ALAMEDA, Calif. — Just like Jack Del Rio did, new Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. says he learned much of his philosophy on playing in the NFL from former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson. Norton will need to rely on that and a whole lot more in Oakland.
Hired on Friday just five days after helping coach Seattle in the Super Bowl, Norton inherits a defense that has been mostly mediocre for the past decade.
There were some signs of progress in 2014, most notably in the linebacking corps with Khalil Mack and Sio Moore. The Raiders also have some promising young talent up front to go with veterans like Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith, and ageless safety Charles Woodson is the bright spot in the secondary.
Beyond that, though, Norton has some serious work to do to improve a defense that ranked 21st overall and led the NFL in points allowed.
Johnson faced a similar challenge in Dallas when he took over a defense that ranked 20th overall in 1988. During Johnson’s five seasons in Texas, the Cowboys had a top-10 defense three times and owned the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense in 1992.
Norton plans to use much of what he learned from Johnson now that he’s in Oakland.
“There is no question, you have to get everything you can out of each and every individual,” Norton said. “(Johnson) treated everybody differently, and he really knew how to celebrate everyone’s uniqueness. He made it clear that he loved you when you were making plays. If you weren’t making plays, he was going to get rid of you.”
That will be a change from what the Raiders have done in the past. They historically have overpaid players, inexplicably kept underachieving players in the lineup, and tried to make do with outdated schemes and philosophies.
Oakland’s defense made minimal progress under Jason Tarver. With Norton — who also credits Seattle coach Pete Carroll for his development as a coach — the unit is expected to make an even bigger jump.
Specifically, the Raiders need to improve their pass rush and the play in the secondary. Those two areas are tied together, meaning upgrading one will have a trickle-down effect on the other.
There is concern in the secondary, where Woodson is the lone starter from 2014 guaranteed of coming back. Safety Tyvon Branch could be a salary-cap casualty, and cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers are free agents.
Tackling has been another issue in Oakland. Norton, one of the fiercest tacklers in the NFL when he played, should be able to improve that over time.
More than anything, Norton hopes to bring some swagger and physical aggression to the defense.
“No question,” Norton said. “We’ve had a lot of success. You watch our defenses (in Seattle) over the last few years, how physical, how smart, how dominant they’ve been up front, out-hitting, out-hustling and doing all these aggressive things. Jack has a fantastic background with his defense as well.”