It was certainly a welcome sight to see the Raiders get a lot of production from rookie defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell in their 26-24 victory over the Chargers on Thursday night.
They combined for three sacks, three knockdowns and five hurries. Two of the knockdowns caused interceptions.
But much of their aggressiveness in the pass rush came at cost to the defense overall in the first half, as the Raiders’ run defense was so porous you wondered why the Chargers even allowed an obviously wild Philip Rivers to throw the ball at all.
Los Angeles could have given the ball to Melvin Gordon or Austin Ekeler on every play and the Raiders would have been powerless to stop it. Yes, it was that bad.
In the first half, the Chargers ran 19 times for 104 yards (5.5 average). Gordon ran 15 times for 71 yards (4.7 average), but it was much worse for the Raiders. Three of Gordon’s worst carries came on third-and-1 against a stacked box, a second-and-2 tote when he moved the chains with 2 yards and his 3-yard touchdown run.
But the silver-and-black lining came in the second half when the rookie duo was much-improved against the run. Give credit to defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, defensive line coach Brentson Buckner and senior defensive assistant Mike Trgovac. Someone delivered a stern message at halftime to Crosby and Ferrell, and it had an impact.
After the break, the Chargers rushed 10 times for 41 yards (4.1 average). However, it was actually much better for the Raiders. If you take out Gordon’s 24-yard run — which was defended well; a great back just made a better play — the Chargers ran nine times for 17 yards (1.9 yards average).
Change of pace
What was the difference?
You have to start with the yin and yang of being an end, especially in Guenther’s 4-3 scheme. Rushing the passer and playing the run are two polar opposites in terms of attitude and discipline.
To rush the passer, you’re pinning your ears back, rushing up the field and working one-on-one against the blocker. Defending the run calls for staying in your gap, reading the blocking and playing within the framework of a scheme that depends on everyone to do their job.
One wrong step can leave a gaping hole, teammates out to dry and defenders looking at the back of Gordon as he runs for 25 yards. The hyperaggression of Crosby and Ferrell, to the detriment of the unit, was on display on the Chargers’ first big runs.
With 12:53 left in the first quarter, the Chargers had trips tight to the right of the formation near Crosby. This is a red alert for a crack block — where one of the outside players walls him off — against Crosby, and he should have been cautious about going up field. Instead, he took two hard steps up the field and was pinned in by receiver Mike Williams. That allowed the tight end and right tackle to easily pull, and the Raiders were helpless in giving up a 12-yard run.
If Crosby anticipated the crack block and stayed flatter to the line, he could have blown up the pullers and minimized the gain.
On the first play of the next series, Ferrell charged down the line of scrimmage anticipating a run away from him. When Ekeler took the handoff, stopped by design and ran a counter around Ferrell, the Raiders allowed a 10-yard gain. If Ferrell just held his ground and read the play a moment longer, he could have stopped it in the backfield.
There were several other examples where Crosby and Ferrell charged up the field to rush the passer, which left a huge hole next to the defensive tackles, who largely did a good job in this game.
After a talking to from the coaches at halftime, Crosby and Ferrell played much more under control in the second half, starting with the first play. Instead of charging up the field, Crosby and Ferrell held their blockers and read the play. Gordon went for five yards, but that was because Karl Joseph got sucked up inside.
On the first play of the next series, the Chargers ran the same counter play with Ekeler, only this time Ben Mayowa (playing Crosby’s spot while he flipped to Ferrell’s side) stayed flat, and the play went for no gain.
With 9:55 left in the fourth quarter, P.J Hall busted the blocking up the middle and Crosby was there to clean it up for minus-1 yard because he was reading the play and not out of position.
The Raiders are going to need a lot more of that kind of disciplined run defense as these games get bigger. You can get away with being overaggressive in your pass rush against middling offenses and teams like the Chargers.
If the Raiders intend to push for a playoff spot, undisciplined run defense will get then blown off the field against the Chiefs (especially), Titans and Jaguars. Heck, even Le’Veon Bell and the Jets could give them fits.
The promising development was young players like Crosby and Ferrell made some mistakes. But they were able to take the coaching and adjust during the game. That bodes well for the future.