The impetus behind this shift was improved play from select position groups, most notably the defensive backs, running backs, and defensive line, with the latter providing the backbone for all else to hang on.
The D-line itself was an interesting story that featured all of the parts that a hip team-of-heroes flick might … the super-talented leader who has seen it all (Richard Seymour,) the underachiever who finally got his mind right (Tommy Kelly,) the brash and unpredictable kid (Lamarr Houston,) and the unassuming, overlooked stud (Matt Shaughnessy.)
It’s time now to shine light on that least-known piece of a line that has quickly become one of the NFL’s best. Matt Shaughnessy is the Secret Superstar for the Oakland Raiders.
The book on Shaughnessy coming out of Wisconsin was that he was capable as both a pass rusher and as a run stopper, just not outstanding in either facet. Also, with injury questions and a build that some considered too light for a 4-3 defensive end, there were fit concerns that pushed his expected draft slot into the fourth round. Oakland, however, selected him with the seventh pick in 2009’s third round and signed him to a four-year deal.
Upon arrival, Shaughnessy was slotted into the left side, playing on the second team behind veteran Greg Ellis. Seeing time in just 37% of the team’s defensive snaps that season, he had to impress in sporadic moments of opportunity.
When given the chance, Shaughnessy showed himself to be a surprisingly stout run defender on the edge, and, though he had added a bit of bulk, his strength was most apparent. Able to control and come off of blockers and use his reach to latch on to runners, he appeared instantly comfortable against NFL competition.
With a pair of particularly strong games against division rivals Denver and San Diego (combined nine tackles, seven stops and two sacks in those contests) whispers suggested a larger role was on the horizon.
The Raider defensive line experienced an overhaul prior to the 2010 season. Gone were starters Ellis and Gerard Warren as well as rotational end Jay Richardson. Seymour bumped inside to take over the right defensive tackle spot and rookie Lamarr Houston was plugged in at left end. Shaughnessy moved to the right side to share time with flip-flopping DE/OLB Trevor Scott and the pair gave way to Kamerion Wimbley on third downs.
Now in his second season, Shaughnessy was making a living as an early-down specialist, again playing especially well against the ground game. He was simply doing everything right when faced with runs to his side: sliding off of blocks, compressing lanes, and stringing plays to the sideline. As a pass rusher, though, he was not generating much of an effect. While he did have five sacks in the first nine weeks, he only created four other pressures in 105 pass rush chances.
When Scott went down with an injury in Week 11, the door was opened for Shaughnessy to take on a legitimate starting role. His per-game snap percentage jumped from 49% as a split-timer to over 83% during the next six games. That Week 11 game against Pittsburgh, in fact, was where he earned his best grade for the season (+6.3 overall and a huge +5.7 in Run D), stepping up when most needed.
His first assignment as the full-time right end came, unfortunately for him, against Miami’s Jake Long. 80 painful snaps later, Shaughnessy was staring at his worst day as a pro. He got nothing done that afternoon, unable to shake the grasp of the game’s best left tackle.
Getting past that game, the remainder of his season was on track. His run defense was remarkable: Shaughnessy finished among the 4-3 DE leaders in overall run defense grade (ranked No. 5) and in stops (his 36 were seventh-best.) Increased action in passing situations allowed for his improving skills there to be seen as well. While starting those final games, he added 20 quarterback disruptions to his first half totals and his Pass Rushing Productivity score jumped from 7.62 in the early games to 9.60 down the stretch.
Gotta Wear Shades
Having demonstrated his ability as a run defender and flashing his pass-rushing potential in these two seasons, Shaughnessy was named to PFF’s All-Sophomore Team and the smart money says there are even brighter days ahead. He’ll likely never develop into a super-hyped threat that strikes fear in left tackles across the league, but he very well could end up as one of the most well-rounded 4-3 ends in the NFL.
With bigger names and bigger paychecks nearby, it’s easy to look past Shaughnessy when checking in with the Raider D-Line, but the time is coming for him and Houston–the youngsters in this group–to take over.
In the meantime, Seymour and Kelly will get the headlines, leaving Shaughnessy’s impact a relative secret.