Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther’s system is complicated.
Despite having a multitude of veteran players at his disposal last season, Guenther couldn’t expect any of his players to master his vision in a single season.
There were countless moving pieces in 2018: players getting signed and waived constantly, free agents were trying to develop relationships with a new coaching staff and teammates, and the team also had to deal with a bevy of injuries to members of the defensive unit.
With so much turnover, and players walking in and out of a turnstile, it’s understandable that the communication defensively wasn’t what it could’ve been.
“That was my hardest year of coaching,” Guenther told the media Tuesday following the Raiders eighth OTA.
While it could be viewed as a year to forget, Guenther believes that if you don’t learn from failure then you’re making a mistake, and 2019 is a year for remedying the failures of last season.
The first step? Getting more familiarity in the building.
Enter, Vontaze Burfict.
The former Cincinnati Bengal spent six seasons being mentored by Guenther, and served as his primary middle linebacker during their partnership; no one knows Guenther’s defense better.
“Still familiar with it, I’ve been doing it since my rookie year,” Burfict told the media. “Happy to be back in this defense and understanding it, and just relaying it to the guys and being a leader out there. So, I’m excited and excited for what this year is going to bring us.”
The defense featured a lot of young talent last year, specifically at linebacker with Marquel Lee, Jason Cabinda, and Nicholas Morrow all seeing extended playing time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great getting players with potential on the field, however, when paired with three rookie defensive linemen in Maurice Hurst Jr., P.J. Hall, and Arden Key there was a lot of inexperience at the NFL level in Guenther’s group a season ago.
Head Coach Jon Gruden and Guenther knew they needed to acquire proven players at the second level in free agency, and they did just that by signing Burfict and Brandon Marshall, giving fellow linebacker Tahir Whitehead some additional help.
Check out photos from Tuesday's Organized Team Activity at the Raiders Practice Facility in Alameda, Calif.
“When you add veteran guys like that with experience, that’s played a lot of great football in the league, ‘B Marsh’ has been to the Super Bowl, won the Super Bowl,” Whitehead explained. “That’s a major, major bonus and just the wealth of knowledge they have just being around the league for a long time that helps the young guys, that helps themselves, to be able to go out there and see it from different sides and just pick each other’s brain.
He continued, “It helps a lot having a guy [like Burfict] who’s familiar, extremely familiar with the scheme for the most part of his career. For six years he was in the system and just being in the system for that length of time you know the nuances of a defense. All of the checks, all of the calls, and just having Vontaze [Burfict] has definitely been a huge help.”
Tahir performed admirably during his first season with the Silver and Black, registering a team-high 126 tackles, five passes defensed, one interception, one forced fumble, and played practically every snap. His efforts are certainly appreciated, but he needs help, and building synergy between himself, Burfict, and Marshall will help trickle more thorough communication throughout the defense, which will help Guenther’s unit make strides in 2019.
Connecting and communicating on a deeper level will come with time, but there’s already immense respect between the trio.
“We’re football players – we understand the game,” Burfict said. “All of us are smart, so we’re talking different terminology and we all understand what the guy is talking about, so instead of – not saying playing with a rookie is bad – but having a veteran next to you, you can just give them a simple clue and they’ll understand what you’re saying because you don’t have to give them a whole sentence breaking it down. Like today, with Tahir we had a simple play, he helped me out with a call, we relayed it to the defensive linemen, and instead of me having to do all the calls it kind of eases stuff off my plate.”
“It’s been great, those guys understand what I’m looking for,” Guenther added when asked how the trio’s communication has been thus far. “Obviously having Vontaze here after the years he’s been with me, he’s saying stuff they’ve never heard. Now it’s starting to build up with everybody, so it’s been pretty seamless. Obviously, Brandon hasn’t been out there as much, but once he gets back and gets rolling he’s going to get a lot of reps in training camp.”
Signing Burfict and Marshall was just the first step to get Guenther’s defense on track, but it’s an important step that’s laying the groundwork for the upcoming season. It’s no secret the Raiders will face some potent offenses within the division next year, but if Burfict, Whitehead, and Marshall can get the rest of their unit on the same page it could lead to great things.