Over nine games in an Oakland Raiders uniform linebacker Aldon Smith contributed 3.5 sacks and 28 total tackles for a unit that’s largely failed to improve across the board. Last year, the Raiders were No. 21 in total defense, No. 16 against the pass, No. 22 against the run, and last in points allowed with 28.3 per game last season.
This season Oakland’s actually regressed to No. 28 overall and is down in almost every other category. But the Raiders have risen slightly to No. 27 in the league in points allowed, despite coughing up four games of 30 or more points. In their last two games, the Raiders allowed Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to coast for 203 rushing yards and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown to tally 284 yards.
It would’ve been next to impossible for the now-suspended Smith to single-handedly turn the Raiders defensive woes around. Yet, in the short term, with a 4-5 record in the middle of an intense AFC Wild Card race, the loss of Smith for the final seven games of the regular season couldn’t have come at a worse time for a team on the cusp of a major return to the spotlight.
The NFL suspended Smith for a full calendar-year on Tuesday for his alleged actions on Aug. 6 that led to his fifth arrest since 2012, and he's still facing misdemeanor hit-and-run, drunken driving, and vandalism charges.
When the Raiders' front office signed Smith to a one-year, $8-million deal loaded largely with incentives rather than guaranteed money, they knew a suspension was coming, but in reality his signing now seems more like a stopgap to greater things and younger budding stars.
Smith wasn’t the same dominant force he once was across the bay with the San Francisco 49ers, becoming one of the NFL’s most feared and consistent pass rushers with 42 sacks in the first 43 games of his budding career, but his presence alone did seem to buy time for some of Oakland’s burgeoning defensive talents.
Top defensive end Khalil Mack has flourished in his second year, racking up 5.0 sacks through nine games compared to just 4.0 over 16 games in his rookie year.
Fourth-year linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong has already surpassed every career-high, while rookie and second-round pick Mario Edwards Jr., second-year defensive end Denico Autry, and nose tackle Justin Ellis were given more time to develop behind Smith
Third-year defensive end Benson Mayowa is likely to replace Smith in the starting lineup, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But for a pass rush ranked No. 20 in the league with 19 sacks, head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. might have to thrust some of their youngsters into more demanding roles earlier than they anticipated.
Veteran safety Charles Woodson, who’s been the team’s best defensive player all season, perfectly summed up the Raiders' issues this season.
“Every week we come in, we emphasize something that we need to work on,” Woodson said to The Chronicle. “This week was the passing game and we did well passing, but we allowed them to run all over us for 200-plus yards or whatever it was.
“You put your finger over one leak and something else pops up, so we’ve got to find a way to eliminate more than just one phase of the game.”
Del Rio disagreed with Woodson’s assessment, but it stands to reason that while Mayowa might fill in well for Smith the Raiders will continue to struggle in at least one facet of every game until this defense matures and bonds.
Based off potential alone, it could be fair to say Oakland’s developing defensive line is right where its current batch of offensive stars were last year. Quarterback Derek Carr is quickly becoming one of the brightest and most prolific passers in the game, with running back Latavius Murray and rookie receiver Amari Cooper rounding out the league’s ninth-highest scoring attack.
But last year, Carr struggled with turnovers and lost the first 10 starts of his career before finishing strong with three wins in the final six games of the season. He took his lumps and clearly learned from the experience, but it came at the expense of another full season and extended Oakland’s playoff drought to 13 years and running. Murray didn’t get going until later in the season but showed promise for a unit that finished last in the NFL in rushing even though an injury forced him out for the tail end, while Cooper was merely a glimmer of hope on a draft board.
Now with Carr and Murray developing and Cooper shining the Raiders are in contention to snap the league’s second-longest run without a postseason appearance, but will be asking a lot of a defensive unit that might need more time like Carr to work things out. Oakland’s just ahead of equally 4-5 Miami and Houston, but sits behind AFC West rival and 4-5 Kansas City due to win percentage in common games.
The Raiders are still well within striking distance of 5-4 Buffalo and the New York Jets for the final AFC wild card slot, but their final seven games will push both offense and defense to the brink.
Oakland will have two straight road tests at Detroit and at Tennessee, followed by a huge matchup at home against Kansas City, then a trip to Denver, visits from Green Bay and San Diego, and the season finale at Kansas City.