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Alameda, Calif. - For all the focus last season on how running back Darren McFadden's season-ending foot injury hampered the Oakland offense, a more overlooked injury had the similar effect on the Raiders defense.
Oakland never adequately replaced defensive end Matt Shaughnessy - the former Norwich Free Academy star - after a season-ending right shoulder injury in the third game of the season, making his return to the practice field on Tuesday a welcome event.
"I think he's the best in the NFL against the run," said teammate Richard Seymour, a seven-time Pro Bowler. "I can't say that against the pass now for all the sacks a lot of the other defensive ends have. In terms of the run I'll put him out there with anyone. He's definitely developed into a complete player. It was a big blow for us when he went down. It messed up our rotation a lot. Guys that weren't normally in there were trying to understand what we were trying to do. To get him back healthy this year is big for us."
Shaughnessy went down while trying to recover a fumble against the New York Jets. He underwent surgery on the shoulder and was placed on season-ending injured reserve.
He spent the voluntary minicamp in April and three weeks of organized team activities as a spectator before finally getting his chance to return to the field Tuesday for the start of a three-day mandatory minicamp.
"It felt good being out there. You got to get used to the tempo, but as soon as that happens, should be smooth," he said. "It's one thing to sit and read it in a book, then it's another thing to come out here and do it. And I think actually doing it physically helps me learn it better."
Shaughnessy, a third-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2009, lacks the name recognition of some of his higher-profile teammates, but he has been extremely productive on the field.
He played mostly as a reserve as a rookie but had four sacks and 4.5 run tackles behind the line as he showed signs of being capable of being an every-down lineman in the NFL. He then started eight games his second season, when he was second on the team with seven sacks and second with 6.5 run stuffs.
The Raiders were expecting big things last season but Shaughnessy got hurt early. Desmond Bryant moved outside to take Shaughnessy's starting spot but that hit Oakland's defensive line depth and Jarvis Moss saw time as a pass rushing specialist.
Oakland is hoping a healthy Shaughnessy can team with Seymour and Tommy Kelly up the middle and Lamarr Houston on the left side to anchor a defense that needs to be much improved if the Raiders are going to contend in the AFC West.
"Once we learn this defense and start playing together, I think it's going to be tough to stop because there's so many different things we can do," Shaughnessy said. "And if we're all on the same page, we're just going to be working faster."
The strength of the team is on the defensive line, where most of last year's key players have returned compared to the changes that have gone on in the back seven under new coach Dennis Allen.
Allen, a former defensive coordinator, is trying to bring a more aggressive style to Oakland that depends on strong play from his stout line.
"The key to playing football in the National Football League is to find ways to affect the quarterback and you do that by rush or coverage," Allen said. "So when you got guys that have the ability to get after the passer, it allows you to do some things in the back end in the coverage aspect."