How Raiders' Defense Turned Up the Heat When John Pagano Took Over

PHILADELPHIA -- Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio hoped firing defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.  would spark his defense.

It's easy to say it has; basic metrics have improved. The pass rush is more impactful. Takeaways are up, opponent passer rating and third-down conversions are down.

That was clear early in this four-game stretch, but the Raiders were cautious crediting new play caller John Pagano for the surge.

Norton was immensely popular in the locker room, especially among defensive leadership who already felt he was scapegoated. Del Rio was sensitive to that fact.

Improved production was explained with platitudes, typically saying rush and coverage have worked better together. There's truth to that, with plenty of credit to spread around for defensive improvement.

Pagano deserves some.

"I think he's done a good job of providing clarity on assignments," Del Rio said Monday. "I think he's a good teacher. I think he does a good job with the group. I'm pleased with the way he's worked at it, but it's exactly what I expected him to do. Want him to continue to deliver and us to continue to grow and improve as we finish up."

The Raiders have two games left, starting with Monday night's game in Philadelphia. The Raiders finish up in Carson against the Chargers, where he spent the last 15 season on staff and final five as defensive coordinator.

Del Rio said last month he envisions Pagano calling Raiders defensive plays next year as well, with a full offseason to put a larger stamp on this unit. This unit hasn't been perfect under Pagano. His charges have made mistakes, given up costly points and proven deficient in stretches, even in two games against lackluster competition.

Pagano has, however, made some quick adjustments in season that have paid dividends.

There are a few obvious ones. Khalil Mack has moved around the defensive line in search of advantageous matchups. Bruce Irvin's coverage snaps have dropped way down, allowing him to rush the passer most every drop back. Defensive line rotations are up, even off the edge.

Pagano is using disguise to his advantage, with a willingness to bring extra pressure up the middle. He has allowed cornerbacks to travel with specific receivers, a move that has helped Sean Smith in particular.

Raiders coaches don't divulge much, as is custom across the league. Offensive-minded Eagles head coach Doug Pederson didn't have a problem breaking his opposition down.

"I think you're seeing a little more pressure out of this group," Pederson said. "I don't want to say it's complete overhaul, but structurally it's probably I would say it's the pressure. A little more single-high, cover one, playing a little bit more man. Really that's about it. Other than that, it's been kind of what they've done for most of the season."

Increased pressure has worked well. The Raiders had a league-low 14 sacks through 10 games. They have 14 in the last four games. Takeaways are equally symmetrical. The Raiders had six through 10 games and six more after that, including the season's first four interceptions.

Khalil Mack has five sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery under Pagano, though he always gets hot later in the year. Bruce Irvin has really come on strong, with five sacks, two forced fumbles and a quarterback that resulted in an interception.

"The effort the last four games has been outstanding," Pagano said. "I think having an understanding of the pass rush of how we want to attack teams has been outstanding and those guys are great edge rushers that help us on the edge. You got to get the guys inside pushing that pocket. I think there's been some timely things that have helped us defensively with the rush and it just keeps growing, keep getting better off that. I think it's having a true understanding going into the game how we're attacking them. And I think the guys have done a great job of focusing in on those things."

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