Last in a series of camp questions, with players reporting Tuesday and practice opening Thursday in Napa:
Can the Raiders improve their blocking and tackling in camp without doing a lot of blocking and tackling?
Warren Sapp used to say stats are for losers, his argument being you could bend a statistic any which way to make a point. The only thing that truly matters is wins and losses.
In the case of the Raiders, the stats clearly show they’re losers because of the two most important aspects of the game _ blocking and tackling.
Over the past four years, the Raiders have allowed an NFL high 201 sacks, and while properly teaching quarterbacks to get rid of the ball can take care of some of that, a lot of it has to do with pass blocking.
The last four seasons have seen the Raiders rank 21st, 10th, sixth and 29th in rushing, but with only 36 rushing touchdowns over those four seasons. In 2007-08, having installed a zone blocking scheme, their rushing yardage was up but they still managed 20 rushing touchdowns in 32 games _ an offense that could run the ball between the 20s before faltering in the red zone.
On defense, the Raiders’ well-documented woes defending the run have seen them ranked 29th, 31st, 31st and 25th since 2006 while surrendering 86 rushing touchdowns _ fifty more than they scored during the same span. The fact that safety Tyvon Branch led all NFL defensive backs in tackles with 123 is not a good thing, because it means runners are consistently getting downfield. Against the pass, only three teams gave up more 20-plus yard pass plays than Oakland’s 56 _ with many of those coming after an early blown tackle.
Yes, you can bend stats a lot of ways, but it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than this is a team that has had serious toughness issues along the line of scrimmage _ the polar opposite of, say, the Baltimore Ravens.
Good Raiders teams have been possible because of offensive line play, and that includes the most recent string of AFC West titles from 2000 through 2002 with Bill Callahan as the architect of a line which led the league in rushing in 2000 and pass blocked their way to an AFC title in 2002. Say what you will about Callahan as a head coach _he’s one of the NFL’s best lieutenants, as witnessed by his work with the New York Jets since leaving Nebraska.
The arrival of Hue Jackson means the Raiders will no longer be a pure zone blocking team, and the hope is that will enable the team to get tough yards in the red zone and particularly inside the 10-yard-line. Jackson was spending as much or more time in offseason practices open to the media as Tom Cable with line coach Jim Michalczik.
Assuming that rookie draft picks Jared Veldheer (third round) and Bruce Campbell (fourth round) won’t be instant starters, coaching and scheme will have to make the difference, because going into camp, the present lineup of Langston Walker at right tackle, Cooper Carlisle at right guard, Samson Satele at center, Robert Gallery at left guard and Mario Henderson at left tackle looks awful familiar.
It’s a different story on defense, where the Raiders got appreciably bigger and more physical at linebacker with the selection of Rolando McClain, the trade for strong side linebacker Kamerion Wimbley and the late-season ascension of Trevor Scott to weak side linebacker. Add rookie defensive end Lamarr Houston to the mix and Oakland clearly addressed its run defense in terms of personnel.
They also brought in released Jacksonville defensive tackle John Henderson, whose best days as a run defender may be behind him but could be a useful player for 15 to 20 snaps a game.
But here’s the rub regarding upgrading blocking and tackling _ it’s not like the old days when training camp was a survival of the fittest, injuries be damned.
You don’t bring tacklers to the ground in spring training, nor do you finish cut blocks or go out of your way to pancake a defender.
The best tackling Raiders team since they came back to Oakland was in 1998, with Willie Shaw as defensive coordinator. Shaw explained that by the time players got to the NFL, their tackling skills weren’t going to change much. The solution was to get more people to the ball, so that when a tackle was missed, another player followed right up.
That Oakland team was particularly adept at making tackles on third down, giving up some yards but never enough to move the chains.
If the Raiders can’t find a way to be a better blocking and tackling team during training camp, these previous 12 questions of this series are moot: