If the Raiders are to improve in 2013, the defense must be remade.
There’s no doubt that General Manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen will huddle many times this offseason to decide which defensive players to keep, which to let go and which free agents and college players to pursue.
Oakland allowed an average of 27.7 points per game in 2012 en route to a 4-12 record, the fifth-worst average in the NFL.
Yet one player on the roster who could be part of the team’s long-term solution is defensive end Lamarr Houston.
Houston, linebacker Miles Burris and safeties Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch appear to be the building blocks of an effective defense.
In fact, Houston might have been one of the team’s best players.
The second-round draft choice from Texas in 2010 had four sacks and career highs in tackles (49) and assists (20) while playing all 16 games. He also led the team in 13 tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hurries.
In the season’s final game, a 24-21 loss to the Chargers, Houston had 12 tackles and a sack and did what he consistently did throughout the season in being the team’s best run-stuffer.
Though listed at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, the 25-year-old reported to summer training camp 20 pounds lighter than he had been in 2011, and started this past season at 285 pounds.
Head coach Dennis Allen – who’d asked Houston to lose 10 pounds before summer camp – was impressed by Houston’s weight loss, which gave him extra quickness and mobility. Before the season began, Allen told CBSSports.com, “I would expect good things out of him.”
In October, Houston’s hard work to make himself better paid off when he was named the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week after playing a big role in the Raiders’ 26-23 overtime victory over Jacksonville. Houston had seven tackles, a sack and forced a fumble in OT that set up Sebastian Janikowski’s game-winning field goal.
Houston’s big play in overtime came when he chased down wide receiver Cecil Shorts III from behind, stripping the ball from him after Shorts had taken a short pass and weaved his way downfield.
“I just was hustling to the ball, trying to get the guy on the ground,” Houston told reporters after the game. “The play’s never dead until the whistle’s blown. Just play until the whistle’s blown.”
The veteran Huff – who was forced into playing cornerback this season because of injuries, but may return to safety in 2013 – has been one of Houston’s biggest boosters. Houston’s speed, hustle and drive make him a player with terrific potential, Huff said during the season.
“He’s one of those guys you can tell that he loves the game. He just loves football,” Huff said. “That’s really what you need to build team around. It’s really the stuff you can’t coach, you can’t teach. It’s either in you or it’s not. So for him to love the game, he hustles and plays with a lot of energy. That’s big.”
It's expected the Raiders will pursue a defensive end in the draft to upgrade their pass rush. If they can pair Houston with a young pass rusher, plus add a free agent or drafted tackle, Oakland may have the foundation for a solid defensive line in 2013.