Paul Guenther isn’t a household name, and his face is certainly not going to be plastered on any Silver and Black billboards or personal seat license brochures, but when it comes to getting the Raiders back on the right track after a disastrous 6-10 season, he’s every bit as important as Derek Carr, Marshawn Lynch and even the $100 million coach, Jon Gruden.
Yes, the Raiders’ offense will need to bounce back to 2016 levels for the Raiders to contend for the playoffs in 2018, but the defense will have to make an even larger leap.
That’s where Guenther comes in.
Even before Gruden took the Raiders’ job for a second time this past offseason, he knew that Guenther, the longtime Cincinnati assistant, was going to be his defensive coordinator. And even though Guenther didn’t accept Gruden’s offer to come to Oakland immediately (he was in consideration for a promotion to head coach in Cincinnati), Gruden stuck with his pick.
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To start, trust. Gruden is an offensive-minded head coach — that’s no secret — so his defensive coordinator is granted a tremendous amount of autonomy. Gruden needed someone for the DC job that not only didn’t need babysitting, but someone who could challenge him and his offensive players in practice as well.
“I think those guys are really close,” safety Marcus Gilchrist said about Gruden and Guenther. “Being that they’re really close, I think they compete a lot. It trickles down to the players and it makes us even more competitive.”
The second reason? It’s simple: “I love the way the Bengals play defense,” Gruden said at his introductory press conference. “Up the field, single gap, get after ya.”
There was little to love about the way the Raiders played defense last year. Despite having one of the best defensive players in the NFL — Khalil Mack — last year, the Raiders were one of the worst defenses in the league in 2017. Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings had the Raiders No. 29 in overall defense and third-to-last in the NFL in pass defense. And those numbers came after an uptick in play late in the season, after Ken Norton Jr. was fired as defensive coordinator and John Pagano replaced him and attempted to morph the Raiders’ two-gap 3-4 defense into a single-gap, 4-3 scheme.
Guenther is tasked with taking that late-season progress and turbo boosting it.
In Cincinnati, Guenther ran what, on the surface, appeared to the layperson be a basic 4-3, Cover-2 defense predicated on physical play on the outside and a strong rush on the inside.
In reality, Guenther’s defense is much, much, more complicated than that. Guenther has a reputation for being a brilliant blitz designer, and to dial up those blitzes, he reportedly has 14 defensive-line fronts, 14 stunts and twists, 15 coverages, 20 blitzes out of a four-down front, 26 blitzes out of double-A-gap fronts and 19 blitzes out of “odd” fronts.
Heady stuff, no doubt. New linebacker Derrick Johnson called Guenther a mastermind of disguising defenses. At the same time, Guenther’s defense is already being hailed as simpler than his predecessors’. Yes, the defense is hardly basic, but the responsibilities for each player are more straightforward, particularly for players in the box, in Guenther’s’ one-gap defense than in the two-gap system the Raiders ran last year.
“The defense is like night and day to me, from past two years to this year,” Bruce Irvin, who is moving to a more traditional defensive end role this season, said Sunday. “Guys are flying around. Guys are doing less thinking. First day (of camp) we had five turnovers. All last year we had 14 combined. … Less thinking and more reacting. Guys just playing football, not out there trying to figure out coverages and what each guy has. It’s just guys lining up, in assignment, making plays.”
Guenther is facing the challenge of installing his defense without the defense’s most important player, Mack, available. Mack is holding out of camp in an effort to land a new contract and there’s no resolution in sight. That said, neither Guenther nor Gruden is putting much stock in the absence.
“When he gets here — if he gets here — he’ll be an exciting piece to add,” Guenther said. “We weren’t very good last year on defense with Khalil Mack,” Gruden told NFL Network on Monday. “We’ve got to get a better pass rush, we’ve got to play better defense, period. And we hope Khalil gets here, but in the time being, we’ve got plenty of guys who need work.”
The Raiders are also without second-year rookie corner Gareon Conley, who strained a hip last week and is expected to miss a couple of weeks. Conley was poised to be the Raiders’ No. 1 corner this season, but another training camp injury puts that status in question.
Arguably, the Raiders are down their two best defensive players so far in camp. For another defensive coordinator that could be a big problem, but one of the reasons Gruden hired Guenther is that he’s always been able to do more with less.
In Cincinnati, he turned Vontaze Burfict into an impact player and helped author a late-career renaissance for Adam “Pacman” Jones. (Remember when Jones was a wrestler?)
Yes, year-in, year-out in Cincinnati, the Bengals were one of the best defensive teams in the NFL and Guenther — even while an assistant for former DC Mike Zimmer (now Minnesota’s head coach) — was a massive part of that success.
“He’s a great teacher, he’s been able to get a lot out of players,” Gruden said of Guenther in January.
If Guenther can turn the Raiders’ defense into a similarly consistent unit — hell, if he can get take this current defensive roster (Mack or no Mack) and get the Raiders to play even league-average defense — he’ll put the Raiders’ one good offense away from serious contention in the AFC.
It’s early, but indications are that Gruden and Carr better have their A-game ready to go Week 1.