TOM CABLE isn't afraid of being unorthodox. The Raiders' coach opened training camp with eight consecutive walk-throughs before finally allowing his players to go full pads and hit each other. The strategy caused some coaches around the league to scratch their heads, but Cable, the former offensive line coach who took over when Lane Kiffin was fired last September, wanted to make sure his players were up to speed on their assignments so they could play fast and loose once the contact commences.
His approach to improving a defense that ranked among the league's worst for the past two seasons could be viewed as unconventional too. Instead of bringing in mass reinforcements or dismissing underachievers, Cable focused primarily on his staff. John Marshall, a 30-year NFL assistant who was the Seahawks' defensive coordinator for the last three years, takes over for the departed Rob Ryan.
"I love the players we have on that side of the ball," Cable says. "We have terrific talent in the secondary, a good front seven that can run, and we've got plenty of size down the middle. The big issue to me is—and maybe this fits in the discipline category—if you're defending the B gap [between the guard and the tackle], then by God be in the B gap. Don't be somewhere else trying to do someone else's job. Structure and discipline are definitely our issues."
The noncontact work over the first eight practices was primarily for the defense's sake. In past seasons there were too many Raiders defenders playing for stats or themselves; it wasn't uncommon during position drills for the linemen to break the huddle by calling out, "Sacks!" Then they'd shake their heads on Sundays after another opponent gashed them for big gains on the ground.
Oakland has ranked 22nd or worse against the run every year since 2002 and was 31st each of the past two seasons, allowing an average of 145.9 yards in '07 and 159.7 in '08. In '08 the Raiders surrendered 65 runs of 10 or more yards, including a league-high 11 for touchdowns. They also allowed six backs to gain 100 or more yards. Perhaps not coincidentally they were 1--5 in those games and 4--6 in all others.
Marshall, with Cable's backing, is preaching selflessness and accountability. When players are asked to specify how the defense will look different, they stammer and speak in vague terms. But there is no uncertainty when it comes to discussing the difference in preparation. "The coaches are actually teaching run fits [players' basic responsibilities against the run]," says cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. "Not just teaching it, but stressing it and going over the basics of where everybody should be. That does seem fundamental, but what I'm hearing from the guys is that it's never been this detailed before."
Tackles Tommy Kelly and Gerard Warren have taken a lot of heat for Oakland's struggles against the rush—at times rightfully so—but the ends also failed to consistently hold the point of attack. That could be a problem again this year because new starters Trevor Scott (promoted from backup) and Greg Ellis (signed as a free agent) are known more for their pass rushing than for stopping the run.
Marshall and new D-line coach Dwaine Board are steeped in the 4--3 scheme that Raiders owner Al Davis prefers. Ryan had a more varied background, having spent time in a 3--4 system with New England. The significance? "We have [coaches] who've been around the league a long time and have seen the way the 4--3 is supposed to be run," says fourth-year linebacker Thomas Howard. "They've seen it done right, and they've seen it done wrong—so they know when it's wrong what has to be done to get it right."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS