When the Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders last met four seasons ago at the O.co Coliseum, Khalil Mack was arguably the game’s most compelling player, and the Raiders were a team perceived to be on the rise.
The Vikings have since become very familiar with Mack after he was traded to the Chicago Bears in the NFC North prior to the 2018 season. The Raiders, on the other hand, were left punchless last year as they wound up as the league’s worst scoring defense, allowing 29.2 points per game following the loss of one of the league’s top edge rushers.
So where is the defense at now in its second season under head coach Jon Gruden and first season under general manager Mike Mayock?
Here’s a crash course on the current makeup of the Raiders defense in advance of Sunday’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
1. mike zimmeR PUPIL paul guenther is the defensive coordinator
The day after Minnesota’s Week 1 victory, Mike Zimmer saw a call coming through on his smart watch during his Monday press conference. It was Paul Guenther, his former assistant and eventual successor in Cincinnati. Now Guenther is in his second year running the defense in Oakland and remains close friends with the Vikings head coach. Zimmer said the two chatted Xs and Os during the offseason — perhaps about how they’re going to attempt to trick each other in Sunday’s matchup.
“In some things, we have enough variation that he hasn’t seen because I haven’t been with him in six years,” said Zimmer. “We have some variations that we do, different wrinkles here and there that we do. At the end of the day, it’s about stopping their offense, not worrying about their defense, and how can we do that. I’m sure they’re doing the same thing: how are they going to defend our offense?”
Guenther has a ways to go, however, to catch up to Zimmer’s secondary after a strenuous Year 1 in Oakland and a tough start to the 2019 season.
2. Oakland’s passing defense is currently an NFL worst
The Raiders defense shut out the Chiefs for three of four quarters last Sunday, but the one quarter where they softened up got ugly. Patrick Mahomes threw for 278 yards in the second quarter alone as Kansas City scored 28 unanswered points to capture a 28-10 halftime lead. Mahomes ended the game with 443 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. His four touchdowns came from 44, 42, 27 and 39 yards out — all to the left side of the field — as the Chiefs used three- and four-wide receiver sets to set up single coverage and clear out safeties. They converted eight total passing plays of 25 yards or more.
“I don’t know when [the Vikings] play Mahomes,” Gruden told Twin Cities reporters Wednesday, “but some of these throws that he makes, the coverage is pretty good. We had a couple breakdowns that we have to fix, there’s no doubt about that, but a couple of the throws we had good coverage. Sometimes you’ve got to tip your hat to him. It’s like when Tiger Woods makes a 40-foot putt, what are you going to do? You just shake your head. There’s some guys that are able to make plays in tough coverages and tough situations and right now Mahomes is on fire. So you’ve got to tip your hat to the other guy sometimes.”
Sunday’s outcome dropped the Raiders to 32nd in passing defense, though their Week 1 win looked much better as they held Joe Flacco and the Denver Broncos to 249 passing yards and 16 total points.
A year ago, the Raiders were considered the second-worst coverage unit in football by PFF, but three of their biggest liabilities Leon Hall, Rashaan Melvin and Nick Nelson are no longer on the 53-man roster. Karl Joseph, a former first-round pick, along with Curtis Riley and Erik Harris are handling duties at safety while Daryl Worley and Gareon Conley, another first-round pick, man the corner spots.
“I’ve got a healthy respect for Oakland’s pass defense,” said Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. “I think they have really good players, I think the scheme is sound. I know Kansas City got some plays out there, but watching the tape there were some unique plays made by that quarterback, so I think we’ll get a very stingy pass defense on Sunday.”
There is talent in the Oakland secondary, but they lost a dynamic defensive playmaker after Week 1 whose absence may have played a role in the lapses against Kansas City.
3. FIRST-ROUND PICK JOHNATHAN ABRAM IS ON INJURED RESERVE
The Raiders spent the 27th pick last April on a big-hitting safety from Mississippi State, but Abram’s physicality is what knocked him out for the season after one regular season game. Abram’s illegal hit against the Broncos not only injured teammate Gareon Conley’s neck (he ended up being OK) but tore his own labrum, sidelining him for the remainder of his rookie season.
“It’s tough, man. It’s really tough,” said Gruden. “Obviously we lost a receiver that we’ve counted on (Antonio Brown), didn’t work out, then we lose Abram a couple days later. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s football. I mean, that is football. You’ve just got to go to the next man up. There’s a lot of injuries right now in the National Football League, can’t explain it, but you’ve got to showcase your mental toughness and go to the next guy. That’s all you can do.”
Harris and Riley filled in for Abram in Week 2 on a rotating basis but didn’t have much success, as noted above. The Raiders will also lean heavily on versatile defensive back Lamarcus Joyner to move into the box and defend slot receivers. Vikings fans became familiar with Joyner in 2015 when his late hit as a member of the St. Louis Rams knocked out Teddy Bridgewater. Zimmer appears to have buried any grudges, though.
“He’s a really good football player,” he said, “especially quick in and out of the breaks with the nickel.”
4. VONTAZE BURFICT IS STILL A FACTOR
Zimmer knows Vontaze Burfict well from their two years together in Cincinnati. Now in a new home, Burfict still pops up on tape. Zimmer was quick to mention the veteran linebacker when asked what stood out about the Oakland defense.
“He’s a thumper,” said Zimmer, “very quick reader, he controls the whole thing, all the communication.”
Burfict, 28, has been one of the league’s top linebackers at his best, but his eight-year career has been littered with six fines for various player-safety infractions, two suspensions for illegal hits and one suspension for PED use. In the 2015 playoffs his late hit against then-Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown set up the Steelers for a game-winning field goal.
The linebacker has six unnecessary roughness penalties since 2015, and Zimmer voiced on Wednesday that he expects the officials to be watchful for late hits. Vikings receiver Adam Thielen said he believes Burfict, who didn’t have a personal foul in 2018, has cleaned up his game a bit.
“I think that’s just his competitiveness,” Thielen said of Burfict’s past. “We all have lost our emotions at times. I think he’s learned from that stuff and I think he’s been a pretty clean football player recently. It just goes back to he’s a really good football player and we’ve got to be aware of where he’s at.”
Gruden said Wednesday he’s weary of hearing about Burfict’s reputation.
“I get tired of hearing that, really,” he said. “Burfict’s played for us for two games. He hasn’t had any penalties. So I don’t know about all that. He’s had a bullseye on him in his career in Cincinnati, and I’m sure the referees are looking out for him.”
5. KNOW THE NAME BENSON MAYOWA
Though he’s only played 40 defensive snaps, look out for rotational edge rusher Benson Mayowa, the 28-year-old journeyman who’s off to a fast start for the Raiders. In two games, Mayowa has 3.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles.
Mayowa, undrafted in 2013, has spent time with the Raiders previously, as well as the Cardinals, Cowboys and Seahawks. He had six sacks on the Cowboys’ excellent 2016 team and has made 15 career starts in seven seasons.
Look for him to match up against Brian O’Neill on passing downs on Sunday.