Season Rewind: Defense Makes A Leap To Average
Maxx Crosby, Raiders
Oct 17, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby (98) reacts after a play in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This headline would feel sarcastic and insulting for many teams, but to anyone who has followed the Raiders for a while, you’ll know I mean no insult by it. For Raiders fans, the idea of even a league-average defense seemed like a pipe dream, and yet it’s precisely what Gus Bradley and Co. achieved in their first season at the helm of the defense.

While the Raiders offense experienced far more continuity from previous years personnel-wise, the defense did not bring in starters at every level, which contributed to the team’s success. As we look back on the 2021-22 season, specifically at the defense, this will become a constant theme.

Statistically, evaluating this unit is kind of a “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” type of deal. The Raiders finished 26th in scoring defense (although they were 18th during the final three weeks of the season) but were 14th in yards per game allowed — and 8th in yards per play. As I said, which of those metrics you believe to be the most “telling” is up to you.

What I will say, however, is that anyone who watched the games would probably have to lean towards the latter two metrics. I don’t think anyone watched this unit and believes they were one of the six worst units in the league, right? But, for whatever reason, it felt like in any non-Chiefs game, this group was able to get a stop when they needed to — instilling a level of confidence that was foreign for Raiders fans.

In fact, having evaluated the offense already, I think it’s safe to say that it’s the defense that deserves most of the credit for the team’s success this season.

Defensive MVP: Maxx Crosby

It was clear immediately that Crosby would become a fan favorite if only for the effort and passion he played the game with. In 2021, that effort was paired with an ability that many never saw coming — to the point that he ended up leading the league in pressures this season while also becoming a more than competent run defender.

Among qualified edge defenders, Crosby finished 8th in tackles (39) and 17th in sacks (10) — earning a PFF grade of 91.7, the second-best mark in the league.

Like I mentioned with Carr in the offensive rewind, Crosby also deserves some credit as one of the undisputed leaders of this team — helping to keep things on the rails despite all the crap this team endured.

Honorable mention: Denzel Perryman and Casey Hayward

This season, Perryman was a deserved Pro Bowler, finishing fifth in tackles despite missing two games. For a team that has spent a lot of capital on linebackers of late, for them to stumble into Perryman’s steadying presence in the middle of the field was remarkable.

Like Perryman, Hayward was a newcomer on a cheap deal this off-season, and like Perryman, he proved to be an incredible bargain. With Trayvon Mullen missing 13 games, Hayward was a much-needed anchor for a young secondary, and he provided a resurgent year for the Raiders.

Biggest Breakout: Denzel Perryman and Casey Hayward

They were both mentioned above, but it’s almost impossible to fathom the perception of these two guys coming into the season. Perryman signed a two-year, $6 deal with the Panthers before the season — and then was traded to Las Vegas for a sixth-round pick (the Raiders also received a seventh-rounder in return). On the other hand, Hayward got just $2.5 million on a one-year deal and proceeded to post one of the best seasons of his career as well.

Honorable Mention: Nate Hobbs

The fifth-round pick in last year’s draft wasn’t guaranteed to make the roster out of camp, and all he did was lock down the slot corner role in impressive fashion. Hobbs will be one of the first guys mentioned when you’re talking about building blocks for the future.

Biggest Disappointment: Cory Littleton

When Littleton signed a three-year, $35.2 million contract in 2020, many believed he would be the answer for a decade-long drought of quality linebackers in silver in black. Safe to say that hasn’t happened. Littleton found himself in a reserve role even when healthy this season, and while many would like to see him gone, his contract suggests he’ll be back as a very expensive special teams player next season.

Bottom Line

If everyone’s healthy, it’s crazy to note how many newcomers this unit truly had:

  • Defensive Line: Yannick Ngakoue, Quinton Jefferson
  • Linebackers: Denzel Perryman, Divine Deablo
  • Cornerbacks: Nate Hobbs, Casey Hayward
  • Safeties: Trevon Moehrig

And if you go to the two-deep, you’ll find names like Brandon Facyson, Darius Philon, Solomon Thomas, and Roderic Teamer — all of whom were upgrades over backups from previous seasons.

If you’re looking ahead, I think there’s room for optimism that this season wasn’t a fluke — and that it might be the start of something. I don’t think it’s crazy that Moehrig, Deablo, and Hobbs will get better — and that Malcom Koonce will add something as a pass-rusher. The question will be whether Hayward (if he’s back) and Perryman can repeat their performances moving forward.

Of course, whether Gus Bradley is back in 2022 is also a major question mark — and of all the coaches I’d be in favor of retaining, he’d be at the top of the list.