The Oakland Raiders are ranked 31st in pass defense (one spot ahead of the 49ers!) this season and are preparing to take on the league leaders in passing yards and a quarterback with an extremely hot hand in Philip Rivers. That’s a daunting task for a struggling Raiders defense and their first-time coordinator, Ken Norton, Jr.
The bye week saw the Raiders add a return specialist, but saw no help for a weak secondary. The team is stuck with the corners they have. They aren’t very good, but luckily for them there is a glimmer of hope: the pass rush.
No, the Raiders have not had a great pass rush this season, but it has been improving as Norton has made adjustment after adjustment trying to get it jump-started. And while the coaching moves have helped, perhaps what the Raiders need is a matchup like this one.
An injured and porous offensive line has led to Rivers getting sacked 17 times this year, the sixth-most sacks allowed in the league. If the Raiders are going to slow down the Chargers offense, it’s going to be through the pass rush.
That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. By all means, Philip Rivers should have been sacked more than just 17 times this year. Part of what has made him so hot this season is how he has bought time and found receivers even when pass rushers were bearing down on him. If the Raiders want to win, they need to do more than just tally a sack or two, they need to stop Rivers from getting comfortable and making big plays.
One of the more backbreaking plays for a defense is coming within inches of a sack, only to have the quarterback step up into the pocket, buy a few seconds, and complete a big pass play. The way you stop that against a quarterback like Rivers — who isn’t exactly a runner — is by getting pressure up the gut so he has no pocket in which to step up.
Against Peyton Manning, the Raiders did just that with rookie defensive end Mario Edwards, Jr. playing defensive tackle. The rookie hadn’t seen a ton of playing time this season, but with injuries to a couple of guys in front of him, he played all but eight snaps in Week 5. The results were big, as the Raiders constantly made Manning uncomfortable in the pocket.
Edwards is more of a power rusher who can push the pocket so Aldon Smith and Khalil Mack can eat in the backfield. Without a pocket to navigate, Rivers will be forced to try and escape. But doing so would mean choosing between trying to outrun Smith or Mack, and neither option is promising for the lead-footed Rivers.
The Raiders will have to do a lot of things right to pull out a win in San Diego, but the most important will be making Rivers uncomfortable. If he has time and a clean pocket, he will pick apart this Raiders secondary.