Scott Bair

Raiders counting heavily on lightning rod CB against Patriots

sean-smith-raiders-cowboys-ap.jpg
AP

Raiders counting heavily on lightning rod CB against Patriots

MEXICO CITY – The Raiders cornerback David Amerson didn’t practice all week, but ran just well enough to be considered “doubtful” for Sunday’s game against New England.

Translation: Outlook for Sunday is not good, but Jack Del Rio’s fingers remained crossed real, real tight. The Raiders hope there’s a way he can be active against Tom Brady’s buzz saw attack, because their cover men are beat up.

Amerson has missed two straight with a foot injury, and has dealt with injury all year. Gareon Conley’s season officially ended Monday, when he was placed on season-ending injured reserve. Antonio Hamilton and Demetrius McCray were already there.

Reggie McKenzie hasn’t reached out for reinforcements. That leaves TJ Carrie, Dexter McDonald and Sean Smith to play cornerback. Carrie’s been the rock, a sure tackler who hasn’t made spectacular plays but doesn’t give them up. McDonald has been forced into action, with holes let in his game.

Smith should be the No. 1 guy in this group, the steadying presence on the outside. That hasn’t been the case this year, where he lost a starting job in training camp and sub-package snaps during the season, only to have injuries to Conley and Amerson bring him in the fray.

He’s also been dealing with felony assault and battery charges in Los Angeles stemming from a July 4 incident in Pasadena.

Smith has been a lightning rod for fan criticism, a byproduct of his $9.5 million salary this year and explosive plays allowed early in the year.

If there’s an anvil weighing on his mind, teammates insist you’d never know.

“We’re human at the end of the day,” Amerson said. “You feel it, but you have to find a way to remain even keel and professional and do your job well.”

Smith will be counted on heavily Sunday against New England, especially if Amerson can’t play as expected. He has proven vulnerable to speed without help and proper disruption at the line of scrimmage, though that hasn’t been an issue lately because the Utah alum has recovered well after a rough start.

He got pulled after struggling against Vernon Davis in Washington. He didn’t play against the Chargers after giving up two huge plays to Baltimore the week before.

Amerson originally sprained his foot in Week 7 against Kansas City – he hasn’t played since – and Smith was called upon to respond. He wasn’t targeted in that game, and has been strong in coverage ever since.

Smith has allowed three catches for 12 yards in four targets over the last two games. The ninth-year veteran insists he wasn’t doing anything markedly different, and had zero interest in patting himself on the back for recent jobs well done.

“I’m not,” Smith said. “I’m out there doing my job, man, the best way I can.”

Smith says the off-field distractions during a roller-coaster season, one of his career’s most trying yet, haven’t impacted him much

“Nope. Not at all,” Smith said. “As long as I wake up a Raider, I’m all right. I’ll deal with whatever happens. I’ll always be there for my guys, and I’ll do whatever it takes to help our team win.”

Raiders defensive backs laud Smith’s locker room presence, saying he’s an excellent teammate. Cornerbacks in general must have a short memory when things go bad, to refocus and prevent that from happening again. Smith apparently has that in spades.

“I know how things go, especially when you have a target on your back,” Amerson said. “Sometimes you get hit with the perfect pass and you give up some plays. You can’t do anything about that but take advantage of the next opportunity. Sean’s a good player, and he definitely has that mindset.”

Smith will lend experience to this big game, something the Raiders need after suffering so many injuries.

"It sucks that so many of us have gone down,” Smith said. "You want to have all your guys out there, but that’s the NFL. Injuries happen. As long as everybody comes to work and acts like a pro, we’ll be all right. We all have a job to do. We all would like to start, but you have to be ready when your number’s called.”

Raiders standing by strategy for Mexico City altitude

mack-carr-mexico-2016-ap.jpg
AP

Raiders standing by strategy for Mexico City altitude

MEXICO CITY – The Raiders spent all week at sea level preparing to play 1-¼ miles up. They left Oakland around noon on Saturday confident that altitude won’t be an issue in Sunday’s game against New England.

Estadio Azteca sits at 7,200 feet, a comparable elevation to where the Patriots have been practicing in Colorado Springs. That has created a debate of sorts about which philosophy works best. There’s science to support staying in altitude with New England.

There’s plenty more to back head coach Jack Del Rio’s desire to get in and out of altitude as fast as possible. We won’t break down the arguments here. There are plenty of stories written about that.

We’ll simply say the Raiders believe in their approach, and have experience to support it. The Raiders best Houston in Mexico City last year in a dramatic affair that required two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

“I thought we handled our business well last year and we’ve got a similar approach this year,” Del Rio said. “We expect to go down there and play in a great atmosphere. The fans are very engaged. It’s a great atmosphere to be a part of. Just go down there and play good football.”

The Raiders have worked toward this game the past three weeks. They’ve worked on exercise bikes and treadmills using elevation machine, which matches oxygen outputs at specific elevation. Players have done that and have then been able to recover at sea level. They’ve worn popularized oxygen deprivation masks during other activities, though they’ve practiced as usual.

The Raiders know what to expect in terms of logistics, altitude and air pollution. The Raiders have prepared well for this experience, but that doesn’t mean altitude doesn’t impact finely tuned athletes.

