One of the biggest concerns NFL observers voice about the Raiders in 2013 is their lack of a pass rush.
Last season, Oakland ranked 31st in the league with just 25 sacks.
As ESPN.com’s AFC West blogger Bill Williamson wrote this week, it’s one of three main “hot issues” facing the Raiders this season, along with questions about the quarterback position and Darren McFadden’s health and impact.
“Defensively, camp is about trying to find a pass rush,” Williamson wrote. “Oakland had little pass rush last season, and the team did little to improve in that area in the offseason.”
Yet that doesn’t mean the Raiders don’t have some potential for improvement.
The team hopes that an improved group of linebackers and additions at cornerback and safety will have positive ripple impacts on the defensive line; that better strength across the unit will lead to better success in all areas.
Plus, the Raiders have Lamarr Houston.
Entering his fourth NFL season, Houston – 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds – has played in all 48 games for Oakland since being taken in the second round out of Texas in the 2010 draft. The defensive end last season had a career-high 69 tackles, four sacks and forced a fumble as one of the few consistently bright spots on the unit.
Along with veteran pass-rush specialist Andre Carter (signed during the 2012 season), veteran free-agent signee Jason Hunter and rookie David Bass, Houston gives the Raiders four players with sack capability. Houston is expected to be the starter at right defensive end and the leader of the unit. He told reporters recently during training camp in Napa that he knows more will be expected of him this season.
“It’s a new era on the defensive front,” he said. “But it’s just not me. The line as a unit will work to help find a pass rush. It’s a group thing.”
As he posted on Twitter as training camp opened last month: “Every camp is a new one opportunity to prove yourself.”
The defense and Houston will get their first chance to show if there’s been any improvement in the Raiders’ exhibition opener Friday when the team hosts the Dallas Cowboys (7 p.m.).
At least one NFL analyst believes Houston could do big things in 2013.
Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated includes Houston on his “All-Underrated Team” of defensive players.
Wrote Farrar, in his story this week: “Houston’s relative anonymity has been a mystery to me since he was taken by the Raiders in the second round of the 2010 draft. He put up five sacks in his rookie season, when the coaches were moving him all over the place, and kept his QB pressures at 21 in his second season despite moving down to one sack (an indication that sacks don’t tell the whole story when it comes to pass-rushers).
“In 2012 he moved back up in the sack department, upped his (QB) hit total to 10, from six, and maintained his status as one of the best young undersold multi-gap defenders in the league.”
Houston has been a dynamo on defense, always hustling. Last season, he helped the Raiders win a game against the Jaguars by chasing a wide receiver downfield after a catch and stripping the ball from him. It was a play that helped him earn AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after a performance that included seven tackles and a sack.
Head coach Dennis Allen praised Houston last season for his effort and constant hustle and his work to continuously improve. And former teammate Michael Huff, now in Baltimore, said last season that Houston's big game against Jacksonville showed what kind of a player he is.
“He just loves football,” said Huff. “That’s really what you need to build teams 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.”