Raiders rookies provide needed inside rush
NAPA, Calif. (AP) — P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst wasted little time providing the inside pass rush that Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden wanted when he used two draft picks on the defensive tackles.
Hall delivered on his first snap as a pro, bringing down Detroit’s Matt Cassel in the exhibition opener. Hurst got pressure twice with one of those leading to Hall deflecting a pass by Cassel.
That’s an ingredient that has been sorely missing in Oakland for years and will go a long way toward upgrading a defense that hopes to be much improved in the first year under Gruden and coordinator Paul Guenther.
“I was pleased with it,” Gruden said Monday. “I think it’s an area that we’ve gone out to try to improve and we have a long way to go. But, there were some good signs.”
The Raiders drafted Hall in the second round after he recorded 42 sacks in his college career at FCS-level Sam Houston State. Oakland then was able to add another potential impact rusher in the fifth round when Hurst fell from a projected first-round pick because of a heart issue that led him to be sent home from the combine.
Hurst was one of the most productive defensive players in the country last season at Michigan. He had 5½ sacks as an interior rusher and led all nose tackles and defensive tackles with 49 total quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Hurst has had no health issues since being drafted and delivered just what the Raiders expected.
“He’s going to continue to get better,” Gruden said. “I think going up against (Kelechi) Osemele and Gabe Jackson and (Rodney) Hudson all camp has made him better. It’s made him stronger. It’s made him play with better technique and leverage. He still has a ways to go but he and P.J. Hall both give us an element that we need here.”
The Raiders have the second-fewest sacks in the NFL the past two seasons with just 56 — one more than the last-place New York Jets. Nearly two-thirds of those sacks have come from Khalil Mack (21 1/2) and Bruce Irvin (15), as the edge players have gotten almost no help from the inside rushers.
Oakland had just 1 1/2 sacks last year from players playing inside full-time, making the performance in the preseason opener so encouraging.
Hall’s sack came on the opening drive when Cassel was forced to step up in the pocket because of outside pressure by Irvin and Fadol Brown. Hall figures more of those opportunities will come, especially once Mack ends his holdout and rejoins the team.
“I definitely feel that will help a lot,” he said. “He’s a great edge rusher. He will make the quarterbacks step up in the pocket so I need to make sure I get a good interior rush.”
The interior rush is a key part of Guenther’s defense. He had one of the best in the game at it during his time in Cincinnati when Geno Atkins anchored the Bengals defense.
Hurst said he has tried to model his game after Atkins and embraces the challenge of trying to fill that role in Oakland.
“Definitely gets me amped up,” he said. “The Bengals, their best player was their 3-technique, so that’s the focal point of their defense and that’s what Coach Guenther is used to getting. That’s what he’s got his whole time in the NFL. He drafted Geno, so I think it says something to him for drafting me and P.J. I think he definitely expects a lot from us and expects us to fill that role that he had while he was with the Bengals.”
NOTES: CB Gareon Conley returned to practice for the first time since injuring his hip on the first day of training camp. ... CB Daryl Worley left practice after colliding with teammate Rashaan Melvin.
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