Oakland Raiders report: Khalil Mack is the driving force, but Raiders’ defense needs more punch in 2017

Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack during an NFL football training camp Monday, July 31, 2017, in Napa, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

By Joe Hawkes-Beamon
Sports Radio Service Writer

Heading into the 2017 NFL season, the Oakland Raiders will have a top-10 offense that will score a bunch of points and be entertaining to watch.

That we do know.

When the Raiders’ offense, (sixth in total offense in 2016 averaging 26 points per game) is engineered by Derek Carr, who is vastly becoming one of the league’s top quarterbacks with back-to-back seasons of at least 3,900 passing yards and 25 touchdowns in his first three seasons¬† in the NFL, all signs point to the Raiders being in good hands with Carr at the helm.

The supporting cast isn’t too shabby either: with precise route-runners in wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree (both had 1,000-yard receiving seasons last season) and a stable of running backs, with hometown hero Marshawn Lynch (acquired via trade from Seattle after retiring prior to the 2016 season) expected to be the lead-dog ahead of change-of-pace backs in Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington.

Third-year tight end Clive Walford and nine-year veteran Jared Cook (signed in the offseason) should provide matchup problems in the middle field for the Raiders with opposing linebackers and safeties. Play from the tight end position has been an afterthought for Oakland early in Carr’s career, but should be vastly improved this season.

But if Oakland has any shot at playing in Super Bowl LII (let alone topple the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game), the defense will need to do a lot more in support of their high-octane offense if they are to play at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on the first Sunday in February.

First, the pass rush needs to improve tremendously.

Defensive end Khalil Mack, the reigning Associated Press¬†(AP) Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY), finished with 11 of Oakland’s 25 sacks (a league-worse in 2016 for any defense).

There’s no questioning the motor that the two-time Pro Bowler and First-Team All-Pro plays with on every down and he’s the most feared player on Oakland’s defense, but he can’t do it all by himself and needs help. Even if Mack has his sites on 30 sacks in 2017, according to Carr who mentioned that after one of the Raiders’ practice sessions during training camp in Napa last week, Mack can’t be everywhere.

Taking a closer look, the Arizona Cardinals finished with a league-best 48 sacks and had two guys in Markus Golden (team- and personal career-high 12.5 sacks) and Chandler Jones (11.0 sacks) getting to the quarterback at-will.

Arizona’s second-ranked defense almost doubled the Raiders’ output in sacks from last season.

Mack had an eight-game stretch where he recorded at least one sack in every game last season, but there’s no way he can get to 30 sacks this season, which would shatter former New York Giants defensive end and Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5 sacks set in 2001. The four-year stud from Buffalo would need to average 2.5-3.0 sacks per game and the way opposing teams double- and triple-team him, that’s a tough feat to accomplish even if you’re considered one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.

Along with Strahan, there have only been 10 other occasions in NFL history where there have been 20+ sacks by a defensive player in a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau:

  • Three players with 22.0 sacks in a season: defensive ends Mark Gastineau for the New York Jets in 1984 (previous all-time record holder in a season), Jared Allen in 2011 for the Minnesota Vikings and outside linebacker Justin Houston in 2014 for the Kansas City Chiefs.
  • Two players with 21.0 sacks in a season: the late, great defensive end Reggie White in 1987 for Philadelphia and defensive end Chris Doleman in 1989 for Minnesota. Both men are in enshrined in Canton after playing 15 seasons each, with White second all-time with 198 career sacks (Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith is first all-time with 200 career sacks), and Doleman sitting fourth all-time with 150.5 sacks.
  • Two players (one accomplished the feat twice) with 20.5 sacks in a season: Hall of Fame outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986 for the New York Giants, who changed the way the outside linebacker position was played and made the “sack” term a household name when the statistic became official in 1982 after “LT” won his second-consecutive¬†AP DPOY following his rookie season; and defensive end J.J. Watt, took home AP DPOY honors after the 2012 and ’14 seasons. Both men are tied for the most AP DPOYs in NFL history with three a piece.
  • Two players with 20.0 sacks in a season: the late, great outside linebacker Derrick Thomas for Kansas City in 1990, and recently retired outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware in 2008 for the Dallas Cowboys. Thomas ranks 16th on the NFL’s all-time sacks list with 126.5 in his career, is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and many folks believe that Ware (eighth all-time with 138.5 sacks) and a Super Bowl ring in 2015 with the Denver Broncos, is bound for Canton once his five-year waiting period is over.

