Khalil Mack and the rest of the Raiders front seven have seen improvement since John Pagano took over the defense. (Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)

Raiders’ front seven putting on the pressure under new d-coordinator

Four weeks removed from firing former defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., the Oakland Raiders have flashed elite-level potential along the front seven of the defense — specifically attacking the passer.

Norton Jr.’s replacement, John Pagano, who took over in Week 12, has captained the team’s front seven to unforeseen heights in terms of pressuring the quarterback. In Weeks 12-15, Pagano’s defense ranked eighth in total pressure percentage (38.46) and 10th in pressure percentage on called blitzes (46.15) among all NFL defenses, according to Pro Football Focus.

With Norton at the helm (Weeks 1-11), Oakland’s defense recorded a pressure on just 33.82 percent of passing downs, ranking 21st in the league. Additionally, the defense placed 18th in pressure percentage (41.98) on its blitzes.

The Norton-era defense also ranked 20th in pressure percentage on third downs (38.74), while Pagano & Co. rank sixth at 48.08 percent.

An increase in overall pressures and pressure efficiency in the last four games has also had a positive impact on the Raiders’ box-score production, as the team ranks tied for 4th in sacks (14) since Week 12.

Such a stark increase across the board begs the question: What exactly has Pagano done differently?

The eye test can lead some to highlight Pagano’s ability to design and call more appropriate stunts along the defensive line in passing situations, as some of Oakland’s interior defensive linemen (i.e. Denico Autry, Treyvon Hester, Eddie Vanderdoes) have strung together a few highlight plays twisting in the trenches. However, in this case, the eye test couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In Weeks 12-15, no team has earned a lower pressure percentage on stunts than Pagano’s Raiders, rounding out the bottom of the league at 21.95 percent — six percent lower than any other defense.

Where Pagano’s magic has taken place is in the Raiders’ ability to create pressure without stunting the defensive linemen, as Oakland leads the league in pressure percentage (44.35) when not calling stunts over the last four weeks. Such success speaks to his knack for disguising pass-rushers pre-snap and attacking specific mismatches along the opposing offensive line.

Pagano’s bag of tricks doesn’t stop there.

He has also quickly developed a strong understanding of Oakland’s personnel and its strengths and weaknesses, allowing him to effectively assign and align his marquee defensive pieces.

Raiders edge defender Bruce Irvin, who has doubled his sack total on the season in the last four games, has specifically benefited from Pagano’s adjustments.

Under Norton’s tutelage this season, Irvin played 5.61 percent (31) of his defensive snaps lined up at either slot or outside cornerback, and he dropped into coverage on 17.42 percent (96) of his snaps. Pagano has since put an end to Irvin’s stint at cornerback and reduced his coverage role to give him more opportunities to rush the passer, giving him zero reps at either slot or outside cornerback and dropping his coverage snap percentage to 6.73.

To no surprise, Irvin’s pass-rushing success has improved astronomically. His pass-rush productivity — a PFF-born metric that measures pressure created on a per snap basis with weighting toward sacks — has improved from 6.4 in Weeks 1-11 to 11.8 over the last four games. Also, he has earned 70.0-plus pass-rush grades in three of his last four games after earning such grades on just four of his eight games under Norton.

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.

As evidenced by the loss column, Pagano’s shift in strategy hasn’t necessarily saved the Raiders’ season nor has it turned around the defense in its entirety, as his magic can’t mask the lack of talent in the secondary. But the simple, effective changes he has made have turned Oakland’s defense back in the right direction.

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