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Lack of talent could be what ails Raiders defense

Jon Gruden explained possible ways Monday in which the Raiders might improve their struggling defense following a 45-20 loss to Tampa Bay. He said it might come down to what stunts and blitzes are called. Or who is on the right side and who is on the left. Or who is inside and who is outside.

“Everything is on the table,” Gruden said. “We’re going to play better on defense.”

But what if those on the right and left aren’t good enough?

What if those inside and outside lack the ability to improve?

What if this isn’t about coaching at all, but rather who is being asked to make plays and who first evaluated their strengths and weaknesses?

No coaching changes

Gruden put to rest, for now, any suggestion that defensive coordinator Paul Guenther would be fired. This is who the Raiders are, the head coach proclaimed. They’re sticking together. Bonding together.

Which means they know the problem.

Gruden obviously hopes those defenders who are falling short of expectations can and will raise their level of production. Might happen. A few of those vastly underachieving have proven to be very good NFL players at previous stops.

Might not, though. If the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts, how better the Raiders’ defense can get is debatable. Think of Guenther as the Hollywood director with an actor who can’t evoke emotion. Changing coaches for the sake of change would be imprudent if those employed to perform don’t own the tools to do so at a high level.

NFL coaches and players own a love-hate relationship with Pro Football Focus, the website that produces player grades from 0-100 based on various advanced statistics. Its analysts watch, chart and grade every player on every play in every game.

I’m in a love-love relationship with it. Coaches and players, however, love it when the grades are high and hate it when they are low. You can imagine how most involved with the Raiders’ defense think about it right now.

Cory Littleton ranks 75th out of 81 eligible linebackers. Maliek Collins is 108th out of 122 interior defensive linemen. They were two of the team’s top free-agent signings in the offseason and had been more-than-solid players for the Rams and Cowboys, respectively.

For the most part, this is how the numbers go for Las Vegas. Defensive end Maxx Crosby is rated 86th out of 110 at his position; Carl Nassib is 69th. Second-year safety Johnathan Abram, who has battled injury and spent this last week on the COVID-19 list, is 80th out of 85. Trayvon Mullen ranks 72nd among 118 cornerbacks.

Some rate high. Maurice Hurst is a Top 10 interior lineman thus far according to Pro Football Focus; so is Nick Kwiatkoski at linebacker. Clelin Ferrell is 21st among ends.

But these are the most important of big-picture numbers: Las Vegas ranks among the league’s bottom four teams in sacks, takeaways, points and yards allowed.

The Raiders aren’t good at anything on this side of the ball.

Evaluate better

It’s clear they have drafted and evaluated well on offense. They’re set up on that side nicely should a playoff berth be earned. But until this past offseason, most of the free-agent money went to those trying to score points and not prevent them. For the first two years following Gruden’s return, defensive moves meant minimum salary veterans and rookies.

That was supposed to all change this season. More dollar signs committed to the defense was forecast to mean more stops on the field. Maybe it should now translate to the Raiders needing better defensive evaluation.

Someone who Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock can add beyond themselves and their stable of scouts. Someone who sees things they miss when deciding which players to sign or draft.

“Perhaps we need to change a few things to fit the strengths of our people,” Gruden said of current personnel. “Maybe we can do a better job of that. We’re in the laboratory right now trying to find the right mix. Lot of new players, lot of young players … We’re not the only defense in pro football that is struggling at times. But we have the right stuff. We have enough talent.”

If they do, things should change for the better.

But it’s a big “if” right now. Massive.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com 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.

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