NAPA – After signing with the Raiders in March, linebacker Brandon Marshall watched film of last year's defense extensively in an effort to better learn his role for the upcoming season. Most of it wasn't pretty, but Marshall quickly identified one glaring weakness that set the unit on a downward spiral.
"We had 13 sacks last year," Marshall said. "I don't care what DBs you have. Those guys can't survive if the pressure's not there. We have to create more pressure up front. We have to stop the run and play tighter coverage. We have to form an identity on defense."
Marshall listed four ways to improve the defense, but the top priority's crystal clear. The Raiders must get better rushing the pass. The 2018 Raiders didn't have enough talent up front or enough options at a position where rotation is key. Fresh bodies are needed to rush the passer, which requires maximum effort on every play.
Take a look at the Philadelphia Eagles defensive line during their currently dominant era, or the Seattle Seahawks before that. They had guys moving in and out.
Last year, the Raiders line was fixed. With Khalil Mack traded and Bruce Irvin falling out of favor and eventually being cut, the Raiders didn't have much.
"We had a base [defense line] and a nickel line, and they were the same guys," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. "Now we have guys who can roll in fresh off the bench, playing 25-30 snaps pre game and give you good reps. We're not having everybody playing first, second and third down. The more you can bring in waves of rushers, the better you'll be."
Maurice Hurst was one of those linemen weathering a difficult 2018, and one of the few able to generate pressure on the quarterback. There's a different feel in this camp, with several expected to join the fight.
"I think we have a legitimate two deep right," Hurst said. "We're all helping, and we're all going to play important roles going forward."
Guenther will experiment with combinations up front this summer, but early bets are lining Josh Mauro, Johnathan Hankins, Justin Ellis and Clelin Ferrell up in the base defense. The sub packages will mix, but Ferrell, Maurice Hurst and Hankins/PJ Hall could be staples in the nickel, with Arden Key and Maxx Crosby coming in to help.
A truly dominant, Mack-esque pass rusher isn't on this roster – in fairness, we have no idea what Ferrell will be in the short or long term – meaning sacks will have to come from the entire crew. One player (or two) can't always save the day.
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A pack mentality will be key here, with contributions mandatory from last year's draft picks (Hurst, Hall and Key) and this year's crew, namely Ferrell and Crosby.
"There is that voice in your head reminded you that we didn't do that well last year," Hurst said. "That's motivation for us as players, and it makes the D-line want to do better and push each other every single play."