ALAMEDA -– The Raiders have cycled through linebackers this season, now featuring a lineup much different than summer suggested.
July’s four-man rotation featured Curtis Lofton as a permanent fixture in the middle, flanked by Ray-Ray Armstrong and Malcolm Smith. Sio Moore seemed set to join the group after getting healthy from major offseason hip surgery.
Much has changed since then. Lofton is focused on running downs. Armstrong has been cut. Moore was traded.
Malcolm Smith is the only remaining fixture. The scheme changed some to feature Aldon Smith as a rush linebacker off the edge, but he’s now suspended a calendar year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
The Raiders are now turning to the kids. Second-round pick Mario Edwards has been a big help off the edge.
They’re also looking to Ben Heeney for assistance on the inside. The rookie fifth-round pick from Kansas saw his role increase during Sunday’s loss at Detroit, the first extended stretch of his young career. That should continue during Sunday’s game at the Tennessee Titans.
Heeney played 39 defensive snaps against Detroit -– he had 10 in nine previous games –- including 24 spent in pass coverage. He fared pretty well -– being singled up against a running back going deep isn’t a good look for any linebacker, as Heeney was once against Ameer Abdullah –- and was praised for his efforts.
“I’m really excited about Ben,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “We knew coming in Heeney was very active, very fast, very explosive, but also young. At the same time, he’s a football player and he’s certainly going to make us a better team.
“He fits that mold of a guy who can really make a lot of plays, use his legs, a combination of speed and talent and smarts. He has that ability. Now it’s a matter of getting him some experience.”
The Raiders will have an opportunity to do that, especially with Armstrong off the team and rookie Neiron Ball still nursing a knee injury.
Heeney had seven tackles, a sack and a pass defensed in his first extended stretch. He knew Detroit would be a coming out game after being added to certain packages in the practice week.
“I was nervous at first, but everything settles down once you get in your first hit,” Heeney said. “It was good. I just tried to take advantage of the opportunities I was given. Hopefully I get a few more.”
The Raiders will look to Heeney and Ball, who made a solid impression as a coverage linebacker before suffering a knee sprain. That pair hopes to become permanent fixtures on this defense.
“He’s one of my best friends on the team,” Heeney said. “We connected at the combine, and became friends. We talked some after getting drafted. … It sucks that he’s not out here, but we’ll get him back soon and be a stronger, deeper unit.”
The Raiders will have to tinker some with their linebacker corps this offseason. Heeney and Ball hope to insure they’re fixtures for a long time to come.
INJURY UPDATE: The Raiders issued an estimate participation report on Thursday, though they only conducted a walk-thru practice. The team shuffled its practice week to give players Thanksgiving afternoon off. The Raiders practiced heavily on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Raiders updgraded Charles Woodson (shoulder) to a full participant. Center Rodney Hudson (ankle), cornerback Keith McGill (ankle), running back Taiwan Jones (knee) and linebacker Neiron Ball (knee) were considered out.