ALAMEDA (AP) — Middle linebacker Derrick Johnson isn’t as troubled as most people seem to be by the Oakland Raiders’ lack of a pass rush.
The way Johnson sees it, there are other ways for the defense to impact games.
Yet with only two sacks in two games, Johnson also realizes something has to change.
“It’s a lot of ways to contribute to being a really good defense besides getting sacks,” Johnson said Thursday. “Don’t get me wrong, sacks help big time but red zone defense is a big part of being a really good defense. Turnovers for sure. It’s still early.”
Oakland’s pass rush, or lack thereof, has been heavily scrutinized since the team traded 2016 defensive player of the year Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears a week before the season opener.
Mack has had a sack and a forced fumble in each of his first two games while helping the Bears to an NFL-leading 10 sacks. Mack also scored a touchdown in his Chicago debut against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
Conversely, the Raiders pass rush has been sparse at best. Defensive end Bruce Irvin got to Rams quarterback Jared Goff for a coverage sack in Week 1 while rookie defensive lineman Maurice Hurst dropped Case Keenum in Week 2.
Like Johnson, Oakland defensive coordinator Paul Guenther believes there are other ways for the Raiders to be effective. During Guenther’s stint as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator, the Bengals had more than 33 sacks only twice in four seasons but finished in the top 20 overall three times.
“Obviously you’d like to have sacks but if you really look at it, when you look at the statistics year in and year out, the teams that are up there in sacks aren’t necessarily playoff teams. A lot of times they’re not,” Guenther said. “You’d always like to get a number of sacks. It kind of feeds off each other and the kind of personnel you have. That’s not the most important thing but obviously you want to get after the opposing quarterback.”
Oakland has forced only one turnover in two games. The Raiders are also 26th in defensive third-down efficiency, allowing opponents to convert 12 of 27 opportunites.
Johnson said there is a sense of urgency in Oakland’s locker room, although the 35-year-old sounds more concerned with the Raiders’ inability to stop the Broncos on their game-winning drive in the final seconds last week than he is about the pass rush.
“Really the last two games the first half was pretty good team effort but we have to finish the close ones, win the close ones,” Johnson said. “As a defense we have to be hoping for that situation, saying, ‘Hey, if we stop them it’s over.’ It’s not the whole defense. It’s a play here, a play there. Not being tight enough here or communication. Just a little something on each play of that last drive hurt us.”
With nine new starters and a 10th — Irvin — playing a different position than he did a year ago, the argument could be made the Raiders are still going through growing pains.
Johnson isn’t buying it.
“That’s too easy of an excuse,” Johnson said. “We’ve been together for a little bit. We know the plays. We just have to execute better. Our defensive coordinator knows we can do that. We need to help him out by making some plays. We have to make plays.”