“When you get there, you’re going to feel it,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. “It’s different than anything you’ve ever felt. It’s different than Denver. It was a way tougher challenge. You felt it right away. It hits you getting off the plane.”

Both teams must play in adverse conditions.

“We just have to go play,” Raiders linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “You guys aren’t going to say the altitude had an effect on the outcome. You can’t use it as an excuse. You can’t think about that. You have to train and prepare the way they’ve been having us prepare and go out there and execute.”

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick hasn’t talked much about his strategy of staying at elevation after playing in Denver last week. Extended time away from home can be a bonding time, as the Raiders experienced a fortnight past in Sarasota, FL. He didn’t consider the time spent at Air Force Academy to be a significant advantage.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Belichick said. “The way the schedule worked out, this worked out for us. We’re here and we’re just doing the best we can to get ready for the game.”

The Raiders anticipate Estadio Azteca to feel like home away from home. Raider Nation turned out en masse last year in Houston, giving the neutral site a silver and black edge. Fans took it to the extreme at times, pointing a green laser pointer in Texans quarterback Brock Osweiller’s eyes.

The NFL will certainly be looking to quell those disruptions, especially with a marquee Patriots team in town. New England fans will be audible this time, but another pro-Raiders atmosphere is expected. That’s why Derek Carr isn’t worried about distractions from the crowd.

“No, no, no, no, no. I think that going down there is a home field advantage,” Carr said. “I’m not worried about the laser pointers. I think that’s for the other guys.”

Norton looks at his Seahawks days to slow down Brady: 'I have a good feel'

norton-us.jpg
USATSI

Norton looks at his Seahawks days to slow down Brady: 'I have a good feel'

ALAMEDA – Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. has a good feel for Tom Brady. He faced New England’s legendary quarterback three times as Seattle’s linebackers coach, with some positive results. The Seahawks won two regular-season games and lost the Super Bowl at the last second.

He knows what worked then, and believes that should help prepare the Raiders defense for what’s coming Sunday in Mexico City.

“I played Brady a couple years ago in the Super Bowl with Seattle. We played very well against him,” Norton said Thursday afternoon. “I’ve had some success against him so I have a good feel for what can be done and what cannot be done. It’s just a matter of having the right emphasis and the ability to make the plays.

“Having a guy like (Brady) on the team who’s capable at any point of throwing a deep ball, capable at any point of getting it to the right players at the right time. He understands who is around him. He understands how to get the ball to the guys. He’s got a long resume of doing it well.”

Having success against Brady, however, is a relative term. He still produced against a loaded Seattle defense far better than this year’s Raiders unit. He will produce again Sunday, even if most goes right. Limitation, however, if key.

Norton believes certain things are essential when facing a Patriots team. Sure tackling. Impacting the quarterback.

The first is vital, something the Raiders have done well save a Week 9 win over Miami. The Raiders have to limit explosives and keep the ball in front of them, especially with the way Brady likes to play.

“The Patriots do a really good job of underneath coverage,” Norton said. “They have guys that catch and run really well. The backs, the tight ends, the matchups underneath, they catch and make people miss. They try to match up with your linebackers and safeties. They feel like their guys are pretty good. Tackling is something we’ve been really outstanding with all year but this last game against Miami we didn’t do so well and it kind of stands out, especially when it’s something we’ve taken a lot of pride in.

“I really feel like our emphasis and what we do well matches up well with that they try to do.”

There are some problem spots. One is limiting deep shots, something Brady has unleashed with startling efficiency. He’s 19-for47 for 410 yards and four touchdowns on passes of 20-plus yards, with speedsters Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett able to haul them in. The Raiders have proven vulnerable to track-star receivers. 

Impacting Brady is mandatory, but also difficult given his excellent pocket presence. He’s especially good at feeling pressure off the edge, where reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack typically lines up opposite Bruce Irvin.

Brady has proven vulnerable to interior pressure, which is why Mario Edwards Jr. will be an X-factor on passing downs. He has four sacks this season and needs to break free in the backfield to force difficult decisions or, at the very lest, disrupt New England’s timing.

Brady gets rid of the ball fast at times. Raiders rushers can’t get frustrated by that, especially Mack.

“If the quarterback is going to throw the ball in less than two seconds, it’s going to be tough to get there,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “So when the quarterback is throwing the ball quick like that, we’ve got to tackle and have their punt team come out. They’ll get tired of punting or turning the ball over and they’ll sit and hold the ball a little bit and Khalil can get there. If they’re throwing the ball in two seconds or less, it’s going to be hard to get sacks.”

The Raiders only have 13 sacks this season, second worst in the NFL. Getting a few could swing a tight game. Norton’s Raiders believe they have a solid plan to mitigate somewhat the Patriots ferocious attack, that features versatile tight ends allowing them to do different things from one personnel package.

Don’t expect a shutout, or anything close. The Raiders understand that, but believe they can mitigate some damage.

“If you go back to the New England Patriots five, six, eight years ago they’re doing similar things,” Norton said. “They do what they do really well. They’re a fine-tuned machine. Everybody knows exactly what their role is. Guys know exactly what’s expected of them. Obviously the quarterback is the heart and soul and the one that makes that train run. Really, really good players that really understand what their role is and play well against leverage, run after catch, tough and they make plays.”