ALAMEDA, Calif. — To say Tahir Whitehead scoffs at the notion that he might be overwhelmed by the “new” responsibility of wearing the green-dot communications helmet as the Oakland Raiders‘ defensive playcaller … well, that would be an understatement.
And then some.
Especially because Whitehead — technically a strongside linebacker in the Raiders’ 4-3 scheme — is in his eighth NFL season and there are only two seasons in which he has not been the playcaller.
“That’s what people fail to understand — this s— is not foreign to me,” Whitehead said this week. “People ask, How does it feel to wear the green dot? I’ve been wearing the damn green dot.”
— Paul Gutierrez (@PGutierrezESPN) October 16, 2019
Thin as in undrafted rookie Justin Phillips, who spent training camp with the Dallas Cowboys until being cut and signing with the Raiders’ practice squad on Sept. 1 before being elevated to the 53-man roster on Sept. 25, is the lone middle linebacker on Oakland’s roster.
“It’s something I’ve prepared for my whole career — wanted to take on that role of being a middle linebacker, and kind of regulating the defense,” Phillips said. “Of course, we’ve got veteran guys that are doing that right now. So, I’m just learning, talking the opportunity to learn.
“Communication is the thing out there. As long as we’re able to communicate, things will be able to run smoothly.”
But while the Raiders are technically a 4-3 defense, they are in their nickel defense so often that a third linebacker is not needed, not with Whitehead and Nicholas Morrow the two linebackers in that alignment.
“You’ve got to have linebackers, you know?” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said this week through clenched teeth. “Any time someone comes out and wants to play old-fashioned, big-boy football, you’ve got to have linebackers.
“Losing Burfict’s big. I’m still not happy about it. Just not happy about it. We believe in player safety here, I’ll say that. We coach it, we believe in it, we really stress it. But 12 games? I’m not happy about that. I’m not happy about it. It is what it is. We’ll get [Phillips] and Dakota Allen and whoever the next man up is and get him ready to go.”
Allen is another relative newbie to the LB corps, having been signed off the Los Angeles Rams‘ practice squad Sept. 25. Combined, Allen — who is listed as Whitehead’s backup at SAM linebacker — and Phillips have a combined zero tackles in … wait for it, zero defensive snaps this season.
That could cause some sleepless nights for Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, no?
“We have some young guys in there,” Guenther said. “It’s like anything else. Whenever something happens, it’s for every team, one guy goes down, next guy’s got to go up and the standard’s got to stay the same all the way across.”
The only other linebacker on the roster is special teams standout Kyle Wilber, while Quentin Poling is on the practice squad. Marquel Lee, who has started at middle linebacker in the past, went on injured reserve with an ankle injury on Sept. 24.
Should the Raiders designate Lee for return, he could not play again until Nov. 24 at the New York Jets at the earliest.
Until then, the Raiders must make do with what they have, continuing this weekend against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. And Whitehead, who will not put a tag on himself regarding a specific linebacker position, is fine with it.
“I play linebacker,” Whitehead said. “I believe in versatility. We control our effort.
“Guys are being cross-trained to know all three positions … so you’ve got to be able to bounce around. It doesn’t matter who is listed at what. If you understand the scheme and where the fits are in the defense you can go out there and play any position. We’re all ready and you’ve got to be ready to be able to go in and play wherever we’re needed.”