NAPA -- Edge rushers get all the glory. Big sack totals and tackles for losses are attractive to the average NFL fan, and increase jersey sales by the bushel. The Raiders are looking for big numbers from Khalil Mack and Justin Tuck, who will bookend the starting defensive line.
The 649 pounds in between will be doing much of the dirty work. The Raiders will pair veteran Dan Williams and second-year standout Justin “Jelly” Ellis in the middle of a 4-3 base defense. Both players are stout against the run and proficient collapsing a pocket from the inside, doing hard jobs without much credit. If the big men in the middle perform well, the entire defense will benefit. After talking to them, it’s clear they have an appetite for destruction.
“We call them ‘meat and potatoes,’” Mack said. “They eat up the middle and they send that running back to the outside and create that push-back that we need in the middle to make it bounce. It’s going to be fun working with those guys.”
Williams got a good laugh out of the new nickname.
"I like it, but it’s not like one is meat and the other is potatoes,” Williams said. “Jelly and I both have everything on our own plate. We can carry our own weight. We want to go out, bully people around and cause havoc.”
That’s the benefit of having two massive men clogging the middle of the line. They can occupy blockers and, generally speaking, make life difficult for opposing rushers. That would be a huge benefit from a year ago, when the Raiders ranked No. 22 in run defense. Ellis was solid, but veteran Antonio Smith was more of an interior pass rusher than a run stopper.
The Williams-Ellis pairing won’t carry over to sub packages designed to help pass defense – the nickel and dime packages will contain a four-man front featuring Mack, Tuck, Mario Edwards Jr. and Benson Mayowa – but it should be a mainstay in the base defense.
“When we get together, we need to push the pocket to allow Mack and Tuck to get after the passer,” Williams said. “Jelly and I are working well together and are pushing ourselves to get off the ball quicker. We’re trying to have fun out there, but we try to make sure our gap responsibilities are taken care of and that we’re doing our job right.”
Williams and Ellis are learning to play together during this training camp. Williams joined the Raiders via free agency from the Arizona Cardinals, so an adjustment period was expected. The pair is working well together, and Williams considered Sunday the best practice thus far.
“It’s getting better each day,” Williams said. “It takes a little while to learn how everybody plays. We’re trying to get used to everybody’s playing style, but you can tell that the talent is definitely there.”
Good defense starts by stopping the run. Williams and Ellis will be the foundation of that effort, which must succeed for the Raiders to remain competitive this season.
“To be able to have Ellis and those guys in the front, we feel like you shouldn’t be able to run the ball on us,” safety Charles Woodson said. “Really, if you put those guys up there, we should be a pretty stout defense. That’s what we’re counting on.”