There are plenty of articles that outline the specifics of the Seattle style defense that was brought to the national forefront during the heyday of the legion of boom, but this piece will focus on what this defense will look like for the Raiders.
Since the “Legion of Boom” era, there have been several iterations of this defense with slightly varying degrees of success but the general philosophy remains the same; 4-3 under principals, running primarily press cover-3 using a technique often referred to as “bump and bail”.
A 4-3 under defense utilizes principles of both traditional 4-3 and 3-4 schemes with penetrating one-gap defensive lineman and two-gapping run support defensive lineman both playing different roles along the same defensive line. For a more in-depth discussion on the basics of 3-4 and 4-3 defenses as well as the difference between a 4-technique and a 3-technique for example, you can check out this video.
So what does this defense look like in practice? The answer to that question is changing as the philosophy of the league changes. In order to understand what the modern Seattle-style defense looks like we will first take a look at some of the more traditional concepts of the defense.
This is a screenshot of Gus Bradley’s 2020 Chargers Week 7 matchup against the Jaguars. This is a 4th & 1 play that is a good example of a traditional 4-3 under look.
So let’s take a look at this formation and see what is going on here. On the defense’s left No. 54 Melvin Ingram is lined up as the “LEO” which is the weakside defensive end in this defense. Traditionally, the LEO is a talented pass rusher that is also strong enough to play run support without a true LB behind him.
No. 99 Jerry Tillery is lined up at 3-technique, his primary role is also that of a pass rusher – one gapping the weak side B-gap in this case. No. 95 Linval Joseph is lined up as a 1-technique, he will play a role similar to that of a 0-technique in a traditional 3-4 here.
He is positioned in a slightly slanted alignment and his role is to two-gap which means protecting both A gaps primarily as run defenders, unlike one gap defenders who primarily penetrate and rush upfield with less emphasis on stopping the run and controlling multiple gaps.
No. 97 Joey Bosa is playing 4 technique and also “two gaps” on this play, defending the strong side B-gap and C-gap.
No. 44 Kyzir White is playing SAM, in this style of defense the same will function primarily on the line of scrimmage as an additional pass rusher aligned outside of the TE. As you can see above, the weak-side of the formation resembles that of a traditional 4-3 while the strong-side resembles a traditional 3-4.
No. 56 Kenneth Murray plays MIKE with No. 52 Denzel Perryman playing WILL. Both LBs are shifted toward the strength of the offense. No. 23 Rayshawn Jenkins is playing SS, in this defense the SS often plays a significant role as a run defender in the box. In addition to the players mentioned above, a FS and 2 CBs will be responsible for playing cover three.
So after seeing this formation you are probably asking yourself what this defense looks like on the vast majority of snaps. In today’s NFL defenses with five or more defensive backs are becoming much more commonplace than defenses that utilize seven defensive lineman and linebackers. So what changes when another DB makes their way out on to the field? Here is an example of the defense from the same game with nickel personnel.
This defense looks much more similar to a traditional 4-3 defense. There is a normal alignment of both tackles at 1-technique and 3-technique and two pass rushers aligned outside. In this case, Bosa is the LEO on the weakside end with Ingram playing SAM as a pass-rusher out of a 2-point stance. Jenkins is again playing in the box and will act as an off-ball LB.
This look allows for more pass rush on the field and allows another DB to help play coverage. Similarly, the SS will play run support similar to what would be asked of the off-ball LB to his side but will be more adept at playing coverage.
The role of the secondary in this defense is also very important, however, conceptually it is much simpler to understand. As a base cover-3 defense, the philosophy is somewhat self-explanatory. The deepest portion of the field is divided into thirds.
Each of these thirds is covered by a defensive back, most commonly the outside corners (outside thirds) and the free safety (center field). It is not uncommon for the outside CBs to start near the line of scrimmage and press the receiver to their side of the field before dropping into their deep zone. This technique is often referred to as “bump and bail.”
As you can see on this play, No. 43 Michael Davis is playing CB on the defense’s right (bottom of the screen). No. 26 Casey Hayward is playing CB on the top of the screen with No. 24 Nasir Adderley playing free safety. Each player drops into their deep zone and is responsible for the receiver that occupies that zone.
Knowing what we know now about some of the finer details of the defense let’s take a look at the Raiders personnel. At some positions, the Raiders have obvious fits, at others, they will need to look towards the draft and free agency to fill some of these roles. Let’s start by talking about the defensive line
1-Technique: This player will often be the largest defender on the roster. They need to be stout at the point of attack and be strong run defenders. Jonathan Hankins would have made a lot of sense in this role but he is set to hit the market this offseason.
If there is mutual interest in him returning then the Raiders should consider a reunion. Otherwise, they may consider making a run at one of the top free-agent DTs this year in Dalvin Tomlinson. In the draft, they should consider a player like LSU’s Tyler Shelvin to fill this role.
