The Raiders defense had been progressing well, improving skills, personnel fits and schemes throughout the season. During Sunday’s 38-35 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, that unit took a giant step back.
That’s head coach Jack Del Rio’s take. After the Raiders gave up a franchise worst 597 yards, it’s hard to hold another opinion.
The bottom line wasn’t all that bothered Del Rio. The journey to it truly eats at the former NFL linebacker and respected defensive mind.
“As we look at the tape, fundamentally, many of the things that we had shown a lot of improvement in, and I’m talking about basic fundamentals like shedding blocks, leveraging the ball and tackling, basic things,” Del Rio said during his Monday press conference. “We really went backwards yesterday in terms of our execution in those key areas. It’s something we believe we can do well. We believe in the guys in we have. It’s something as coaches we believe in, and we just did not execute it yesterday very well.”
The Raiders hope to look back at Sunday’s game as a hiccup, a defensive outlier in improved performance. To be a true wild-card contender in the season’s second half, it’ll have to be.
The Raiders offense is really clicking, with three straight games over 30 points. Quarterback Derek Carr is on a hot streak that could become the norm in a few more weeks. The running game has been efficient and the offensive line strong. Those traits won’t matter if the defense can’t sandbag the flood. The Raiders can win some shootouts, but they won’t always have the ball last. Dramatic football doesn’t always end in wins, maybe with a total just below a playoff standard.
The offense can bring it. After eight games, that’s become a character trait.
The defense’s identity remains in flux, even at the halfway point. Coordinator Ken Norton wants to be ever stout against the run and prevent big pass plays over the top. The Raiders broke both golden rules against Pittsburgh. At times, deficiencies were exposed.
Generally speaking, this should be a good run defense. The secondary is another matter. Safety Charles Woodson is holding the back end together with a loosening grip because his right shoulder is too weak to play like he can. He is a gamer, and is still protecting young cornerbacks as best he can.
The pass defense is pretty bad in its current form, ranked dead last with 314.6 yards per game. The Raiders are No. 23 in sacks despite quality edge rushers Khalil Mack and Aldon Smith, who often don’t have enough time to make a game-changing play.
“When we’re coming free, the coverage isn’t holding up, and we did come free a few times (against Pittsburgh),” Del Rio said. “We were in the backfield, ready to do some damage to the quarterback, be disruptive and the ball came out. Pass defense is a combination. You want the rush and the coverage to go hand in hand, and when they do, then it looks really good.”
That’s when this defense can exert some control over proceedings, without Woodson having to save the day with a dramatic interception. The pass defense doesn't have to be perfect. Just tackle well and give Mack and Smith enough time to get home.
The Raiders need to improve in leverage and tackling after Sunday's loss. It was something they did well while keeping opponents out of the end zone for nine-plus quarters across games against the Bears, Broncos and Chargers. That could come back relatively easy.
To avoid more pass-defense days like Sunday, a worn down secondary needs reinforcements. They’ll get some next week against the Minnesota Vikings.
TJ Carrie, who missed the Pittsburgh game with shoulder and hip issues, should return for Week 10. Safety Nate Allen is also eligible and ready to return off short-term injured reserve and make a major contribution.
Allen’s return should allow Carrie, who played safety in the veteran’s absence, to return to cornerback. Carrie is the Raiders’ best cover corner, meaning Allen's return should strengthen two positions at the same time.
Improved personnel could provide a real shot in the arm.
There's reason for optimism that the defense, which might never be dominant this season, can keep point totals just low enough to let Carr’s crew secure victories.
After taking a step back Sunday, this defense must make positive strides to stay in contention down the stretch.
“I believe in who we are and what we are,” Del Rio said. “I believe in our guys and I believe we’ll bounce back.”