The Raiders were busy as usual in the off-season, this time trying to patch together a defense to replace the pathetic 2003 unit that surrendered a league-high 157 rushing yards per game and ranked 30th overall. Oakland went about its latest reclamation project in typical fashion: pursuing players from other clubs, but going particularly hard at the team that succeeded it as the AFC champ last year.
The Raiders signed two of the three defensive linemen who started for the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, end Bobby Hamilton and mountainous tackle Ted Washington (both free agents), and when New England defensive assistant Eric Mangini turned down an offer to become Oakland's defensive coordinator, the Raiders filled the job with another Pats aide, Rob Ryan (son of former NFL coordinator and coach Buddy Ryan). Moreover, two former Pro Bowl defensive players, lineman Warren Sapp ( Tampa Bay) and secondary standout Ray Buchanan ( Atlanta), chose to head for the Bay Area as free agents after a combined 16 years with their former teams.
But can a first-year coordinator get his veteran troops to learn and accept the nuances of the complex 3-4/4-3 scheme in time to build a competitive defense? More specifically, can Sapp, 31, adjust to right end in the three-man front, playing over tackles who are bigger and more athletic than the guards he's accustomed to facing at defensive tackle in the 4--3? Can Buchanan, 32, who has spent his entire career at corner, move seamlessly to safety? Can Washington, 36, who has suffered a broken leg in each of the last two seasons, make it through the year and justify the $14 million contract Oakland gave him?
"I've probably worked for the two best defensive coaches in the history of the game--my dad and [ New England coach] Bill Belichick," Ryan says, "and we're taking a little bit from both of them. We're going to attack the way my dad did, and with all the multiple schemes we'll eventually have, we're going to be awfully similar to New England."
It's imperative that Ryan's defense keep the score down, because it's going to be hard for the Raiders' offense to put up points without a consistent receiving threat or a true No. 1 running back. The Raiders are so thin at receiver that through much of training camp they used a former college quarterback, Ronald Curry, as a third receiver, with green 2003 sixth-rounder Doug Gabriel challenging Curry. Long term, the team hopes that Gabriel, who has deceptive speed and good hands, wins the starting job currently held by Jerry Rice. At running back, 10-year vet Tyrone Wheatley will get first crack, followed by Cowboys reject Troy Hambrick, 2003 third-round draft pick Justin Fargas and scatback Amos Zereoue.
In the 3--4 the defensive front will consist of Sapp, Washington and second-year man Tyler Brayton; in the four-man line it'll probably be Brayton, Washington, Sapp and John Parrella. Hamilton will be a key sub.
Though Washington made no tackles in the Patriots' Super Bowl win over Carolina, he was a force in the game, helping form the wall that held Panthers back Stephen Davis to 49 yards rushing. "I don't think we had a more valuable player that day," Ryan says. But Washington was on the field for only 30% of the defensive snaps last year, missing six games with his broken leg and coming out of the lineup in passing situations. "We're going to be smart about how we use him," says Ryan. But come November, if teams are running on the Raiders, it'll be hard to spot-play Washington. And how much of a break can Ryan give him if he plans to use Washington at nosetackle in the 3--4 and at left tackle in the 4--3?
Sapp, on the other hand, was more penetrator than mauler with the Buccaneers. Conquering left tackles from the end position in the 3--4 is something he never had to do in Tampa. "I don't think it'll fit me like a glove, but I'm going to make it fit," he says. "I just told [the coaches], 'Don't ask me to do something I'm physically unable to do.' They won't."
In the New England--style defense, the pressure from the front seven enables the guys in the back to make plays. That means cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Charles Woodson could be the biggest beneficiaries. "I know [ Patriots cornerback] Ty Law pretty well," says Buchanan, "and last year when I'd call him, he'd tell me that on lots of plays the ball just flew into his lap. As a defensive back, I think this defense is going to be heaven."
Or hell, if the thirtysomethings up front don't hold up for 16 games. --P.K.