If these were lines meant to be read between, Raiders head coach Jon Gruden sure made it sound like change is coming to his team’s defense.
Who could argue at this point?
Memories fade. How long ago was that victory in Kansas City? The point was driven home when Tampa Bay drilled Las Vegas 45-20 on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium.
“We have to play better and we will,” Gruden said. “It goes back to me. I’m not making excuses. I’m not going to say anything here today, but there are things we need to look at and that process begins as soon as this press conference is over.”
Must apply pressure
Change could mean anything, from coaching staff movement to scheme to depth chart. It’s no surprise many would immediately interpret Gruden’s postgame comments as not good news for third-year defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, whose long-term future with the team has been questioned in varying reports the last year or so.
A day after the team’s upset of the Chiefs two weeks ago, Guenther told the Review-Journal this about his job status: “I don’t pay any attention to it. My job is to get these guys in position to succeed each week. I tell the guys all the time that I’m nervous Monday through Saturday — am I showing the right plays and cards in practice to prepare them as much as I can? — but Sunday is for them. It’s a players’ game. That’s the only thing I care about.”
No matter which way he decides to alter a defense that ranks 27th in points allowed and 24th in yards allowed, Gruden knows where it must begin.
The Raiders have to discover how better to apply pressure. Check that. Any pressure. They are also tied for 28th in sacks.
You can be all kinds of experienced on the back end — the Raiders aren’t, by the way — but if you allow a 43-year-old quarterback in Tom Brady to spend an entire afternoon on his feet, your chance at winning mirrors those of a sold-out crowd being allowed to watch Raiders home games in person this season.
“If we’re going to rush four, we have to do a lot better than we did today,” Gruden said.
Two weeks ago, these Raiders were basking in the joy of beating the Super Bowl champions. Now, following a quiet bye week followed by a prep week dominated by more talk of COVID-19 testing than anything on-field related, they must again tackle a most obvious truth. They’re not good defensively. Not at all.
The Raiders show flashes. They do surprising things like make Patrick Mahomes somewhat uncomfortable in the pocket. But supremely talented defenses — like the one playing for Tampa Bay —can at times lack in effort and still make up for it with skill. They can offer enough winning plays without playing hard every snap.
Las Vegas has the other kind of defense, where all the passion and want-to in the world won’t hide insufficient ability. Gruden says his team has more than its showing. That remains to be seen.
Change long overdue
Take just one Tampa Bay drive. Over 11 plays and 67 yards, the Buccaneers scored to assume a 31-20 lead with 7:29 remaining. They converted a third-and-2 when Raiders cornerback Trayvon Mullen was called for pass interference; a third-and-13 when Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette went uncovered; and a third-and-4 inside the 16 when Mullen got caught up and couldn’t recover.
It was the perfect example of Las Vegas not being good enough to overcome numerous mental errors.
“Basically, it comes down to doing the things we practice and transitioning them into actual games,” said linebacker Cory Littleton. “We practice great. Now we have to correlate all of that to in-game situations. Everybody is capable of it. We just have to work a little harder to make sure we do it.”
I don’t believe work is the issue. I know effort isn’t.
But how talented Las Vegas really is remains open for debate. You have young players learning under fire and veterans under-achieving. Somewhere in there, be it with who coaches them or what alterations are made to scheme or depth chart, change is coming.
It’s needed. Long overdue. If the playoffs are truly a reachable goal at 3-3, they won’t be if things remain the same.
Status quo defense isn’t getting it done.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.