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Paul Guenther is hoping John Pagano will be his Tony Dungy.

Guenther is the Raiders’ new defensive coordinator under head coach Jon Gruden. Gruden owns a Super Bowl ring, mostly because the last time he coached in Oakland, he soon found himself in the catbird’s seat when then-owner Al Davis traded him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002.

That Bucs team had one of the greatest and most revolutionary defenses in NFL history. It was designed by Dungy, Gruden’s predecessor in Tampa, and it helped Gruden exact revenge against the Raiders by throttling them in the Super Bowl.

Now Gruden has arrived for Act II, and one of his first moves was hiring Guenther, who most recently was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.

If the situation that greets Guenther in Alameda is less than dire, the thanks must go to Pagano. Not a job, because there has been no indication Pagano will join Gruden’s staff. But lots and lots of thanks.

It was Pagano who found the keys to unlocking the Oakland defense last season. If Guenther can locate that keychain — perhaps it’s buried next to Tony Sparano’s football — he may be on his way to coordinating a Raiders rebirth.

I spoke briefly to Guenther over prime rib in the Raiders’ dining hall on Jan. 9, the day Gruden descended from the heavens to take his rightful place at team headquarters. But that was mere chitchat. Wednesday, Guenther engaged in his first real dialogue with Bay Area reporters, on a conference call arranged by the Raiders.

He spoke with a bit of the swagger that has made Gruden a legend on both the sidelines and the TV screen.

“I do want to say Cincinnati made a strong push to keep me there, but the opportunity to come out here with Jon and start this thing from the ground up was way too intriguing, and I just looked at it as an opportunity I couldn’t refuse,” Guenther said.

The new defensive coordinator said he has watched all of the Raiders videotape from 2017, and can use it as a “thermometer” to gauge the unit’s health. That’s a hard instrument to interpret, though, because the thermometer offered such different readings throughout the season.

Over the first 10 games, when Ken Norton Jr. was running the defense, it was a leaky dam. The Raiders generated little pass rush, failed to intercept a single pass (a record for futility to start an NFL season) and had a hard time getting off the field, which is something defenses generally like to do.

Then Pagano took over. Head coach Jack Del Rio dismissed Norton on Nov. 21, following an embarrassing loss to the Patriots in Mexico City, and installed Pagano, whose primary job to that point had been standing just behind Norton and breathing on his neck.

Midseason coaching changes, at any level of the hierarchy, are rarely effective. That’s especially true at the coordinator positions, because you can’t exactly take a red pen to the playbook and move around all the Xs and Os with no time for installation. Pagano didn’t try for an overhaul. He just tinkered a bit. And yet he somehow reinvented the Oakland defense. It was like everyone on that side of ball opened a can of spinach in Week 12.

The Raiders gave up 367.1 yards per game under Norton, and just 320 under Pagano. They averaged 1.4 sacks and 0.6 takeaways per game under Norton; they doubled both numbers under Pagano, to 2.8 sacks and 1.3 takeaways. Some of those were even interceptions.

So there is hope for Guenther, and pressure. Gruden’s task (and offensive coordinator Greg Olson’s, too) is to mold Derek Carr back into a top quarterback. Guenther’s is to build on the aggressive scheme Pagano launched in 2017, and to expand it.

Part of his mission will be to improve the Oakland secondary, which has been largely dreadful the past two seasons. But that may partially be solved by the healing capacity of the human body. The Raiders drafted two defensive backs, cornerback Gareon Conley and safety Obi Melifonwu, in the first two rounds a year ago. But injuries limited Conley to two games and Melifonwu to five.

Guenther noted that Conley was “probably my favorite corner coming out last year.” He needs both youngsters to play in 2018.

“I am going to tell the trainers to turn the temperature down to about 60 degrees in the training room this year so we can keep them guys out of there,” Guenther said.

But Guenther’s biggest priority will be to unleash Khalil Mack, the Raiders’ brilliant defensive end. Two years ago, Mack was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year, even as his unit ranked 26th in total defense. Imagine a quarterback being named Offensive Player of the Year while his team ranked 26th in yardage. It wouldn’t happen. Yet Mack totally deserved the honor.

Mack was good last year, too. He registered 10½ sacks and consistently pushed blockers off the line. But he didn’t make nearly as many impact plays as he had the year before. That started to changed when Pagano took over. Much more effectively than Norton, he found ways to get other Raiders involved in the pass rush, specifically outside linebacker Bruce Irvin and defensive lineman Denico Autry.

The Bengals logged 41 sacks under Guenther in 2017, and they did it while blitzing just 14 percent of the time — the lowest figure in the NFL. Guenther said Wednesday that he loves blitzes and has “every blitz in the book up on my board here.” But he’d prefer not to dip into them much.

“Really, what I’d like to try to do is get Khalil Mack one-on-one,” Guenther said. “That’s more of a blitz to me than anything, to get him on a tight end or a running back or a tackle that we feel we love the matchup on. To me, that’s where the NFL has evolved in some ways because everyone says that the blitz numbers are down, but the pressures are up. That’s really the number I’m looking for.”

If Guenther can bring the heat without taking linebackers out of coverage, he will be hailed as a hero in Oakland. Pagano, meanwhile, will be a mere footnote. It isn’t fair, but it’s the way the NFL works. Just ask Tony Dungy.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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