Paul Guenther has said it several times already this season. He’s not used to seeing teams consistently blow his defense away.
In Guenther’s four years as the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive coordinator prior to joining Jon Gruden’s staff in 2018, his defenses ranked 12th, second, eighth and 16th in the league, respectively, in points allowed per game. The Raiders currently rank 31st in that category allowing 31.5 points per game, and the only team below them, Tampa Bay, already fired their defensive coordinator this season.
When Guenther arrived home after last Thursday’s 34-3 loss to second-year quarterback Nick Mullens and the 49ers, his son had already seen a video online showing his dad and Gruden verbally sparring on the sideline. After Raheem Mostert’s 52-yard touchdown run made it 31-3 in the third quarter, Gruden slapped Guenther on the arm and barked something at him. Guenther didn’t really have an answer, which is understandable because his defense doesn’t have one either.
The Raiders own the league’s worst run defense, allowing 144.5 yards per game on the ground. They rank 24th in pass defense, slightly better but still well below par, surrendering 262.6 aerial yards per contest. They sit last in sacks with seven through eight games, the only team with single digits in that category, and last in quarterback pressures with 59. The next-worst team in that department, the Lions, has pressured the quarterback 107 times, per Pro Football Focus.
On top of all that, the Raiders are allowing 6.8 yards per play through eight games, on pace to break the NFL single-season record since the 1970 merger set by the 2015 Saints, who allowed 6.6 yards per play.
And the scariest part for Guenther and the Raiders? That defense still has to suit up eight more times, once against the Los Angeles Chargers, twice against the Kansas City Chiefs and once against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The other four games come against the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens Ravens, Bengals and Denver Broncos. Things won’t get much better for Guenther’s defense, if at all.
“I’ve really never been through anything like this before because when I took the job there were a lot of guys that were either up for free agency or that I thought were going to be on the roster,” Guenther said. “Obviously, there was a lot of changes. Guys got signed to other teams and we had to fill those spots in with some of the veterans with the cap money that we had. It’s been a challenge. Obviously, we’re trying to build this thing to get it the right way. That’s going to be a moving part the rest of the year, to try and find the right fit of guys, not only for this year but moving down the road.
“We have a vision, Jon and I, of what it’s going to look like down the road. Hopefully we can just keep getting better every week. It’s certainly been a challenge.”
When Guenther took the Raiders job he had defensive tackles Denico Autry, Eddie Vanderdoes and Justin Ellis at his disposal. They’ve played less than one game combined for the Raiders, as Autry signed with the Colts in free agency, Vanderdoes is set to come off the physically unable to perform list before next week’s game against the Cardinals and Ellis has yet to resume practicing after injuring his foot in Week 1. Add in the trade of his biggest weapon, Khalil Mack, who Guenther only met once in person during the offseason, NaVorro Bowman not re-signing and the releases of Derrick Johnson and Bruce Irvin, and Guenther’s defense looks a lot different than what he thought it might when he jumped aboard.
Instead Guenther has leaned on rookies Arden Key, Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall, as well as youngsters Gareon Conley, Marquel Lee and Daryl Worley to play sizable roles on a defense whose veterans (Tahir Whitehead, Rashaan Melvin, Reggie Nelson, etc.) haven’t exactly shined.
“It’s the NFL. Obviously there is going to be changes every year on every team, that’s just part of the business,” Guenther said. “Having our vision was to bring in some young guys in the draft, we did that and they’re playing. We’re going through some growing pains with the young guys. Hopefully the more and more snaps they get, the back end of the year here and going into year two we’re going to see massive improvements.”
Despite their quarrel on the sideline, and Guenther’s unit letting the Raiders down nearly every week, Gruden maintained full confidence in a coach he’s obviously very close with.
“You should see us on the golf course,” Gruden joked. ” … I’m sure emotions get caught on tape sometimes but, there’s not a better coach I know than Paul Guenther. There’s not a better friend that I have than Paul Guenther.”
This Sunday could get ugly for the Raiders, facing a quarterback in Philip Rivers, who has shredded them the last three matchups for a 75 percent completion mark, 994 passing yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Earlier this season, Rivers carved up Guenther’s unit for 339 yards on 22-of-27 passing and two scores.
With the way Guenther’s defense has played this season, and with the hits his group has taken, both literal and figurative, those uncharted waters he’s waded through could very well get deeper before he finds a way out.
“Obviously I’ve been a part of and with a lot of good defenses in the past,” Guenther said. “There’s certain things and breakdowns … that I’m not used to seeing. And again, it is a patience thing, but I’m not the most patient guy and I want to get this stuff fixed quickly.
“That’s part of the evaluation process with the guys we have now moving forward in the last eight games to see what guys we want to keep here and what guys we want to move on with.”