ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — There was plenty of optimism about the Las Vegas Raiders’ defensive line coming into the season. That fueled the belief that perhaps, for the first time in years, the Raiders could display substantive growth as a defensive unit this season.
So far, none of that has come to fruition for the Raiders. In a 38-10 loss to the Bills on Sunday in Buffalo, the defensive line was a non-factor.
The Raiders (1-1) finished with two sacks, but it wasn’t a good day for the pass rush. The Las Vegas defense had just two quarterback hits, and Bills (1-1) quarterback Josh Allen was rarely pressured.
Allen used his legs to avoid rushers at times, but Buffalo also prioritized getting rid of the ball quickly to beat the pass rush. They also sent extra help toward Raiders edge rusher Maxx Crosby by sliding the protection in his direction and having tight ends chip-block him. The Raiders tried to combat the Bills’ focus on Crosby, but they also were relying on the other defensive linemen to win the resulting one-on-one matchups. That didn’t happen.
“We moved Maxx. Maxx wasn’t always in the same spot,” Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said. “At the same time, the other team gets a vote every play. So they can choose to do something to try to limit one of your best players, and then we have to have other players step up and make some plays.”
🔴📽️Live: Josh McDaniels addresses the media from Highmark Stadium. https://t.co/sPY8dK2iRR
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) September 17, 2023
And when it came to defending the run, the Raiders’ D-line didn’t fare much better as the Bills rushed for 183 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Going against a mediocre Buffalo offensive line that gave up five sacks (and nine quarterback hits) and only managed 97 rushing yards against the New York Jets last week, the Raiders’ front was neutralized in all facets.
“It’s across the board,” Crosby said when asked how the defensive line needs to get better. “We’ve all got to get home. We all got to win. … We all got to be on the same page.”
The Raiders’ defensive line was on fire all offseason. Not only was Crosby a terror — as usual — but success for the whole line came in waves.
The defensive tackle group was so deep that general manager Dave Ziegler traded Neil Farrell Jr., a fourth-round pick last year, to the Chiefs and cut Matthew Butler, a fifth-round pick from last year, before re-signing him to the practice squad. Veterans Bilal Nichols, Jerry Tillery and John Jenkins were standouts, while younger defensive tackles like Byron Young and Nesta Jade Silvera also showed promise.
At defensive end, Chandler Jones looked to be revitalized coming off a down year. And with rookie Tyree Wilson missing OTAs and most of training camp due to injury, Malcolm Koonce was able to display immense improvement both as a pass rusher and run stopper. With Wilson ramping up toward the end of training camp, the Raiders seemed to be headed into the season with a dependable stable of edge rushers.
But the performance against the Bills was the second lackluster effort in a row from the unit. In Week 1 against the Broncos, the Raiders managed just two sacks, three quarterback hits and a pressure rate of 21.6 percent (29th in the NFL) according to TruMedia. They only allowed 94 rushing yards last week but still gave up a healthy 4.3 yards per run.
The Raiders were expecting a significant contribution from Jones, who has missed the first two games of the season and remains away from the team due to undisclosed personal reasons. Jones struggled last year, but the Raiders believed he was in line for a bounce-back season.
Without Jones, the Raiders have been left searching for answers at right defensive end. In Week 1, they started Tillery, who typically plays defensive tackle, at defensive end. He was decent against the run and registered a sack, but he had a pressure rate of just 5.0 percent. For context, the league average was 14.8 percent. The Raiders must have felt the results weren’t good enough because Tillery moved back to defensive tackle in Week 2. Against the Bills, the Raiders turned to Koonce, who was even less effective. Wilson was a rotational player in both games, but his impact has been minimal.
It’s unclear when — or if — Jones will return to action. For however long his absence lasts, the Raiders desperately need both Koonce and Wilson to step up their game.
As uninspiring as the non-Crosby defensive end play has been, the interior defensive line has been even worse. None of the defensive tackles have made a notable impact. Through two games, the players lining up as defensive tackles have combined for zero sacks, zero tackles for loss and zero quarterback hits. That’s simply unacceptable.
“We just got to do better and play better,” Nichols said. “That’s all. Point blank, period.”
The way the Raiders’ defensive line has started the season is troubling. The secondary was solid against the Broncos, but it isn’t good enough to hold up against more talented offenses unless the big guys up front are significantly better, as evidenced by Allen dissecting them on his way to completing 31 of 37 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns.
In response, the veterans on the D-line are aiming to strike a balance. On one hand, they’re not going to overreact over two games.
“Man, it’s only Game 2,” Jenkins said. “We’re going to continue working on building this bond, coming together and just growing with each other. We’ve got good people, good teammates and we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing. It just hurts because we’re competitors.”
On the other hand, they know there has to be a level of urgency when it comes to turning things around going into a home contest against the Steelers next week.
“We got to learn from it right now,” Crosby said. “We got another good team coming into Vegas next week, and we got to be prepared and be at our best.”
For the Raiders defense to be respectable in 2023, the defensive line has to lead the way. Unless that happens, their habit of giving up points in bunches will only continue. It’s just one loss, but the painful beatdown at the hands of the Bills remains a cautionary tale for what could lie ahead.
(Photo of Maxx Crosby: Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)
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