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Las Vegas Raiders: What to expect from new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham

Moe Moton

Somewhere in the Las Vegas Raiders’ locker room, they should hang a sign that reads, adapt or die.

That sounds a bit dramatic, but that’s the core theme after the Raiders added another branch from Bill Belichick’s coaching tree late Friday, hiring Patrick Graham for their defensive coordinator position, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.

In 2019, Graham served as the defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins and then spent two seasons with the New York Giants. For all three of those campaigns, his teams had offenses that ranked 25th or worse in scoring and 27th or worse in yards. Yet, he fielded a top-10 scoring unit in 2020 and the ninth-best red-zone defense last year with mostly middling statistical marks across the board.

With all that said, we have to dig deeper than basic box-score numbers to understand what Graham brings to the Silver and Black’s defense.

As a defensive coordinator in high demand this offseason, Graham has core principles and tendencies that will intrigue fans and his players alike.

Let’s dig into the details and get to know Graham.

Patrick Graham comments on the importance of man coverage, expect more blitzes

This past season under former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who accepted a job at the same position with the Indianapolis Colts Friday, per Indianapolis Star‘s Joel A. Erickson, the Las Vegas Raiders defense operated mostly out of cover 3 (zone) and blitzed on the fewest plays per dropback (12.1 percent).

At times, Bradley seemed too rigid in his approach, which allowed teams to attack his scheme without the fear of having to counter significant adjustments.

That’s going to change in 2022.

During the 2021 offseason, Graham made a clear statement about his thoughts on man coverage:

With more man coverage, Graham can dig into his bag of tricks and design some blitzes to keep the quarterback’s head on a swivel. The Giants finished the 2021 campaign with a 25 percent blitz rate (ranked 16th leaguewide).

As players familiarize themselves with their assignments and the communication among them improves, you’ll likely see an extra defender hunt down the quarterback to record a sack or force an errant throw that could result in a turnover. Big Blue logged 22 takeaways in back-to-back seasons under Graham, which tied for 10th in 2020 and listed 14th this past term.

Patrick Graham wants to “be multiple”

Before you set your mind on a man-coverage-heavy scheme, remember, Graham comes from the Belichick coaching tree, and you can sense the influence of the six-time Super Bowl-winning lead skipper in his disciple.

Graham will do what it takes to beat a specific opponent, and he’s not rigid in his game-planning. Last year, he talked about the idea of mastering multiple looks within a scheme.

“Even with trying to be multiple, the idea is to be multiple in a limited amount of scheme so that we’re doing all the fundamentals that we are looking for on defense,” Graham said. “In terms of playing with our hands, playing with good pad level, setting the edge, defending the deep part of the field and tackling, that’s what we focus on.”

Las Vegas Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham on defensive approach

When asked about defensive alignments, Graham insinuated that he’ll form a system around the strengths of his personnel as opposed to fitting his players within the lines of a specific scheme.

“So you say 4-3, 3-4, 2-4, 3-3-5, whatever you want to say, I’ll say yes,” Graham said. “I’m not trying to make a joke of it. We are going to do what’s best with what we have in terms of the people, the personnel we have and what we think is best for the game.”

Las Vegas Raiders DC Patrick Graham

Graham has used even- and odd-man fronts out of the nickel, sometimes with just two defensive linemen. He’s also switched up his coverage tendencies in the middle of a season, and his players responded well to the adjustments.

“One year ago, after the Giants started 1-7, Graham cut down on blitzing and scrapped his man-to-man coverage plan in favor of a heavier dose of zone,” Ryan Dunleavy of the New York Post wrote.

From that point forward, in the eight remaining contests, Big Blue allowed an average of 19.8 points per game. Apparently, simplicity and flexibility can go hand in hand, and it worked out in the defense’s favor.

Obviously, once the Las Vegas Raiders sign their free agents, we’ll have a much better idea of how Graham plans to run his defense, but don’t go into the offseason with any hard assumptions.

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Expect another revamped Las Vegas Raiders defensive line

As a former defensive line coach with the Patriots and Giants, Graham will likely want to restructure the front line, though the Las Vegas Raiders’ unit performed well in 2021.

