Programming note: Watch Monday’s Raiders press conference with head coach Dennis Allen streaming live right here at 1 p.m.
What you need to know: General manager Reggie McKenzie assembled this defense during a clearance sale. Strapped for cash and reputable talent, McKenzie stockpiled reclamation projects, outcasts in search of second life on short-term, team-friendly deals.
The Raiders started the season with nine new defensive starters, a number now swollen to 10 without strong safety Tyvon Branch. Outside aging free safety Charles Woodson, this unit has no star power.
No matter. It has grit and heart and a creative coaching staff in its corner.
Few, if any, expected this defense to play this well. After seven games, the Raiders are a legitimate top-10 defense with room to grow.
Sunday’s 21-18 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was won with defensive stands despite an offense that got lost in the second half.
The Raiders forced two turnovers. They sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times and harassed him incessantly. They held Pittsburgh to 35 yards rushing and 1.8 yards per carry.
This was no aberration, especially against the run. Sunday marked the third time the Raiders have held a team under 40 yards rushing (surprise, surprise, the Raiders won each game). It was also the third time they’ve had at least four or more sacks.
“I’ve been pleased with what I’ve seen, and I knew coming into this season that this football team had the right mindset,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. “I knew we had pros that wanted to come to work every day, that were going to be unselfish, that were going to put the team first. I knew we didn’t have a lot of big names; we probably wouldn’t do very good in Hollywood, but I knew they were football players. They’ve done a great job for us so far. We’re almost halfway through the season, so we have a long way to go, but I’m hopeful that they’ll continue to improve.”
Make no mistake. These Raiders aren’t the 1985 Bears. They aren’t a great defense, but they are pretty good. They defend as one. They blitz effectively and can generate heat with a standard four-man rush.
The secondary, however, is the key. This versatile group is part of the blitz package without sacrificing on the back end, with savvy veteran corners and a safety in Woodson who sets the tone.
With a young offense bound to make mistakes, the Raiders must rely on defense to get through tough times. That happened during Sunday’s second half, when play calling went conservative and the offense ran cold. It will happen again before the season’s out, and the defense must be ready to take the lead.
“I think we’re a good defense, we still have a lot of room for improvement,” Woodson said. ”…We’ve been able to put some wins together and played some really good defensive games. I think the guys on this defense and the coaches will still go back and say, ‘hey, how can we eliminate the touchdowns?’ If we can do that we’re talking about being even better.”
Second-half blues: The Raiders have struggled mightily in the latter stages of games. Whether they’re struggling to make adjustments, getting worse due to injury or going to conservative to sustain leads, the Raiders don’t function well when it matters most.
They’ve been outscored 63-10 in the second half of the last four games. They scored first in each game and established double-digit leads in three of four.
Try as they might, the Raiders just can’t finish strong. That has to change with a respectable record now a real possibility. The next step in this team’s evolution must be finishing strong and developing a killer instinct when opponents are down.
“It’s been a recurring theme this season,” Woodson said. “We’ve talked extensively about finishing games, and this was a prime example of getting up on a team and letting them back in the game. It shouldn’t have been close, but we allowed that to happen. We have to learn that, when we get up on a team, we have to keep them down and come out with wins.”
Play of the Game: This was an easy selection. Terrelle Pryor’s 93-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game set the tone for a crucial victory over Pittsburgh.
Pryor glided toward the end zone untouched thanks to three key components: Pittsburgh’s over-aggressiveness, a new look in the read option, and an excellent block by receiver Rod Streater.
The Steelers bit hard on a fake to running back Darren McFadden in part because of a pulling guard. The Raiders typically use zone blocking on the read option, so having Mike Brisiel pull left made them believe a standard handoff was on its way. That’s why Pittsburgh crashed so hard on McFadden.
Problem was, Pryor was running the other way.
Only strong safety Troy Polamalu stood in Pryor’s way, but Streater held his block long enough for Pryor to sneak by and turn on the afterburners.
“A lot of talk all week about turning McFadden back and everybody was revved up for that,” Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said. “It’s a good job by him to read the option and pull it. Even if you’re excited about stopping McFadden, you have to understand the beast that’s playing quarterback. You have to understand what he brings to the game and that that’s a part of their game and that they can do that. Once a guy like him gets in front of the whole defense, he has legit 4.4 (speed). It just looks slow because he’s (6-foot-4), but he was moving.”
The play loomed large as the day wore on. Pittsburgh hacked into a 21-3 halftime deficit while the offense grinded its gears against a solid Steelers defense.
“That was a huge play in the game,” Allen said. “To be able to start off and get that type of momentum in a game against a defense where you know they haven’t given up a lot of explosive plays.”
Player of the Game: Several Raiders deserve a game ball. Center Stefen Wisniewski deserves one for keeping Terrelle Pryor upright with excellent pass protection calls against a confusing Steelers defense.
Rashad Jennings earned one for getting hands on a punt for the second time this season.
How about outside linebacker Sio Moore, who has two sacks and five tackles?
Maybe right tackle Matt McCants gets one for slowing down veteran pass rusher LaMarr Woodley?
Good ideas all, but this game ball goes to cornerback Mike Jenkins. The veteran had five tackles, one for a loss. He made a key interception and tipped another ball picked by Tracy Porter.
Jenkins did all that while covering star Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, a slippery assignment to be sure. Jenkins gave up some catches, never gave up the big one and made two impactful plays of his own.
Ford’s no-good, very bad day: The Raiders tried to get Jacoby Ford more involved in this game by making him the punt returner and designing an offensive play for him.
Ford couldn’t hold on to the football on Sunday, which may impact his future use. He lost a fumble as a receiver on the Raiders 11-yard line, which gift-wrapped Pittsburgh’s first touchdown. He also misplayed a punt officials thought he muffed. He fumbled another that eventually squirted out of bounds.
“We all feel good about winning a game, but we have to understand is you put the ball on the ground in a game like that, you’re giving them an opportunity to get back in the game and you can’t do that,” Allen said. “Good football teams, they don’t do that.”
Injury update: Sunday’s win was near perfect in one regard. The Raiders earned a victory without losing personnel. Allen said Sunday night that the Raiders didn’t sustain an injury of significance, a welcome respite for a team already playing without significant pieces.
Quote of the day: “I don’t think anyone was close to catching him. He’s a dadgum gazelle out there. ” -- Raiders right guard Mike Brisiel on Terrelle Pryor’s 93-yard touchdown run.
Looking ahead: The Raiders have played much better at home this season. Every win has come at Oakland Coliseum, and they have a real chance to get another one next week against the struggling Philadelphia Eagles.
The Raiders actually have an easy stretch upcoming, with six straight games against teams without a winning record. One problem: four of those contests are on the road, where the Raiders haven’t won this season.
In addition to finishing strong, the Raiders must learn how to play well in unfriendly confines. If they can do that, a decent record is well within their grasp.
The Raiders cautioned against thinking big picture just yet.
“You have to go out and play every game,” Woodson said. “It isn’t about the schedule or the records of people we’re going to play. Anybody can win any week, and we don’t want to sit here and have our chins in the air about one game. We got this win, it feels good and it’s still about going out and working and getting yourself better as a team.”