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New-look Raiders Linebacker Corps Underwhelming in 2020

Noah Strang
Las Vegas Raiders linebacker corps Cory Littleton

The Raiders identified linebacker as a position of need and dealt with it accordingly. How do those moves look seven games into the season? We take a look at the Raiders linebacker corps so far in 2020.

Following another sub-.500 season in 2019, head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock decided to be more aggressive in filling some of his team’s holes. The year’s rookie class had impressed and inspired hope for the future, something that had been lacking around the organization for too long – the Raiders linebacker corps.

While Derek Carr will always be there to shoulder blame from the fans, the real issues with the Raiders have been on the defensive side of the ball. In 2019, the Raiders allowed the 9th most points in the league (419) and allowed 41.2% of all drives (6th worst) to end in an offensive score.

Linebacker duo Tahir Whitehead and Nicholas Morrow were overmatched in the role they were asked to play and the team needed to decide if they wanted to rebuild that position group through free agency or the draft. Whitehead was cut and the team moved forward.

Shoring Up the Leaky Defense

The Raiders entered the offseason knowing that they needed to improve on that side of the ball and they were not shy in going after their targets. On March 23rd the team announced that they had acquired linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and two days later Corey Littleton was added to the team. The two free-agent signings would help improve on the former duo.

Las Vegas Raiders linebacker corps Nick Kwiatkoski
Nick Kwiatkoski has been a good addition, when healthy, for the Raiders.

Both players were coming off of successful seasons that had fans and management excited alike. Littleton had been named second-team All-Pro in 2018 and continued that stellar play into 2019. He registered interceptions, sacks, a monster number of tackles, and would hopefully be the answer to those tight ends that the Raiders always had trouble containing.

Kwiatkoski had just enjoyed a breakout season on a stingy Bears defense where he was pushed down the depth chart. The Raiders offered him an opportunity to embrace a larger role and within two days the team had turned their linebacker core from a weakness to a strength.

How It’s Going so Far?

Even with all the offseason acquisitions and the maturing of the young core, the Raiders defense has taken a step backward this season. Through seven weeks the unit is allowing 32.8 points per game, making it extremely tough to win games even when the offense performs well.

On the other hand, Littleton has been a massive disappointment. Despite leading the team in total tackles, he has been negative in pass coverage and has not shown off that versatility that he displayed with the Rams.

Kwiatksoki has made an impact when healthy- he missed two games with a pectoral injury – and the defense takes a noticeable step down when he’s not on the field. He has 18 total tackles over those four games and has also recorded two pass deflections.

On the other hand, Littleton has been a massive disappointment. Despite leading the team in total tackles, he has been a negative in pass coverage and has not shown off that versatility that he displayed with the Rams. He has not recorded a pass deflection or interception yet this year and his run stuffing ability has not been very strong either.

Littleton has played every snap for this Raiders defense and the team needs a huge turnaround very soon. He is supposed to be a leader on the field and instead has been costing the team big plays. For whatever reason – and I’m sure many fans will be blaming DC Paul Guenther – Littleton hasn’t clicked and it’s time for a big change.

The Next Step

After allowing 45 points to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coach Gruden sent the media into a frenzy when he said “everything is on the table” regarding defensive changes. For those that were hoping this would lead to a new defensive coordinator, you may be disappointed. The Raiders linebacker corps is part of the problem and needs to show over the next few weeks that it is making progress.

It seems the team wants to adjust the scheme and personnel before they make any larger coaching decisions. Still, the question remains, how many adjustments need to fail before the root of the issue is addressed?