Johnathan Hankins, Quinton Jefferson, Solomon Thomas, Gerald McCoy and Darius Philon will all become free agents in March, which allows Graham to start with a clean slate on the interior of the line. In 2021, he had three 300-plus-pounders up front in Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Johnson.

Coming off a season-ending knee injury, McCoy turns 34 years old in a few weeks. Philon tore his patellar tendon in the season finale and probably has a long road to a full recovery. If the new play-caller wants another group of 300-plus-pounders on the front line, Thomas (listed at 280 lbs) and Jefferson (listed at 291 lbs) are slightly under the mark. Worthy of note, Graham was Hankins’ defensive line coach in New York for the 2016 season.

With Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue set to start on the edge, it’ll be interesting to see how Graham views Clelin Ferrell, who had a minimal role this past season, playing 24 percent of the snaps on defense.

More 3-safety looks?

In 2021, Graham frequently used the big nickel formation with three safeties. Julian Love, (121), Logan Ryan (85), Xavier McKinney (75) and Jabrill Peppers (71) all played a decent number of the snaps in the slot, per Pro Football Focus.

Peppers might’ve led the team in snaps out of the slot, but he went on injured reserve with a ruptured ACL and ankle sprain after Week 7. In his absence, cornerback Darnay Holmes saw an uptick in snaps in the slot until injuries derailed his season after Week 12.

Under Bradley, Nate Hobbs emerged as a fifth-round steal who can man the slot, but remember, he has experience on the perimeter on the collegiate level. Graham can tinker with three-safety looks because of the rookie’s position versatility.

In New York, Graham had Love, who’s a former cornerback at Notre Dame, Peppers, a safety with slot capability, Ryan, a cornerback who primarily played free safety with Big Blue, and McKinney, a true jack-of-all-trades defensive back out of Alabama.

Look for Vegas to stock up on players comfortable with position fluidity in the secondary. Graham’s unit will likely feature defensive backs who can play in the slot cornerback and safety spots as it did in New York with Peppers, Ryan, McKinney and Love.

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Final thoughts on Patrick Graham

Some skeptics within the fanbase have reached out and asked what’s so great about a defensive coordinator who fielded a defense that ranked 23rd or worse in scoring in two of the last three years?

As mentioned above, Graham’s defenses played in tough spots without much help from stagnant offenses. Also, keep in mind, he had a tough situation with the Dolphins in the first year of their rebuild in 2019. The roster had been torn down to scraps and arguably the unit’s best player, cornerback Xavien Howard, missed 11 games.

Graham faced a similar situation with a rebuilding Giants squad under head coach Joe Judge in 2020. As noted, he still managed to put together a top-10 scoring defense before the group took a step back along with an offense that accumulated the second-fewest points and yards in 2021.

Last year, the Giants defense was on the field more than 26 other units on average (31:35), per Team Rankings. On top of that, the unit had the third-worst starting field position on the average drive (its own 31-yard line). Here’s the most telling statistic about the imbalance between the team’s offense and defense: the Giants lost five games (4-5 overall) in which they held their opponent to 22 or fewer points. For perspective, the Raiders lost two such games (5-2 overall) with that many points allowed.

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If you buy into the idea of complementary football, meaning the defense impacts the offense and vice versa, the box-score numbers from 2019 to 2021 don’t tell the whole story of Graham’s resume.

Assuming the Raiders keep Derek Carr, Graham will actually have a decent complementary offense that won’t rank near the bottom of most important stat categories.

With that said, let’s not sugarcoat the hire as the next coming of Vic Fangio. Graham is an upstart play-caller who’s done well despite the circumstances in New York. However, as previously stated, his units have gone through rough patches with more complexity, and he’s had to make the correct adjustments on the fly, which worked out in 2020.

Graham will have a more complete team (offensively) that takes some pressure off his defense to put together a masterpiece every week. With roster balance, his unit could shine in Vegas. Overall, we should expect him to push fundamentals before he implements some creativity to lessen the occurrence of blown assignments and busted coverages.

It’s clear that Graham can adapt to any situation or opponent; he needs players capable of doing the same with the Las Vegas Raiders.

Maurice Moton covers the Las Vegas Raiders for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @MoeMoton.