What a difference a year makes.
Last year, the Oakland Raiders defensive line had a hard time getting after the quarterback, and everyone counted them out. In 2019, the Silver and Black have 20 sacks through nine games, which is seven more than they finished with all of last season, and there's a few reasons for this.
1. The 2018 draft class is stepping up in their second year, with big contributions coming from Maurice Hurst Jr. – he led all Raiders with four sacks last season.
2. Head Coach Jon Gruden and General Manager Mike Mayock had some success with the 2019 class as well. Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby have put some impressive moves on tape, and they look ready to elevate this unit for years to come.
And last, but most certainly not least…
3. Benson Mayowa wasn't viewed as a major free agent splash by the Raiders this offseason, but he's playing better than some of the premier pass rushers in the NFL.
Mayowa first debuted as a Raider back in 2014 and stayed for a second season, playing in 28 games with three starts. While he had playing time, his opportunities to get after the quarterback were few and far between, as he finished with a combined two sacks between 2014 and 2015.
At the end of the 2015 season, Mayowa and the Raiders parted ways, with his next stop coming in Dallas where he posted a career-high in sacks with six, but after starting in six games that year he went back to a reduced role in 2017. On tape, Mayowa's production was clear, but the numbers weren't matching it.
Once again he joined a new team, this time the Arizona Cardinals in 2018. With an all-new coaching staff, Mayowa saw extended minutes and played in 15 games, including four starts. It was in Arizona where he regained his footing a little bit, registering career-highs in passes defensed (4) and tackles (38), but it's never been about statistics. He just wants to play and he has played a lot of meaningful minutes since returning to the Silver and Black.
"It's good, but you want to get those Ws," Mayowa said when asked if he sets statistical goals for himself. "You get the Ws it's going to open up everything. If we get a lead in a game that's going to open up the pass, they have to pass to catch up. It's a good goal, but it is what it is."
He might not read into the numbers too much, but Mayowa leads all Raiders with seven sacks, which is a career-high, and it's currently tied for 11th in the NFL. The 2018 Raiders versus the 2019 Raiders are vastly different and have improved in a big way. Mayowa's journey has been years in the making though and goes back to his days as a Regional Combine participant in 2013.
"I'm still in the league," he said when asked if his lack of production statistically over the years has affected his confidence. "If you tracked how I came in the league it's been a long ride, but I've shown flashes. It's just been a good year for me, and I credit that to the rest of the guys and coverage."
Benson is leading the way for the Raiders defensive line and it's been a strong first half of the season for the unit, and he credits their success to the chemistry that's been built over the last few months. Since training camp, the Raiders have welcomed several new faces into the fold, and in mid-November it's all starting to come together.
"I feel like we playing together," Mayowa explained Wednesday. "It takes time, it takes reps, and I feel like we've been playing together for a little bit since training camp, so it's starting to show a little bit as we progress through the season."
"I just think the rush and the coverage element, it always works hand in hand," defensive coordinator Paul Guenther added Thursday. "I think we did a really good job both areas. Guys played with a lot of energy. We got them in some good situations to rush really first and foremost. And then you know at the end of the game you're looking to close out the game. The third game we've been on the defense we've closed the game out. Once in Chicago, really Indianapolis, Detroit and really, that game, so it's good to see."
The Raiders mentality all season has been to take things week by week, and at 5-4 it's safe to say they've done that fairly well. Mayowa and his cohorts this Sunday will welcome a Cincinnati Bengals offensive line to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum that's allowed 31 sacks this season, which ranks 26th in the NFL.
Mayowa doesn't consider this season a breakout year for himself, but he's grateful for the playing time he's been given to prove why he's been able to stick around in the league all these years.
This Sunday he should get a chance to increase his sack total - not that he cares about stats.