NAPA – Pat Sims was at practice Tuesday. Vance Walker and LaMarr Houston and Jason Hunter too.
It was a reunion of sorts for the Raiders defense, which hadn’t practiced with its starting line intact since June minicamp.
Sims missed all but an hour of camp with a hamstring strain. Walker attended a handful of workouts with an undisclosed injury and Houston missed nearly two weeks with a mystery ailment.
The Raiders got the band back together. That’s step one.
Step two is coming together as a line and a front seven, with 19 days to do it.
“We really don’t have a choice but to act fast,” Walker said. “Honestly, I think we’ll be just fine. We’ve put in a lot of time in the classroom and I think we’ve meshed together well during the offseason. The bottom line is that you’ve got to be physical and that’s how we all play. I’m excited about what this front can do.”
Sims and Walker are high-class run stoppers, and Houston is the team’s best pass rusher. None of them have played in the preseason, and their absence has been evident.
The defensive front won’t be ready to go come Friday’s exhibition versus Chicago – Houston will play, Sims won’t go and Walker’s uncertain – and maybe not the day after that.
The unit must fit together in time, especially on run defense, to ensure edges are set, gaps are plugged and assignments are understood.
“We have a lot of new parts to this defense, and the more we're able to work together between now and the opening game of the season, the better we're going to understand how to play together,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said. “It was a start to have the majority of those guys back at practice. It'll be good as we go through the rest of training camp, through the rest of these practices, the Chicago game, the Seattle game, to get a chance for these guys to work together and play as one unit.”
Bonds are built faster with veteran elements. Houston's been around. Hunter, Sims and Walker are new to the Raiders, but quick to adjust on the fly.
The coaching staff is trying to expedite the process. Coordinator Jason Tarver has committed extra drills to run defense, so the linebackers can learn how to fit in behind the defensive tackles. The pass rush is about scheme and winning one-on-one battles. The talent bump and an expanded regular-season playbook should help in that regard.
Despite the slow start, the defensive front sees vast improvement on the horizon.
“We could be very good,” Sims said. “We have a lot of speed, a lot of new people that are hungry out there. The sky’s the limit.”