Thursday the Raiders matched up with the Cardinals in their second preseason bout. The Cardinals are an interesting story to follow this year with first overall pick Kyler Murray and new head coach Cliff Kingsbury attempting to bring the full Air Raid offense into the NFL.
Paul Guenther didn’t seem worried about the potential problems of a college oriented spread attack and had a few tricks up his sleeve to slow down the Cardinals. Pressuring the quarterback was the achilles heel of the defense in 2018 but you wouldn’t know it from watching this game. Guenther’s defense dialed up blitz after blitz, noticeably flustering the rookie signal caller and held the first string offense to 12 yards in their 4 series of action. Here’s a look at how the defense got after the QB.
The prevailing theory as to why the Cardinals were willing to trade their 2018 first round QB Josh Rosen in favor of Kyler Murray because his mobility will better suit him to make plays behind the league’s worst offensive line. Playing up to Murray’s mobility was definitely a strategy the Cardinals were attempting to execute early in the game, calling zone reads and boot actions like the one above.
The reason the zone read never gained real traction in the NFL however is because of the freak athletes at defensive end across the league. College edge defenders are usually taught to play either the RB or the QB, making it easier for offensive coordinators to use their rules against them in game action. Just about every NFL team however has an edge defender (or two) who has the athleticism to play both. Clelin Ferrell gave Raiders fans a glimpse of that on the play above. By slow playing the run action, Ferrell puts himself in a position to react once he sees where the ball is going. He also flashes some jets in pursuit of the speedy Cardinals QB to force an errant throw and incompletion.
The Raiders defense sent pressure from the slot numerous times throughout the game. This blitz from rookie Johnathan Abram should become a normal sight on Sundays. Abram crosses the line of scrimmage at full speed and lowers his shoulder into David Johnson who is pass protecting. Abram knocks the former Pro-Bowl running back onto his heels and speeds up Murray’s process. Murray looks rushed and is forced to throw the ball early. The tight coverage from Joyner on the slot receiver no doubt disrupts some of the timing of this play as well.
Pressure and coverage go hand in hand. On the previous play, close man coverage helped disrupt the timing of Murray’s target. Calling a blitz puts more stress on coverage defenders forcing them to play more areas of the field without help. This wasn’t an issue for much of the starters time on the field but this throw and catch illustrates the gamble of sending more men after the quarterback.
The Raiders are in what looks like a “trap coverage” on top of a 5 man pressure. Trap coverage asks the cornerbacks to key the number 2 wide receiver in order to break on any out routes. Gareon Conley utilizes a “bail” technique to stay on top of the number 1 wide receiver while keeping his eyes on the tight end. Conley’s eyes don’t get back to Keesean Johnson in time to break on the hitch and he gives up a reception for 8 yards.
Stunting defensive line
Blitzing is great when the coverage holds up. In the NFL, however, you have to be able to generate pressure from a 4-man rush to be successful on defense. Paul Guenther has some toys he can use in a 4-man rush in order create more pressure than he did in 2018. The Raiders are still in Nickel personnel but the added wrinkle is putting the 4th overall pick Clelin Ferrell at defensive tackle inside of Arden Key. The two defensive ends on the same side give some flexibility to stunt because both players should theoretically be able to contain rush.
This time Arden Key loops inside to notch a hurry on Murray. Against a less mobile QB this may have been an easy sack. He continues to pursue and forces Murray to throw an uncatchable ball. Ferrell however loses discipline on his rush and jumps inside for a split second which is what allows the QB to break the pocket, if that gets cleaned up Ferrell as the sub interior rusher should be formidable.
Double A Gap blitz
This is Paul Guenther’s bread and butter and he has his defense line up in this look several times before this play. Each previous Double A-Gap look however was a bluff and if pressure came at all it came off the edge. This time Guenther pulls the trigger and sends Vontaze Burfict and Tahir Whitehead into the A gaps.
What should be exciting for Raiders fans is Burfict’s ability to run this scheme. One LB will bull rush the center and the other will loop behind but they need to read which way the center sets in order to execute this rush. When Burfict sees the center set towards Whitehead he puts his foot in the ground and pushes the blocker out of his teammates way, freeing up Whitehead to loop behind.
Murray lays up a pass to the sideline in tight coverage. Keesean Johnson is flagged for offensive pass interference and this one comes back in the Raiders favor.
The addition of Lamarcus Joyner should really benefit this defense. This play against the Cardinals was a sneak preview of what Joyner brings to the team. Premier slot defenders must be able to play tight man coverage, make tackles against the run, and can be used as a blitzer. Joyner has a proven ability to do all 3 and he should be the Raiders defensive MVP by the end of the season.
Guenther calls this blitz from Joyner after sending Abram from the slot earlier and the Double A-Gap pressure. The RB in pass protection looks for both of these but misses Joyner streaking free on his way to pick up a safety against the rookie QB.
Guenther blitzed each starting linebacker (Burfict, Whitehead, and Brandon Marshall), and each starting safety (Abram, Joyner, and Karl Joseph). He also asked Benson Mayowa and Clelin Ferrell to drop into coverage a couple times.
In 11 pass attempts from the Cardinals first team offense, Paul Guenther sent:
- 4 rushers 3 times
- 5 rushers 6 times
- 6 rushers 2 times
This is an extremely high blitz rate. While fun to watch, its likely not sustainable and was used mostly to fluster a young rookie QB in an offensive scheme that doesn’t give its tackles much help in pass protection.
The main takeaway is that the defenders have absorbed many different play calls and were able to execute their responsibilities. This is an encouraging sign that means the defense is beginning to gel and will have answers to the problems that high powered offenses will bring during the regular season.
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