Raiders seek answers to struggling D
ALAMEDA, Calif. — The Raiders’ latest attempt at injecting energy in a struggling defense is a fifth-round draft pick formerly known as the “diabolical defender.”
Ben Heeney was the one constant at Kansas, which changed head coaches three times in his four seasons and went 9-39. Amidst the turmoil, Heeney made so many tackles the school produced a website called Captainheeney.com that included nicknames, a biography, stories and statistics.
The website is gone, but playing with the Raiders is familiar territory for Heeney. Elevated to a regular role in last week’s 18-13 loss to Detroit Lions, Heeney’s appeal after getting seven tackles and a sack in 38 snaps is his snap-to-whistle aggression.
Whatever mistakes Heeney made were at full-speed in what coach Jack Del Rio termed “an effort-filled performance.”
It’s been that way since high school for a relatively undersized (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) inside linebacker who along with fellow rookie Neiron Ball could fit in to the Raiders’ long-term plans as Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. attempt to construct a defense similar in scheme to the Seattle Seahawks.
Seattle’s defense features linebackers such as Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright who make plays all over the field, and speed is a pre-requisite for the position.
“Ben can run, and he’s a guy that always runs full speed and when he hits you he’s at full speed,” said Randy Dreiling, his coach at Hutchinson, Kansas, High School.
Asked if Heeney fits the Seattle prototype, Norton, the former linebackers coach with the Seahawks, said, “Absolutely … a combination of speed, talent and smarts. He has that ability. Now it’s a matter of getting him some experience.”
Heeney led the Raiders in tackles in three of four preseason games, then didn’t play more than two snaps on defense until the Detroit game. Aldon Smith, a starting outside lineabacker was out after being suspended for a year, and Ray-Ray Armstrong, a one-time starter, was benched as a prelude to being waived.
When the Raiders visit the Tennessee Titans today, Heeney will once again get extended time and a chance to prove he fits into the Raiders’ long-term plans.
“At first I needed to get my keys right and make sure I’m a dependable guy so I know what I’m doing,” Heeney said. “I think I’ve shown I can be dependable now, which is why I’m getting a lot more opportunities.”
The linebackers have been a mix-and-match situation for the Raiders all season. The one constant as been former Seahawk Malcolm Smith, who plays on virtually every down.
Free-agent inside linebacker Curtis Lofton has seen his playing time reduced because of coverage issues. Ball, who proved he could help with coverage on tight ends before a knee injury, has missed the last four games and isn’t expected to face Tennessee, either.
Heeney hopes to take this opportunity and run with it as he did as a high school running back.
A starting strong safety as a sophomore and junior, Heeney was moved to running back by Dreiling as a senior and rushed for 2,089 yards and 39 touchdowns.
Moved to linebacker at Kansas, Heeney made a name for himself on special teams as a freshman before becoming a regular on defense — the same path he has followed so far with the Raiders.
At the NFL scouting combine, Heeney turned heads with a 4.59 time in the 40-yard dash. He told reporters he patterned his game after Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, and his effort-level and playmaking was compared to Chris Borland, a standout rookie for the 49ers in 2014 who abruptly retired.
With three head coaches and six different coordinators in college, Heeney on one hand was never allowed to settle in to one scheme but on the other hand learned how to be adaptable.
“You can’t just turn it loose at this level,” Heeney said. “You have to be disciplined. But once I see the ball I’m going to go get it.”