ALAMEDA — John Pagano found out his 15-year tenure with the Chargers ended last offseason on social media, when it was reported that new coach Anthony Lynn wanted to go a new direction for his defense.
The Oakland Raiders were the beneficiaries of Pagano’s firing after five years as coordinator.
The Raiders added Pagano to their staff in the offseason as an assistant and he took over as the play-caller late last month after Ken Norton Jr. was fired as coordinator 10 games into the season.
The transformation on defense the past five weeks under Pagano’s leadership in Oakland has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for the Raiders (6-9).
Pagano will hope to extend that run of strong play in the season finale when Oakland visits the Chargers with hopes of spoiling Los Angeles’ playoff hopes.
“I’m excited to be here,” Pagano said Thursday. “I’m excited for the opportunity that’s in front of me now. That’s football. It was time to move on.”
The Raiders were a mess when Pagano took over from Norton following a 33-8 loss in Mexico City to New England. Oakland had become the first team in modern NFL history to fail to intercept a single pass in the first 10 games, ranked last in the NFL in defensive takeaways (four) and 31st in third-down defense (46 percent).
The Raiders had allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 72.3 percent of their passes for a 113.3 passer rating, both of which would rank as the second-worst of all-time.
In the five games since the change, the Raiders rank third in third-down defense (27.7 percent), fourth in yards per play allowed (4.63) and passer rating against (72.1), fifth in yards per game allowed (287) and tied for fifth in sacks (16). Oakland also has five interceptions in that span after getting none under Norton.
“I think when we started this deal out, five weeks ago, we talked about identity, belief and ownership,” Pagano said. “That’s what you want a defense to be, you want to create an identity. Keep building off of it each game, each opportunity you have. Every chance you get, you go rush the passer, you tackle the guy with the football and you try to create turnovers. That’s what you want to be defensively.”
One of the biggest changes has come with the way Pagano has used his players, most notably Sean Smith. Early in the season, Smith struggled against speedy receivers but in recent weeks he has been used almost exclusively against big receivers where his size — he’s 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds — is more effective.
He held Dez Bryant in check two weeks ago and shut out Alshon Jeffery entirely last week. Smith ranks third in the league over the last four weeks, allowing only one catch for every 37 snaps in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.
“That’s just part of the way we’ve approached it,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “Pags has done a good job of getting those guys on the same page and how we’re going to cover certain groups. They’ve responded and done a nice job of executing that on game day.”
The numbers in recent weeks have been boosted by the quality of competition. Oakland took advantage of games against backup quarterbacks Paxton Lynch of Denver, Geno Smith of the Giants and Nick Foles of the Eagles. The Raiders also didn’t have to deal with suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott when they played the Cowboys.
But the defense struggled no matter who they played against early in the season, getting picked apart by quarterbacks like Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco and Tyrod Taylor, who struggled against many other teams. The first 10 quarterbacks Oakland faced had ratings about 25 points higher against the Raiders than their season average.
“I’m a firm believer in this: There’s always guys who think too much,” Pagano said. “You react. In football, you react. If you’re thinking too long, you may think wrong. It gives us the ability to play faster. How do you slow the game down for your guys? You give them a plan that they understand, that they can go fast and go attack. We’ve been building on those things each and every week. I think we can play faster. I think we can even play better.”