Head Coach Jon Gruden and QB Brad Johnson have some interesting situations to discuss given Oakland's unusual defensive front
The 3-4 defensive front, while not as scarce in the NFL as it was 10 years ago, is still less common than the 4-3 run by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and many other teams. (The numbers stand for the amount of down linemen and linebackers, respectively, in the base scheme.)
Thus, every time the Buccaneers encounter one, such as when they played Houston and Atlanta last December, the week of practice becomes a bit more complicated. There are different 'rules' and 'keys' to commit to memory, as a Buccaneer offensive player would put it.
But this particular week, as Tampa Bay prepares for Oakland's new 3-4, is a different situation altogether. In fact, Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden doesn't even feel that term applies to much of what the Raiders do.
"To me, it isn't a 3-4 defense, it's a 5-2 defense," said Gruden, referring to a common alignment where defensive tackles Warren Sapp, Ted Washington and John Parrella are flanked by 'outside linebackers' Tyler Brayton and DeLawrence Grant.
The trick here is that Brayton and Grant would be called defensive ends by most teams. Both men run upwards of 280 pounds, which makes them quite a bit bigger than just about every linebacker in the league, now that former Steeler Levon Kirkland is no longer making a living between the lines. Those five men, who also all range between 6-2 and 6-6, certainly pose some blocking and quarterback sight-line difficulties.
"This is the biggest football team I've seen in some time," said Gruden. "They have five defensive linemen on the field on every play. The outside linebackers are Brayton and DeLawrence Grant, two starters in a 4-3 scheme last year for them. When you put Ted Washington and Warren Sapp and Parrella out there with those guys, these are big human beings who are going to make it very physical."
It's an interesting approach, and it seems to be working. The Raiders' defense ranked 32nd against the run and 22nd against the pass last season; so far this year, they stand seventh and fifth, respectively. They've only allowed 3.1 yards per carry through two games and they've already racked up nine sacks. Exactly half of those nine sacks belong to those two big hybrids, Brayton (2.5) and Grant (2.0).
Last year, Brayton, then a rookie, tallied 2.5 sacks all season as a starter at defensive end, while Grant, a part-time DE starter, had one. Brayton is still listed as an end on the Raiders' roster and depth chart – is, in fact, the starting DE opposite Sapp – but Grant has officially been converted to linebacker. Obviously, those two men have been set free by the 3-4. In fact, Gruden made an interesting comparison for Brayton that could give pause to Buc fans with long memories.
"Brayton is a lot like a guy who used to play named Bryce Paup, only he's bigger," said Gruden. "He's athletic, he's a heck of a player and he's 290 pounds, I think. He's an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, so when you get a back blocking him, that's a matchup sometimes that's difficult."
Paup was a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end for Green Bay, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Minnesota from 1990-2000. He was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year with the Bills in 1995 after registering 17.5 sacks. And he used to absolutely terrorize the Buccaneers. On September 15, 1991, for example, he racked up 4.5 sacks and a safety against Tampa Bay all by himself.
Gruden says the Raiders are able to employ so many big men because they have confidence in their secondary, particularly the pair of cover corners, Charles Woodson and Phillip Buchanon.
"The other guy, DeLawrence Grant, is a 275-pound defensive end who's playing linebacker in a 3-4 scheme," said Gruden. "They do have Phillip Buchanon. They've got a guy named Woodson who gives them the flexibility to do a lot of things, and with that they cause some confusion. They looked quite good last week against Buffalo."
The Raiders sacked the Bills seven times, in fact. That's eye-opening to the Buccaneers, who have surrendered nine sacks through the first two weeks.
"That is a concern, and it's also exciting, to see a team on the road in a loud, hostile environment," said Gruden. "That will give us an opportunity to pick it up and get some credibility going around here offensively."
Add a Sack
Defensive players are not allowed to hit the quarterback during Buccaneer practices, but that didn't stop free safety Jermaine Phillips from picking up a sack on Wednesday.
Phillips's mid-week gain was purely statistical, as he actually put in the work on Sunday against Seattle. The NFL has reviewed a play from late in Seattle's 10-6 victory at Raymond James Stadium and determined that it was scored incorrectly by the on-site stat crew.
It was the penultimate play of the game. Snapping the ball with 57 seconds left and his Seahawks facing a second-and-eight, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck faked a handoff and rolled to his right. It was a good risk, as Seattle hoped to catch the Bucs loading up all of their defenders for the run. However, the Bucs sniffed it out and blanketed the tight end that Hasselbeck had hoped to throw to on the run. With that safe pass option taken away, Hasselbeck did the smart thing, tucking the ball away and taking off on a run, thereby ensuring that the clock wouldn't stop and the Bucs would have to use their last timeout.
Phillips tackled Hasselbeck at the Seattle 21, two yards behind the line of scrimmage. It was scored simply a tackle for a loss at the time. However, since Hasselbeck's intention clearly was to pass, the play, upon review, was called a sack. It happens to be the first sack of Phillips's career, so it was worth the three-day wait.
The scoring change also gave the Bucs five sacks as a team and slightly improved their pass defense, which was already ranked second in the league through two weeks.
The Buccaneers will have a special guest with them when they head out to Oakland on Friday.
Former Pro Bowl Buccaneer linebacker Hardy Nickerson has been invited by Gruden to accompany the team on its trip out West. Nickerson will fly into Tampa in time to fly out on the team plane Friday afternoon. He will stay with the team during its weekend in the Bay area and fly back on the Bucs' charter on Sunday night.
Gruden's invite to Nickerson, one of the most accomplished players in team history, is another indication that the coach is serious about reconnecting the team with its past. Gruden believes that former Buccaneer pillars like Nickerson can provide the current players with perspective, enlightenment and that most important of commodities in the coach's eyes, 'juice.'
At an alumni event before the season, which Nickerson attended, Gruden vowed to get the five-time Pro Bowler involved with the organization again. Clearly, Gruden intends to follow up on that promise.