacks the Raiders’ defensive line produced last year.

If so, a linebacker group that returns all three starters and an improved secondary should be much better in pass coverage.

As a bonus, the Raiders also ended up with Milus and Smith, a pair of noted teachers with long track records of development.

“He’s a great communicator,” Gruden said of Bradley. “He also has a staff that’s been with him for a long time. I think that’s the biggest thing that he has going for him. A lot of coordinators get hired and they have to implement their defense with a lot of coaches they’ve never worked with. Richard Smith is a great linebacker coach. Ron Milus is a great secondary coach. Marinelli just got the Lifelong Achievement Award for the defensive line coach. So we have a great defensive staff, and Gus is a great communicator.”

It sets up the 55-year-old Minnesota native as a potential hero. By merely turning the Raiders into an average defensive unit, it could change the entire narrative of a franchise that has reached the playoffs only one time over the last 20 years and desperately wants to take a decisive step forward in their second year in Las Vegas.

Given how bad the Raiders were defensively last year, it seems unfathomable they could be as ineffective in 2021.

The question becomes, how much better can they be? With Bradley at the helm, the Raiders hope the answer is much better.

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter.

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