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Graney: Coach’s guidance has Raiders D-line among NFL’s best

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock once said Rod Marinelli needs to smell the grass of a football field. That he has to have his hands on players, seeing what sort of motor each has.

That he coaches up the undrafted free agent just as hard as the first-round pick. That he cares what kind of fathers they are, husbands they are, brothers they are. That they’re his guys.

Yeah. Those guys are all kinds of good right now.

“They all hold each other accountable to play a certain way,” Marinelli said. “Level, speed, intensity. They all work their skill level, over and over, every day. They don’t make many mistakes. That’s how you win. Great effort takes no talent. None. Zero. But when you have it, you have a chance.”

This was the plan

One of the finest defensive line coaches in NFL history is overseeing a unit that has as much to do with the team’s 4-2 start as anything. Perhaps more in some ways.

The Raiders next meet Philadelphia on Sunday at Allegiant Stadium, where a side that has produced some of the league’s best edge rushers this season will attempt to make things miserable for Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts.

This is was the plan entering 2021. The Raiders needed to generate more of a pass rush. Needed to at least bother if not downright hit and drop the opposing quarterback far more than previous years.

They’re doing so under the guidance of Marinelli, who joined the coaching staff in February 2020.

“He’s such a unique man,” said defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. “It’s not just football. It’s building a mindset. He can relate to all walks of life, no matter where they come from or what kinds of lives they have had.

“Players trust him. He coaches them hard and is very demanding. Anything different and they would quickly catch on.”

Marinelli is 72 and yet seamlessly relates to much younger men. He gathers them each Saturday night before a Sunday kickoff for 20 minutes or so to talk about how they can become better leaders and role models.

On the field, things couldn’t be much better right now.

It has been a mixture of superb play from returning and new players, a retooled group whose numbers are certainly supporting expectations. The line has produced 15½ of the team’s 16 sacks. That ranks sixth across the league.

Think about it: According to Pro Football Focus, Maxx Crosby is the NFL’s top-rated edge rusher out of 105 eligible players. Yannick Ngakoue ranks 39th; Carl Nassib is 48th.

More numbers: The Raiders have 24 quarterback knockdowns, amazing given they hardly blitz. You can also add 18 tackles for loss, of which 11 are from linemen.

They’re killing it up front.

Man first, player second

The Marinelli doctrine: Build the man first and the football player will follow. That if you only coach talent, the person is apt to lose his sense of responsibility and discipline. That the standard by which you practice during the week should be identical to how you play when a game kicks off. Believe you know what to do and when.

If you accomplish all that, you’ll have a hell of a player.

And, more importantly, citizen.

“(Marinelli) is one of the best men that I have ever been around,” said lineman Solomon Thomas, who signed a one-year deal this past offseason. “He doesn’t try and change a player. He lets us be who we are within the defense. He’s encouraging, believes in us and pours love into us.

“One of the reasons I came here was to be coached by him. It was the best decision.”

Rod Marinelli needs to smell the grass. His guys seem to be just as engaged with embracing all that makes a player — a man — great.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.