How John Pagano, in a short time as defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders, has helped this unit make significant improvements.
Raider Nation, I want to take your memories back to November 5th, 2017, when the Oakland Raiders were playing the Miami Dolphins on Sunday Night Football. At the time, the Raiders were 3-5 while the Dolphins were 4-3. It was a game that many thought would be a deciding factor for how the season would play out — Oakland needed a win.
Miami had just traded away arguably their best offensive player in running back Jay Ajayi to the Philadelphia Eagles. It seemed like a blessing for this Raiders defense, who had struggled to this point. Then defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was often criticized for having players out of position and not maximizing their strengths, among other things. With the team playing against a struggling Dolphins unit led by the aging Jay Cutler, this was the perfect time to make a statement and progress in the right direction.
Jay Cutler completed 34-of-42 passes for 311 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions for a QB rating of 121.3. On the ground, a backfield committee of Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams rushed for 86 yards on 18 carriers (4.8 yards per carry). Not good. The Raiders ended up winning the game 27-24 but it was a lot closer than many would have hoped. The Raiders got their much needed win, but it was hard to feel great about it.
Two weeks later, the Raiders officially relieved Norton of his duties and decided to move forward with John Pagano as the new defensive coordinator. Pagano was hired in the offseason as an assistant to the head coach/defense, and had coached in the league since 1996 with the New Orleans Saints. Pagano had spent most of his career with the then San Diego Chargers (2002-2016), holding many different positions over that time. His primary focus was with the linebacker position until he was promoted to the defensive coordinator in 2012. Here are his defensive ranks with those units:
- 2012: 9th
- 2013: 23rd
- 2014: 9th
- 2015: 20th
- 2016: 16th
Many in Raider Nation were excited about the hiring of Pagano in the offseason, but that optimism had waned as the season went on. Pagano was working with the secondary — the same secondary that set an NFL record for longest drought without an interception. Also, the firing of Norton was viewed as a scapegoat move by Jack Del Rio, who as a defensive minded coach himself, should bear more of the struggles of the defense.
So when the switch to Pagano was made, positivity regarding the move was hard to find. But since Pagano has taken over, there is no denying that impact he has had on this defense. re are the teams that the Raiders have played since Pagano was hired as defensive coordinator:
- Week 12: vs. DEN (Paxton Lynch starting QB)
- Week 13: vs. NYG (Geno Smith starting QB)
- Week 14: @ KC
- Week 15: vs. DAL (No Ezekiel Elliot)
So, what has Pagano done differently than KNJ since taking over? Here are some statistics from Pro Football Focus’ Austin Gayle:
BIG NOTE: In Weeks 1-11 (KNJ era), #Raiders edge defenders ranked 25th in total pressures (68). In Weeks 12-15 (Pagano era), OAK edge defenders rank T-2nd in total pressures (46).
Pagano is getting the best out of Mack & Irvin, without question.
— Austin Gayle (@AustinGayle_PFF) December 19, 2017
As Austin points out, Pagano has been able to get the best out of his position players, most notably Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin. It’s been as obvious as the eye can tell — the pressure has been there mainly because of these two guys. Arguably, Irvin is playing his best football since Pagano took over and certainly his best in a Raiders uniform. Pagano is playing to these guys’ strengths and it’s a nice change that this defense is not used to.
In Weeks 12-15, the #Raiders' defense recorded pressures on 37.7% of 4-man rushes and 44.19% of blitzes.
In Weeks 1-11, OAK's defense recorded pressures on just 32.4% of 4-man rushes & 39.47% of blitzes.
Seemingly, a ~5% increase across the board since Pagano took the helm.
— Austin Gayle (@AustinGayle_PFF) December 20, 2017
When I read this great statistic, the first thing that jumps out as to why this is happening — more effective play calling. This is something that Ken Norton Jr. seemed to have lacked, as players often seemed out of position or they simply just could not properly execute.
BIG NOTE: #Raiders ED Bruce Irvin played 17.42% (!!) of his defensive snaps in coverage in Weeks 1-11 (KNJ). In Weeks 12-15 (Pagano), Irvin has dropped back into coverage on just 6.73% of his defensive snaps.
Rush the passer with your pass-rushers… Bold.
— Austin Gayle (@AustinGayle_PFF) December 20, 2017
Pagano is keeping Irvin where he plays his best football. Bruce is most destructive with his ability to rush the quarterback and help create pressure to cause bad throws or a possible turnover. With Pagano giving him more of his snaps at his premium position, it shows his belief and style of allowing players to play their best football. Basically, put them in position to do their best. Such as getting Mack in one on one situations, something Norton struggled to do:
The Pagano effect. pic.twitter.com/7ULi7TzyTV
— Chris Reed (@LVRaidersreview) December 18, 2017
While Gayle works for PFF, he also contributes with the SFexaminer and posted some interesting stuff about what Pagano has been doing with Khalil Mack. Here’s what he had to say:
Pagano has also shifted Oakland’s other star edge defender Khalil Mack away from his natural position along the edge in favor of opportunities at off-ball linebacker and defensive tackle. By doing so, he has forced opposing offensive lines out of their comfort zone in preparing for Mack pre-snap, opening up easier paths to the quarterback for Mack’s teammates in the trenches.
In the Raiders’ first eight games, unblocked pressures accounted for just 17.74 percent of their total pressures. Since Pagano has taken over, that percentage has jumped to 21.54.
With Pagano helping this defense make some serious strides, the sky for Mack gets that much higher. He is hopefully now in a system that will maximize his strengths and the damage that he can do as a result is quite scary.
Since Pagano has taken the reigns, here are some players who have been lights out on the stat sheet:
- Bruce Irvin: 5 sacks in the last four games
- Khalil Mack: 5 sacks in the last four games and 1 forced fumble
- Sean Smith: 2 interceptions
- Karl Joseph: 1 interception
Pagano may have saved Irvin from being cut this off-season. There weren’t many coverage sacks like this on happening under KNJ. Bruce has really shown up sense Pagano took over. pic.twitter.com/Tc7bE2eaJK
— Chris Reed (@LVRaidersreview) December 13, 2017
Pagano’s effect has been quite tremendous and he has made this group look like a competent defense. With his ability to put players in the right position, maximize strengths and call better plays, it has allowed the defense to operate as a more cohesive unit. And he’s doing all of this without the help of the team’s first two picks from the most recent draft class, Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu.
With JDR having signed an extension deal last offseason, it’s expected that Pagano will remain the DC for at least the next season, and rightfully so. Given a full offseason with time to add more players through free agency and the draft, plus actually getting to work with Conley and Melifonwu once they are healthy, there is reason to believe this defense can take another step forward. Not to mention more time with his system and more time to develop and grow the young players on the defense.