The dropoff from Mack, on defense was considerable last year for Oakland, who finished as the 26th-ranked defense in the NFL.

Outside linebacker Bruce Irvin was second on the team with seven sacks, but he needs to get 10.0-12.0 sacks this season on the opposite side of the defense to lighten the load for Mack. Irvin did finish tied with Atlanta Falcons’ outside linebacker Vic Beasley with five forced fumbles last season, most in the league.

Mario Edwards Jr. has had a hard time staying healthy, and Justin “Jelly” Ellis needs to step up his production and provide more pressure to opposing quarterbacks. Throw in Denico Autry and Jihad Ward into the mix as well of guys that are expected to have better seasons for the Silver and Black.

Rookie defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes could be a force in the middle of the defensive line if he’s completely returned from the ACL injury that derailed his junior season two seasons ago for UCLA, in the Bruins’ first game of the 2015 season.

The Raiders believe that Vanderdoes has recovered well, well enough that they spent a third round pick on him in the NFL Draft this past April.

As of Monday, Vanderdoes was the starting defensive tackle on the team’s unofficial depth chart ahead of Ward but according to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, Vanderdoes was briefly out with what the team called a “minor” knee injury Tuesday, but returned to practice on Wednesday.

It remains uncertain if Vanderdoes plays in Oakland’s preseason opener in Arizona Saturday night.

Second with no “true” middle linebacker on the roster (“true” meaning a middle linebacker with at least 1-2 years of NFL experience) on the roster, the Raiders need someone to fill the void at one of the critical spots on the defense for any team.

There’s high hopes for another rookie in Marquel Lee to seize the job in training camp, a fifth-round pick from Wake Forest that could be a hidden gem for Oakland.

The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Lee was a three-year starter in his four seasons for the Demon Deacons and finished tops on the team 105 tackles (63 solo and 42 assisted), 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles his senior year.

Lastly, Oakland’s secondary has to protect the back-end of the defense and limit the long ball. Oakland was seventh-worse in the league last season surrendering an average of 375 passing yards per game in 2016.

With both safety positions solidified with 11-year veteran Reggie Nelson (team-high five interceptions and his second-straight Pro Bowl berth) and second-year player Karl Joseph (60 tackles total) patrolling the middle of the field, and David Amerson likely to maintain his spot at right cornerback, incumbent Sean Smith’s starting job at left cornerback is in jeopardy to four-year player TJ Carrie.

The nine-year veteran had a forgettable 2016 where he was consistently picked on by opposing quarterbacks, who had a passer rating of 114.0 against Smith last year, completing 44 receptions on 77 targets for 749 yards and eight touchdowns according to a recent training camp report filed by NBC Sports Bay Area Oakland Raiders Insider Scott Bair.

Carrie has passed Smith on the depth chart in training camp, lining up with the starting 11 over the weekend. Smith has been seen working out with the second-team defense playing a hybrid linebacker/safety covering tight ends in sub packages and at slot cornerback when the offense goes four wide receivers.

Limiting the the big-play wouldn’t hurt either.

Oakland’s defense surrendered a league-most 61 plays of 20+ yards to opposing offenses.

The 2017 season could be one of the greatest seasons in Raiders’ franchise history, and the defense will play a major roll (good or bad) in what Raider Nation is hoping will end in the organization winning its fourth Vince Lombardi trophy.