3-Technique: This player functions as an interior pass rusher. They need to be athletic enough to penetrate upfield while also not being a liability in run defense. Maurice Hurst feels like a natural fit in this role. In some instances, they may ask Clelin Ferrell to kick inside to take some of these snaps as well.
The free-agent market has several players that could add depth. The Maliek Collins experiment didn’t go as expected but luckily Hurst played well when healthy. If the team opts to add depth through the draft they may consider Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon in the second or third round.
4-Technique: This position needs to be athletic enough to maintain the edge of the strong side of the defense and make the job of the SAM easier as a pass rusher. They should primarily be strong run defenders and any pass rush ability is a plus. Remember that this is the position that tends to leave the field in nickel sub-packages so positional versatility is important, I would like this player to be able to play 3 technique as well.
Again, I think the ideal player for this spot is already on the roster. Clelin Ferrell is a strong run defender that seems like a perfect fit in this role. I would expect him to get some run inside at 3-technique as well and depth will be important.
I have to wonder if the Raiders would consider a player like J.J. Watt should he become available this offseason. He seems like the type of gritty emotional leader that Gruden loves.
If the Raiders want to add a player in the draft then Kwity Paye, Gregory Rousseau, and Carlos Basham all have the requisite skill set to thrive in this role.
LEO: This is a weakside EDGE defender. They should be one of the two best pass rushers on the team. They should be athletic enough to quickly rush up the field from a wide alignment. They don’t have a true LB playing to their side so they should not be a poor run defender. Maxx Crosby makes a lot of sense in this role.
He is a good athlete with a relentless motor and has been the Raider’s best pass rusher since his rookie year. With a better supporting cast upfront, there’s no reason that he couldn’t be a perennial double-digit sack producer.
SAM: This player will primarily be a pass rusher. They will rush off of the strong side, outside of the 4 technique. Occasionally this player may be asked to drop back into zone coverage but more than anything I am looking for a player that can pressure the QB. This position needs to be the Raider’s top priority this offseason.
There is not a reasonable fit on the roster to fill this role. In free agency the player that makes the most sense would be Melvin Ingram who is familiar with Gus Bradley’s defense. The Raiders may also inquire about a player like Haason Reddick if he isn’t retained in Arizona.
In the draft, there are several players that could make sense for the Raiders. Miami DE Jaelen Phillips graded out as my top EDGE defender this year, he is the total package and he’s a really talented, athletic, well-rounded pass rusher.
My early prediction for who the Raiders will pick in the first round this year is Texas EDGE defender Joseph Ossai. He is smart, a great team leader, and he has a motor that literally never stops. He seems like the type of player that Mayock and Gruden will become enamored with.
Mike and Will: These players will have similar roles to one another, particularly in nickel sub-packages where the strength of the formation can switch. They may be asked to cover receivers that are crossing across the middle of the field on crossing routes, and they must be able to make tackles when playing the run.
Throughout the season, Nick Kwiatkoski was quietly solid while Cory Littelton struggled with the complexity of Paul Guenther’s defense early this season and dealt with covid later on. Luckily for the Raiders, Littleton finished the season strong under Rod Marinelli and showed flashes of being the type of player that the Raiders envisioned when they gave him that big contract last year. These players are both highly paid and there is sufficient evidence that both could be good fits in this defense.
If the Raiders look to add depth or players that could challenge for a starting role, then Alabama LB Dylan Moses could make a lot of sense in the second round. Denzel Perryman was a backup LB for the Chargers and he could look to reunite with Bradley as well.
Strong Safety: This player will be an athletic and strong run defender that is athletic enough to cover receivers and tight ends. This player will often act like a swiss army knife type of player that is asked to fill a variety of roles. The most successful player in this position was Kam Chancellor.
Johnathan Abram could have a bounce-back year in this spot. The Raiders thought a lot of him when they drafted him in the first round and while he showed promise as an emotional leader and physical presence he also made several mistakes with blown assignments as a deep safety. Perhaps this position closer to the line of scrimmage will allow Abram to channel his physicality more productively.
On the off chance that the Raiders are ready to move on from Abram and send him to the bench there are a few options that the Raiders may consider. Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is the type of versatile defender that could thrive in this role. Florida State safety Hamsah Nasirildeen could also make sense as a Day 2 pick. Falcons free-agent safety Keanu Neal is also a physical defender that would fit well. While there are options, it makes the most sense to give Abram an opportunity in this role at least for this year.
Free Safety: This player needs to be incredibly rangy and athletic. They must be capable of covering large areas of the field as the center fielder of the cover 3 defense. While the majority of the discussion regarding this defense above focused on the front 7, the importance of the secondary shouldn’t be understated. Earl Thomas had a hall of fame caliber career playing this position in Seattle.
