The Raiders began the year with a historically bad run on the defensive side of the ball. After giving up 500 yards for two games in a row against the Falcons, head coach Jack Del Rio vowed that there were going to be changes made. One of those changes was the insertion of 6th round draft pick Cory James. Not only is James a rookie in the NFL, he is relatively new playing the linebaker position. He played as mostly an edge defender in college before making the switch.
In his first game as a starter, he recorded seven tackles, but most importantly the Raiders only gave up ten points, an enormous improvement from the first two weeks. He isnâ€™t the sole reason for the defensive resurgence, but as the man in the middle, he is a huge part of it. In his second game a starter against the Ravens, he recorded an impressive 15 tackles and flashed some elite ability.
Block Recognition and Shed
On the play above, James saw the tight end and tackle down block so he stepped up and filled the vacated area while keeping his shoulders squared to line. A pull guard tried to block him and his experience as an edge defender showed up, as he shed the block and made the tackle. This play is perfect from a technical and effort stand point. It illustrated his ability to read blocks and shed a block, which not a lot of linebackers are good at. Block shedding might be one of the traits that could make him a special inside linebacker in the future.
Coach Del Rio said one of the major problems that the Raiders defense had the first two weeks were players committing â€śeye violationsâ€?. Eye violations are when players are not looking at their keys and just staring into the backfield. When players arenâ€™t reading their keys they are susceptible to falling for play fakes or not being able to see a screen develop. A linebacker should be reading his keys which could be a linemen, running back, or both.
Iâ€™m not exactly sure how James read the tunnel screen above so quickly because he started running to the tunnel screen before the linemen even released. If he was committing an â€śeye violationâ€? he might have fallen for the play fake from quarterback, Joe Flacco. This play might be a result of film studying and knowing situations and tendencies combined with reading keys. It is really an impressive, instinctual play.
The Raiders play a lot of zone defense and earlier in the year, linebackers wouldnâ€™t get enough depth on their drops and let tight ends run right past them. This is a result of them staring into the backfield and not reading pass soon enough. Also by staring into the backfield, they arenâ€™t able to drop back as quick and donâ€™t know where to drop back because they have no idea where the receivers are behind them.
James showed above that he could be the potential to be an exceptional pass defender because of his reading skills. On the play, he initially bit on the play action, but once he read pass he got his eye back to the receiver while sprinting back, before getting his head back to the ball and covering his zone.
The jury is still out on James, but he has impressed not only because of his production, but because of how he is is producing. He is doing it the â€śrightâ€? way, by being technically sound and smart. Those traits are evidence that his production is repeatable. If he continues to play the way he is playing, one of the Raidersâ€™ inside backer positions could be a strength for years to come.