The Raiders leading solo tackler in 2019 was linebacker Tahir Whitehead with a total of 79 — not great. Head Coach Jon Gruden needs to see improvement in one of the game's fundamental areas and he's going to demand it of nickelback Lamarcus Joyner.
Joyner's expertise is deeply rooted in the key fundamentals of the game, but last season was challenging for the six-year veteran because of the inconsistency around him and the task of learning a new scheme. For the first time since his NFL debut, the then 28-year-old felt like a rookie again, learning to communicate a language he wasn't familiar with to players he had no experience playing with.
Despite the aches and pains of last season, Joyner managed to stay productive with three passes defensed and 49 tackles combined, but now that he feels more comfortable in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's system, he's able to play at the level he knows he's capable of.
"I feel a lot more comfortable, almost feel like my second year again in the league," Joyner told reporters Friday. "I went to a complicated system with the Rams and Greg Williams, it takes a lot to learn with those kinds of complicated systems, [like Guenther's]. But I feel much more comfortable and that's going to help me with my confidence, and executing and making more plays."
The Raiders struggled with consistency on both sides of the ball last season, due to the vast amount of injuries sustained throughout the year. Johnathan Abram suffered a season-ending injury Week 1, Gareon Conley was shipped to the Houston Texans midseason, and the defensive line featured a batch of rookies learning on the fly; however, the team (defense specifically) shouldn't be plagued with such matters this year.
General Manager Mike Mayock and Gruden have added depth at every crucial position, not just deeper on the roster, but at the starting positions. Joyner will be complemented by a cast of veteran, yet youthful, defensive backs and his former Los Angeles Rams teammate, Cory Littleton.
"Cory and I have known each other for four seasons now. We had a good relationship in L.A. and I told Coach Gruden and Coach Paul Guenther he was a must get," Joyner said. "With a defense like this, where you have to trust the man next to you, he's very trustworthy and he's going to allow the players at the safety and nickelback position to make a lot more plays, trusting that he'll be there to help you out with leverage."
Guenther's defense requires the defensive backs to be sound tacklers and in 2020 Coach Gruden is emphasizing improvement in this area. Unfortunately, the league has mandated limited padded practices considering COVID-19, which I'm sure is aggravating for coaches and players around the league, but this is the world we live in right now. Regardless, Gruden told reporters Friday that the defense needed to be ready to clobber opponents one month from today.
"We got to be ready to tackle," Gruden said pointedly. "We've been under quarantine, we're wearing masks, we haven't been able to tackle. We haven't put a man on the ground yet, we have to tackle better.
"It starts with Joyner, the nickel corner should be first or second on your team in tackles every year — that's how it is in Guenther's defense. So, we need him to really get involved in every single snap in our sub defense and be one of our top tacklers. That's the number one criteria we're looking for."
Joyner's highest season total for tackles came in 2018 as an integral piece of the Super Bowl runner-up Los Angeles Rams, logging 78 in the regular season. He wasn't able to produce a similar volume of tackles last season, but Joyner's confident that will change with a more well-versed knowledge of Guenther's system.
"Definitely knowing your run fits, knowing what you should be keying and just doing your job," Joyner said when asked about how to improve tackling. "The nickelback position is almost like the general at the second level — not the third level with the safeties — but with the linebackers and understanding where the [defensive] end and the [defensive] tackle is fitting. So, it's almost like you're a cover guy and a linebacker, so you definitely have to be technique and fundamentally sound to rack up those tackles and execute."
The Raiders are eager to return to the physical brand of football the team was known for in the 70s and 80s, and it's going to take Joyner, the hard-hitting Abram, and their teammates to bring a renewed level of physicality to the field in 2020.