Led by 37-year-old Charles Woodson, the Raiders have a formidable pass defense. (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Bill Belichick has made a living in the NFL by not taking any single opponent for granted. With the 0-2 Raiders coming to Foxboro this Sunday, he showed again his respect for every opponent by giving praise to the Raiders for bringing in veterans.
While he’s very familiar with the likes of Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Carlos Rogers and Charles Woodson, he has not seen them play together that much on defense. That’s where the work begins for Belichick and his staff.
“Obviously we have a lot of work to do here to get familiar with the Raiders,” Belichick said. “It’s a team that we don’t know very well and haven’t played against this coaching staff. Even though we’ve seen a number of these players on different teams, this is kind of our first shot at them with the Raiders. There are certainly a lot of very good, very experienced players on this team. But you know, guys like Woodley and Tuck, [Tarell] Brown and Rogers we saw at San Francisco, [Charles] Woodson, guys like that coming from other teams, guys that are very experienced, have had good careers.”
To Belichick’s point, Woodson leads a group on defense that collectively has four Super Bowl rings, 12 Pro Bowl selections and an average age of 34.
That’s a lot of experience for third-year head coach Dennis Allen to work with and draw from. What has he done with it?
“They’re very aggressive,” Belichick said. “They have a lot of good players, a lot of very experienced players. They give you multiple looks and different blitzes and pressures, mixtures of man and zone, man, zone and pressure, man pressure, zone pressure. It’s a lot of four-man line but they use [Khalil] Mack as a defensive end at times. He’s sort of a linebacker, defensive end, whatever you want to call him. There are times when he’s involved in coverage as well from the defensive end position, so that gives them some flexibility as well.”
The experience has apparently paid off, at least in defending the pass, so far this season, as the Raiders enter Foxboro tied with Washington in allowing the second-fewest passing yards (164.5 yds/game) in the NFL.
Everyone knows how much Belichick thinks of Ed Reed, calling him one of the best ball-hawking safeties he’s ever seen in the game. Woodson, even at 37 years of age, has some of the same qualities.
“I think [Allen] gives his players the ability to play instinctively and be able to, like Woodson, just doing things, like reminiscent of Ed Reed type of things ‘ just making instinctive plays. There’s a level of discipline to the defense but at the same time there’s a level of instinctiveness.
“It looks like he’s given his players the opportunity to see and react and make plays based on their experience and their ability to instinctively react on the field. You see that from guys like Woodson and Tuck and Carlos Rogers and guys like that. Sometimes they don’t quite do it by the book because they’ve seen something they recognize, anticipate, whatever it is, and are able to do the right thing that they need to do to make the play or to mess up the offensive play.
“I’d say those are some of the things that we’ve noticed about their defense. And they’re big, they’re fast, they’re athletic and they’ve very experienced. Obviously Mack, but [Tarell] Brown, Rogers, Woodson, [Tyvon] Branch. I don’t know, that must be 40 years of experience in the secondary. It’s like 17 with Woodson, so it’s probably over 40 years. Tuck, [Pat] Sims, Antonio Smith, [LaMarr] Woodley, there’s, has to be 35 years of experience there, whatever it is. They have a lot of experienced players on the field. I think that works into the coaches’ favor, to be able to do some things with the confidence that those guys can handle it.”
Here are some other takeaways from Belichick on Tuesday:
On the Raiders offense:
BB: Kind of the same thing on the offensive side of the ball with [James] Jones, [Donald] Penn, [Maurice] Jones-Drew, guys like that. We’ve got a lot to study up on. I think they also have some very good draft choices: [Derek] Carr, [Gabe] Jackson, [Khalil] Mack, have all had positive impacts for them; [TJ] Carrie defensively and in the return game; [Justin] Ellis, [Keith] McGill. They’ve got some good, young players as well as obviously a very experienced group of guys on that team. Those are some of the things that we have to work on here to be ready this week.”
Q: How do you view the distribution of targets in the receiving game? One line of thinking is that if Julian Edelman is playing as well as he is, keep throwing it to him. Another is you don’t want the majority of the balls going there. How do you view it based on the first two games?
BB: I think offensively we could certainly stand to get a lot more balance into our attack overall, period. We didn’t have it in the run-pass ratio in Miami and we didn’t really have enough of it in the passing game last week or really for Miami for that matter. We have to do a better job as a coaching staff. I have to do a better job of creating a little more balance on our team offensively with our personnel, our play calling, our plays and so forth. We have a lot of good players. We have to be more effective utilizing all of them.
Q: What are some of the challenges Derek Carr presents your defense? How do you prepare for a rookie quarterback when it’s so early in the season? Is there enough tape to go off of through two weeks of the season and the preseason or will you go back and mine your pre-draft evaluations as well?
BB: I’d say definitely both. We had a good evaluation of all the players coming out in the draft and we got a good look at Derek at Fresno [State] and his athleticism, arm strength, just ability to get the ball down the field and avoid negative plays in the pocket with his athleticism, mobility and some running ability too are all things that we saw in college that I’d say are showing up this year in the NFL as well. He’s only been sacked a couple times. He’s an athletic guy back there. He can certainly get the ball down the field. We know he’s a smart kid. I think all the things that we saw from him at Fresno and when he’s had an opportunity to do them in this league have continued to show up. Obviously the systems are different but from a skill standpoint, I think his skills are his skills and they’re pretty good.
Q: Do you treat it differently? Maybe there’s a higher degree of difficulty in catching a punt in traffic so there’s a higher acceptance level there. Do you attach a degree of difficulty to plays when you assess ball security in those areas?
BB: That’s probably a lot longer discussion than we have time for. But I would say to summarize my personal philosophy, first of all, ball possession and ball security is at the absolute top of the list when it comes to winning and losing football games. So, we’re going to do everything we can to get it and we’re going to do everything we can to protect it. So that would be number one. That means above all else. So there’s nothing more important than taking care of the football. Whatever else is happening on the play, ball security and ball possession doesn’t fall below anything else. We’re at the National Football League. It’s a pretty high level of proficiency at this level. I don’t think we would send somebody out to catch a punt that we didn’t think could catch it. We’re not going to put Sealver Siliga back there to return punts.
I mean, the guys that go back there to return punts and catch kickoffs and catch passes and take the ball from the quarterback and snap it to the quarterback or the punter, whoever it is, those are all highly skilled players. We wouldn’t put them in those positions if they weren’t accomplished at doing it. Part of their job is to take care of the ball. I don’t know how to put it any other way. That’s their job. I don’t think you put a pitcher out on the mound in the major leagues if you don’t think he can throw it over the plate. I don’t think that’s asking too much.
There are some plays in football that are, maybe the ball possession is, I don’t want to say unavoidable, but maybe it’s part of football. Sometimes there are going to be certain plays, certain situations where the ball is going to come out. Maybe when you take every precaution that you can possibly take to secure it, maybe it comes out anyway. But I would say over the long haul, those situations are few. The more common occurrence is either poor or sloppy ball handling or ball security or in some cases, an exceptional defensive play maybe with a combination of less than ideal ball security. Like I said, that’s the way I see it.