ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — The story line around the Oakland Raiders last season was a consistent and frustrating one.
After trading away star pass rusher Khalil Mack following a contract holdout, the Raiders never were able to fill that void on defense and were the worst in the league when it came to pressuring the quarterback and shutting down opposing offenses.
While the constant questions about the lack of a pass rush might have grown tiresome, the Raiders know they will only stop when the defense takes some steps toward truly replacing Mack.
"We take all of it," said second-year defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, who led Oakland with four sacks as a rookie. "Every single game we play they're going to mention our pass rush. We control the narrative for that. Obviously, last year wasn't good enough and we get all the criticism for it. There's a lot of eyes on us to develop and be special this year and change that narrative, change what they say about us, change our attitude and how we're approaching things."
Hurst was part of a trio of rookie defensive linemen in Oakland last year who were drafted to complement edge rushers Mack and Bruce Irvin but became the main pieces after Mack was traded before the start of the season and Irvin was released midway through the year after struggling as the main man.
Hurst showed some signs but had little help. Third-round defensive end Arden Key finished with just one sack in 16 games and second-round defensive tackle P.J. Hall had no sacks in 14 games.
Those three are now being counted on as a big part of a young group up front that also includes a pair of rookie defensive ends in No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell and fourth-rounder Maxx Crosby.
"Now it's our time to take it over and start to develop our own identity," Hurst said. "That's something that we didn't do last year, is to develop an identity, and I think that's what we are going to try and accomplish early on and just set a tone and keep it rolling throughout the season."
The numbers for the Raiders on defense were downright awful last season. Their 95 total quarterback pressures, according to SportRadar, were 29 fewer than the next worst team in the league. Oakland also finished with a league-low 13 sacks. In fact, Miami, New England and the Giants were tied for the second-fewest sacks with 30 but were closer to seventh best in the league than the last place Raiders.
With no pressure coming whatsoever from the front seven and a secondary that struggled to limit big plays with a league-worst 10 passes allowed of at least 50 yards, the results were predictably poor.
The Raiders ranked last in the league with 6.27 yards allowed per play and gave up a league-high 29.2 points per game for the worst mark in franchise history in yards and second worst in points.
It was an unfamiliar spot for coordinator Paul Guenther, whose defenses ranked in the top of the NFL in his four seasons running the show in Cincinnati.
"It's something that you don't always want to go through, having a rough year like we did, but obviously you start to learn how to build these things," he said. "How to build your lineup card and what it should look like and how you envisioned it. That was the positive for me. I always tell the players, if you don't learn from failure, you're making a mistake. You have to learn from what we did good and what we did bad and build off of that in the future."
Guenther should have more pieces at his disposal this year with the maturation of last year's rookies; the additions of Ferrell, first-round safety Johnathan Abram and second-round cornerback Trayvon Mullen through the draft; and free agent acquisitions like safety Lamarcus Joyner and linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall.
Burfict was an especially important addition at middle linebacker for Guenther, having spent time with him in Cincinnati. Burfict's knowledge of the defense will allow Guenther to have more variety on defense this season.
"It's like having a quarterback that you've coached in there so you can get in and out of calls at the line of scrimmage," he said. "Last year we didn't do that as much. We did it a few times and I just felt like it was a lot for the guys in the first year of the system to put that added weight on them. I wanted them to kind of go out and play. Now in year two, add in a guy like him, and having another year under the system, the guys will pick it up a lot faster."
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