This is another position that the Raiders will need to address this offseason as there is not a reasonable fit on the roster as it stands today. Luckily, there are a number of athletic safeties that are set to hit the market this offseason including Marcus Maye of the Jets, John Johnson of the Rams, Marcus Williams of the Saints, Justin Simmons of the Broncos, and Anthony Harris of the Vikings. Many of these players will receive the franchise tag or resign this offseason but I suspect a least a couple of them will hit the free-agent market.
In the draft, there is not a clear first-round talent at safety but in the second round, Oregon’s Jevon Holland and TCU’s Trevon Moehrig would both make a lot of sense.
Cornerback: This will be an interesting adjustment for the Raiders starting corners. In this defense they will be asked to play primarily zone coverage, namely cover 3. These players are historically tall with long arms, with less of an emphasis placed on speed and pure man coverage ability. Richard Sherman made a hall of fame career for himself in Seattle playing this position.
Trayvon Mullen is locked in as a starter and I would suspect that last year’s first-round pick Damon Arnette will also start but he is less of an ideal fit as a starting outside corner. I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised to see Arnette play more nickel with some snaps going to Isaiah Johnson whose frame and skills align more with this style of defense.
I could also see the Raiders looking to add a player this offseason to compete for an outside CB job. Richard Sherman is a pending free agent and Jon Gruden all but offered him a contract on a recent podcast hosted by Chris Collinsworth, that fit just seems to make too much sense assuming the price is right for both sides.
If the Raiders want to draft and develop another CB a player like Georgia’s Tyson Campbell would make a lot of sense on the second day of the draft or they could look in later rounds at a player like Kentucky’s Kelvin Joseph who could ultimately develop into a starting CB as well.
So let’s take a look at what a Raiders defense may look like in 2021. For this example, let us assume that the Raiders take Texas EDGE defender Joseph Ossai in the first round and LSU DT Tyler Shelvin in the third round. In free agency, they end up signing future Hall of Famer Richard Sherman and former division rival Justin Simmons.
In this defense Crosby plays the role of LEO, with Ossai rushing the passer from the opposite side as the SAM. Shelvin will play at the 1-technique with Clelin Ferrell kicking inside to play 3T. Linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Cory Littelton are playing Will and Mike respectively with Jonathan Abram playing run support as the Strong Safety. Arnette will kick inside to play Nickel.
Outside corners Trayvon Mullen and Richard Sherman along with Free Safety Justin Simmons will each be responsible for covering deep thirds in this cover-3 based defense.
Depth will be an important consideration this offseason, after the team dealt with so many injuries in 2020 I believe that they will make a concerted effort to identify reserves at key spots.
As far as pass rushers (LEO and SAM) are concerned, the Raiders could stick with Carl Nassib and Arden Key. Both underwhelmed last year but perhaps a change in the scheme could benefit them. Along the interior look for Maurice Hurst to get plenty of playing time. Kendal Vickers is on an expiring contract but he is an exclusive rights free agent, meaning that if the Raiders want him back, can sign him to a league-minimum deal without competing with other teams. I suspect he returns and gets some reps as well.
Linebacker depth is razor-thin. Behind starters Kwiatkoski and Littelton, only Tanner Muse returns this year and he may end up being a better fit as a backup strong safety. Nicholas Morrow, Kyle Wilber, and Raekwon McMillan are all set to hit the market in free agency this offseason and it is unclear if there are plans to bring any of them back. Morrow was one of the team’s better defenders last season and he could do well in this defensive scheme. Don’t sleep on Denzel Perryman as a potential free-agent addition as well.
Corner depth is solid if the Raiders are able to add a veteran like Sherman. I expect Isaiah Johnson to get a fair number of snaps as his length and coverage skills align well with a base cover-3 defense. Safety depth is also a major concern.
The team will need to add a starting free safety as well as reserves, as Dallin Leavitt and Erik Harris are on expiring deals and Jeff Heath could find himself cut as a cap casualty (releasing him would save $3 million in cap space). The safety position seems like a reasonable place to watch the Raiders double-dip in free agency and the draft.
It is probably unrealistic to expect a dramatic turnaround in the first year of a complete overhaul of the defense, but Gus Bradley is a well respected defensive coordinator with an excellent track record.
With the right additions and development from some key players, it’s not unreasonable to think that this team could break into the top 20s in the first year under Bradley, with hopes of building off of that into the future.
There are a lot of things to be excited about this offseason and the new-look Raiders defense will certainly be high on this list. Hopefully, this article equipped you with a better understanding of some of the concepts that the team will try to incorporate and help you make sense of some of the transactions that take place this offseason.
Guest post by Seth Murphy. You can follow him on Twitter at @SethMurphyBBD