CLEVELAND -– Statistically speaking, the Raiders have the NFL’s worst defense. No team has given up more yards. No team has fewer sacks. Only one has allowed more points. The Silver and Black are on pace to give up 528 this season, a staggering sum that can’t be sustained, can it?
These facts can be minimized due to a small sample size or difficult opposition, but these early numbers were well earned. The secondary has struggled defending tight ends and receivers alike. A defensive front with star power hasn’t sacked the quarterback or generated pressure required to help on the back end.
That must drive defensive-minded head coach Jack Del Rio crazy. Coordinator Ken Norton Jr. comes from Seattle, so these unit-wide struggles must seem surreal.
Frustration really stems from one simple fact: the defense should be better. They’re giving up big plays by the bushel, due in large part to a league-high 31 missed tackles in 147 defensive snaps. At this point, there aren’t many positives to point to.
“I don’t think we’ve been good enough to say we've done anything really well,” linebacker Malcolm Smith said. “There were some good plays from both games you can look at as examples, but we’ve got to find greater consistency. That’s what we’re missing. We have to be sharp. Teams are doing a lot to us. We have to continue to get better.”
The Raiders worked hard on fundamentals this offseason, with an emphasis on leverage and tackling. They still don’t have it right.
“The good defenses that make it hard on offenses, they tackle well,” Norton said. “They play really hard. They’re fundamentally sound. Gap control is sound. They make it hard on offenses. What we’re trying to do is be a good defense, so it’s the small things, the little things, the studying, having everybody in their gap, having everybody making the tackles to ensure a five-yard play stays a 5-yard play and doesn’t turn into a 25-yard play. Those are the things we’re really trying to get better at.”
A new scheme takes some getting used to, but the Raiders hoped to play better fundamental football at the outset. Norton says the Raiders are still in an exploration period, trying to figure out what they do well. That, in theory, should refine play calls.
“First you have to find out what you’re good at,” Norton said. “Are you good at zone coverage? Are you good at man coverage? Are you good at blitzing? Are you good at rushing four? You have to find out what you’re good at, then you have to emphasize that. Always play to your strengths. Right now, we’re at the point where we have to find out what exactly we’re good at. Are we good at stopping the run? Are we good at tackling? What exactly is our staple point? That’s where our groove is, trying to get that understanding.”
Norton said the Raiders care about their profession, and that should produce better results in time. He saw improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, with defensive backs making more plays on the football.
“It’s about growth,” Norton said. “Guys are getting more confident. They’re really tough players. They really play hard. They really are growing. They’re talking about the right things. They’re asking the right questions. It’s just fun to coach them. You’ve been at the highest point, you’ve been at the lowest point and you know what it takes to get there. You know the direction that everyone needs to go. We are going in the right direction.”
The Raiders aren’t looking to make major scheme adjustments at this stage, focusing instead on improved play in a relatively simple scheme that allows plays to read and react quickly.
The Raiders have to get people to the ground right away, something that isn’t happening often enough to play good defense.
“We absolutely need to do a better job tackling,” Smith said. “It’s obviously an emphasis in practice, and we have to continue to harp on it and make a point to get people down. Any team that has a plan and executes it well can play good defense,” Smith said. “I think our issue is about execution. We can be a good defense if we all do our job right.”