The Raiders defense got a facelift this offseason, with as many as seven new starters heading into the 2016 season. There’s a whole lot of new, but something old could be the vital to a productive unit.
Personnel is significantly different, but the scheme’s the same. That’s important for interior linebacker Malcolm Smith, a returner responsible for relaying plays in the huddle and arraigning chess pieces before the snap.
Talent upgrades will help. So will Smith’s comfort running the Raiders defensive system, as he helps get others up to speed.
“That’s key for this second season,” Smith said Tuesday on SiriusXM NFL Radio's "Late Hits" program. “We took our lumps last year and learned what we like to do and what the staff feels is best for us. Another year of growth as a group is important as we get a nucleus of guys together.”
A new nucleus was essential after the Raiders defense ranked 22nd in yards and points allowed. The pass defense was the weakest link, ranked 26th at 258 yards per game despite a productive pass rush.
Those facts spurned major additions, including edge rusher Bruce Irvin, safeties Karl Joseph and Reggie Nelson, and cornerback Sean Smith.
This largely veteran group has come together quick, and part of that comes from players like Smith greasing wheels for others learning a new system.
“I feel like we took a big step in the offseason program in terms of learning,” Smith said. “One thing we had in Seattle was a really high football IQ as a team, and that’s something (head coach Jack Del Rio is) preaching. That’s going to take us to the playoffs. That’s the biggest difference this year.”
Smith also believes the Raiders have an advantage few others have, and it wears No. 52. Khalil Mack is widely considered among the league’s best defenders, while many try to compare him to others of his ilk. Doing so, Smith says, is a waste of time.
“I’ve never seen anyone like Khalil Mack,” Smith said. “As far as my football knowledge goes, he’s one of a kind. Even in college, I don’t think I played against someone as dominant as Khalil is in a one-on-one or even a two-on-one setting. It’s going to make things better for the rest of us. We can take some pressure off of him with Bruce Irvin and other guys rushing the quarterback. We’ll make some plays.
“Khalil is one of a kind. It’s hard to think of somebody similar. Maybe Derrick Thomas.”