There is a common misconception in the NFL in regards to stopping the run. With a team such as the Raiders, who have had difficulties in stopping the run for years, the assumption is always that it is the defensive line that is to blame. There is room for that argument but the responsibility also falls on the linebackers. And in the last couple of years, that fact has become more obvious.
Two seasons ago, the Raiders acquired Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour in trade from the New England Patriots. He was brought in, among other reasons, to stop the run. They put him at defensive end to begin with but soon discovered that he would be better served, and the team as well, by a move to the inside.
The switch to defensive tackle turned out to be the ideal move. Seymour is athletic enough to play defensive end but big and powerful enough to excel at defensive tackle. And excel he did. His first year at DT and he was a Pro Bowler once again.
Seymour also brought up the play of fellow defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. Then the team drafted Lamarr Houston and made Matt Shaughnessy the starter at the opposite defensive end spot. The line was immediately stocked with big, powerful defensive linemen who could also rush the passer when called upon.
But the Raiders line can't be expected to form an impenetrable wall on every snap. Not only is that a lot to ask of them but it would mean the quarterback would have no pressure put on him. And to mix up the pass rushing and run stopping downs, the linebackers need to fill in the gaps -- literally.
The biggest issue I have seen with the Raiders' defensive front is not the defensive linemen being handled on the block, it is the linebackers not plugging the holes. If the defensive end is holding the edge or rushing the passer, there is going to be a gap that forms between the guard and tackle. That is where the back will be trying to squeeze through. And he will likely have a couple of guys trying to clear the space for him.
In this instance the linebacker must not only stay at home, but also must not be moved by the block of the fullback or tight end trying to clear the area. If the running back gets a hole to run through and doesn't hardly have to slow down going through it, there is little chance for anyone to tackle him until he is in the secondary. And by then it is too late.
This discipline starts with Rolando McClain. He was just a rookie last season and had his transition period. Now he must be the leader of this defense. He must be the quarterback of this defense. It is up to him to not only be disciplined in his assignments and decision making, but to ensure discipline in his fellow linebackers.
Quentin Groves heads into his second season as the Raiders' weak side linebacker. He struggled to find his footing last season. His lapses continued in camp this year. But he wants badly to fix his issues and that drive is what had him still on the field in the preseason games well after his fellow starters had left the game.
He, along with the rest of his teammates, missed out on a lot of work during the lockout. He seems to have suffered greatly because the issues he needed to work on most are not really things you can practice with a trainer -- tackling first and foremost. When asked about his offseason workouts and how he felt in this year's camp, he seemed confident that he was able to get the work he needed on his own. But when put into action, that turned out not to be the case.
The extra work in the preseason was very valuable. He still has lapses and is out of position or his technique needs sharpening, but by the final game, he had clearly made strides.
Groves' new backup, Darryl Blackstock, began playing pretty well too. But it is a credit to Groves that he was able to hold off Blackstock to maintain his starting spot. The Raiders have not aggressively sought out a big name linebacker to replace Groves, which speaks to the team's confidence in him. Until the real games start, however we don't know if any of this really matters.
If Groves has taken a step forward in his second year with the Raiders, I guarantee you it will show in the run totals. He is often responsible for one entire side of the line, and sometimes even more. On any given play, he may have to drop into man coverage, take a zone, maintain a gap, or simply watch the backfield to know what to do next.
The other outside linebacker is Kamerion Wimbley. He led the Raiders in sacks last season. That is great except without the strongside linebacker staying at home to protect against the run, it leaves the Raiders a bit vulnerable.
When Wimbley rushes the passer, one of his linebacker teammates must shift to cover his area. This often leaves McClain and Groves with two gaps and the edge to cover. When that happens they have to recognize the double teams, form containment and stuff the gap.
The best thing in the Raider linebackers' favor is having a season together. They have a new defensive coordinator in Chuck Bresnahan who had a few good linebackers to work with in his last stint with the Raiders, one of which is the Raiders' current linebackers coach, Greg Biekert.
There is a lot of familiarity between them and that is a common thread among some of the best linebacking corps in football. They must work as one fluid unit who all know their assignments. There is a reason they are called a "corps" which in Latin literally means "body": that is how they should function. Three linebackers, functioning as one.