ALAMEDA, Calif. — Being that the NFL is a quarterbacks league, it’s understandable that the focus when discussing the Raiders would be on third-year pro Terrelle Pryor. Pryor has done the unimaginable in his first season as the starter: make the struggling franchise interesting after a decade-plus of irrelevance.
But equally notable is the transformation of the team’s defense, which was bad last season and exponentially worse in the preseason. Excluding a kneel-down to end a half, it surrendered points on 16 of 18 series in the first two exhibition quarters. The struggles were so severe, some players privately wondered if the condition was terminal.
Now fast-forward to last Sunday night (or Monday morning if you live on the East Coast). For the third time in five weeks, the unit surrendered just two offensive touchdowns or less in its late-night foray against the Chargers. It had four of the team’s five takeaways in that game and figured prominently in a 27-17 victory that could prove to be a turning point if Oakland records its first winning season in 11 years.
“Much improved,” general manager Reggie McKenzie said of the defense. “They’re playing harder. They’re finishing games better. We still have a lot to improve on, like tackling. But we have a whole lot of tough, physical, effort players. They’re playing pretty good.”
This was the image McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen had in mind when they signed nine new defensive starters in the offseason. The hope was that by bringing in veterans on one- and two-year contracts, they would gain not only experience but also guys who would work hard enough to set themselves up for potentially bigger paydays.
The plan seemed sound in theory, but it was a disaster in the preseason, when the Raiders’ end zone had an open-door policy. As one veteran exited the locker room after the preseason finale in Seattle, he whispered, “We suck.”
There was no reason to expect things to change, but they did. In Week 1 at Indianapolis, they were a late score and turnover from beating the Colts. Two Sundays ago the absence of Pryor because of a concussion was the primary culprit in a loss to Washington. The defense surrendered 37 at Denver, but it’s also the only game in which the Broncos have been held under 41 this season.
“We were freshly together, and the coaches were just playing around to see what they had in the preseason,” says cornerback Mike Jenkins. “We didn’t really show what we had, as far as sending guys. We were playing maybe two or three coverages, and it’s easy to pick guys apart like that. But it’s different when bullets are flying and you open the playbook.”
Lacking an elite edge rusher, the Raiders knew they would have to use creative blitz packages to generate pressure. So when shopping for free-agent help in the offseason they targeted physical, athletic linebackers (Kevin Burnett and Nick Roach, in particular) and defensive backs (notably safety Charles Woodson) who would be as comfortable chasing down quarterbacks as they are dropping in pass coverage.
As a result, offenses are having a harder time predicting where the blitz will come from. “They have exotic blitzes,” says a coordinator who has game-planned for them. “They have enough in their arsenal to mix it up, and they know how to attack protections. They’re tough to prepare for.”
The Chargers learned as much Sunday night. Philip Rivers threw two interceptions over his first four games, but was picked off three times by the Raiders, who also forced a fumble that Woodson returned for a touchdown. It was the first time this season that Rivers had more turnovers (3) than touchdowns (2), and his 86.4 rating was his lowest of the season, just a week after the QB posted a 120.3 mark against the Cowboys.
In hindsight, the Raiders’ preseason struggles on defense should not have been surprising. Some of the players they were counting on, particularly along the interior line, were battling injuries. And coordinator Jason Tarver had to learn not only the strengths and weaknesses of each player, but how they would interact with other. When discussing the turnaround, players mention improved chemistry more than schemes and matchups.
“We spend so much time together it’s not even funny,” Jenkins says. “Sometimes we get annoyed with each other so much. But on a daily basis we spend at least three hours together beyond practice, just watching film or going to one of the guy’s houses to chill. You’re trying to find out who guys are personally.”
On Monday night the defensive backs, with wives and girlfriends, gathered at cornerback Tracy Porter’s house to watch the Jets-Falcons game. To make the get-together feel even more comfortable, Porter’s mother cooked. The talk revolved around football, but there also were stories that pulled back the curtain and provided glimpses into their individual lives.
“If you know more about the guy than [what position he plays], you develop that chemistry,” says Porter, who signed a one-year deal. “You learn, OK, this guy comes from a single-parent home, just like I did. He was raised in such-and-such a way. He did this, he struggled with that, we’re similar. When you know those kinds of things, you’re going to fight that much more for each other because there’s a connection. It makes you want to be a part of that guy next to you.”
Like when the Chargers had a 1st-and-goal at the 10 early in the second quarter and appeared ready to cut Oakland’s 14-0 lead in half one week after the Raiders squandered that same advantage in the loss to Washington. This time, however, they stopped San Diego on four straight downs.
Or when the Chargers had the ball at the Oakland 14 after advancing a blocked field goal for a first down late in the third quarter. Rather than buckle, the Raiders forced a field goal. And when San Diego tried to rally from 10 down with under two minutes to play, rookie D.J. Hayden intercepted Rivers in the end zone.
Interestingly, the foundation for that takeaway was laid during the players’ bonding sessions. They’ve gotten so close that they’re able to speak frankly with each other, minus the egos or hurt feelings that sometimes accompany being so candid. Late in the third quarter against the Chargers, Hayden thought he had surrendered an 11-yard touchdown, only to have it reversed on replay.
“He initially thought it was a score, and I saw him walking with his head down, like any young player would do,” Porter says. “I walked over and told him, ‘As long as you play in this league, whether I’m here or not, I don’t ever want to see you with your head down if a guy catches a ball on you or scores. That guy gets paid to do that, so you line back up like it never happened. You have to have short-term memory.’ “
One play later the Chargers tried to work Hayden again, this time sending tight end Ladarius Green on a corner route to his side. Hayden played it well enough that Green did not have enough room to catch the pass inbounds, forcing San Diego to settle for a field goal. He later added that interception.
“He came up to me later and told me he appreciated what I said,” Porter says. “I could see a spark in him from then on. He started to play real well. He started to play with more confidence. That’s the thing we need. Everybody competes against each other in training camp, but when the season comes and the group is narrowed down, we’re one big family. I know we’re competing, but I’m going to help him because I want him to be better than me. That’s how the veterans raised me when I came in to the league, guys like Darren Sharper, Jason David and Mike McKenzie. I want to do the same.
Says Hayden: “Tracy Porter is like my mentor. He talks to me and relaxes me.”
Raiders defenders know they’re going to have to be on point Sunday at Kansas City despite winning six straight in Arrowhead Stadium and holding the Chiefs to 17 or fewer points in their last seven meetings there, because the Chiefs are allowing a league-low 11.6 points a game. Last season, or even two months ago, it would have been ridiculous to match them stop for stop. Now? Stranger things have happened.