Raiders

Big changes this year for Joseph, who didn't enjoy trying rookie season

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USATSI

Big changes this year for Joseph, who didn't enjoy trying rookie season

NAPA – Karl Joseph left Wednesday’s practice in a good mood. The Raiders strong safety was astounded by the thoughtful gesture of a young fan, who researched Joseph’s favorite candy and gave it to his favorite player during a meet and greet.

Joseph relayed the backstory behind his fresh bag of Sour Patch Kids, took a pause to eat a few and then smiled to himself.

“Wow,” Joseph said. “One of the best gifts, ever.”

Joseph has reason to be thankful these days, and it extends well beyond free candy. Last year’s first-round pick is fully healthy for the first time since tearing an ACL in college. His scheme knowledge is exponentially higher after a full offseason, and the pressure of living up to his draft status isn't under a microscope.

It’s clear a great weight has been lifted. Joseph is having fun each day, playing aggressive and confident with the starting unit. He’s thinking less, reacting faster. And he’s putting shoulders in people whenever possible. Big hits will come when he faces another color, because his trademark explosiveness is back.

“I’m enjoying it, unlike last year where I was always battling expectations and my knee and all that stuff,” Joseph said on NBCSportsCalifornia.com’s “Raiders Insider Podcast.” “I’m trying to get better every day, but I’m definitely having fun. I feel like I’m back in college again, back in high school playing with my teammates. You’ve got to love it.”

Coaches love what they’ve seen from Joseph so far. He’s been a steady playmaker in practice, someone comfortable playing near the line or deep downfield. That’s clear on practice tape, and offers a stark contrast to last year’s version, the one waiting for his knee to respond right.

“I saw myself playing a little timid at times,” Joseph said. “You could see where I would break or make a tackle, I was favoring one leg a little bit. Sometimes I could see myself limping on film. I could tell my leg wasn’t where it needed to be yet strength-wise, and that was a focus this offseason working out in the weight room. I wanted to emphasize my lower body and get my legs stronger again.”

Joseph tore his ACL in an Oct. 2015 practice at West Virginia and managed to remain a first-round pick despite the injury. His knee was structurally sound and cleared for action last summer, but regaining true strength and explosiveness in a surgically repaired knee can take more time.

The injury itself was trying. The wait for his joint’s return to normal was a real grind. It was a difficult period for Joseph, and only fueled the workout warrior inside to increase gym activity. He’s typically the last Raiders to leave after practice, with a full lifting regimen where he keeps his feet right, his body strong and his mind clear.

“They drafted me in the first round, so I felt like I had to prove myself,” Joseph said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but I had to understand that my path was going to take some time. … Having one year’s experience, now I know what to expect. Heading into the first preseason game, it’s not like it was last year when I was worried if my knee was going to be okay. Now I’m just playing football. Everything else is in the back of my mind. It’s not even a thought anymore.”

Norton remains confident squaring off against Patriots' 'fine-tuned machine

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Norton remains confident squaring off against Patriots' 'fine-tuned machine

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’s 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 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 Raider understand that, but believe they can mitigate some damage.

“If you go back to 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.”

Khalil Mack wants to be Raider for life: 'That’s a no-brainer for me'

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AP

Khalil Mack wants to be Raider for life: 'That’s a no-brainer for me'

The Raiders gave quarterback Derek Carr a massive contract extension last June. Right guard Gabe Jackson got paid later that month.

Khalil Mack’s big deal is coming, likely this offseason. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie anticipates a deal getting done, and hopes Mack’s agent feels the same way.

Mack’s rep and Raiders contract folks will work out details of a massive contract extension. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year doesn’t have interest in all that. He has one preference above all.

Mack doesn’t want to go anywhere. He wants to stay with the Raiders long term.

“Of course. That’s not even a question,” Mack said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Bay Area’s Fallon Smith, which airs in this week's episode of "Raiders Central." “That’s a no-brainer for me, especially when you think about coming into this organization and try to build something special, that’s something you want to be a part of for a lifetime”

Mack has plenty of money, top-5 overall draft picks often do. The No. 5 selection in 2014 considered that first deal life-changing money, enough to help his family.

“That has been a treat for me so far,” Mack said.

He doesn’t daydream about signing a nine-figure contract. He doesn’t long to be the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player (although that might be in the cards, anyway).

“I’m not really even thinking about that,” Mack said. “I’m thinking about the Patriots, that’s just my focus that’s just my mindset – anybody who talked to me about that matter, whether it be my best friend, my mom, my dad, I tell them the same thing. I’m thinking about the Patriots and sacking Tom Brady.”

That, unlike signing a record contract, was a career a goal. Mack said in a post-draft press conference he wanted to sack legends. Peyton Manning and Brady topped the list.

Manning retired before Mack could check his box. Mack will have a second chance at Brady Sunday when the Raiders play New England in Mexico City. He had eight tackles and two quarterback hits against Brady’s Patriots in 2014, but didn’t bring the quarterback down.

Mack considered his third regular season game a welcome-to-the-NFL moment.

The University of Buffalo alum has accomplished a ton since then, with 34.5 sacks and last year’s top defensive honor to his credit. He’ll need a Herculean performance against the Patriots to help the Raiders win a pivotal game. A sack would certainly help, but Mack isn’t calling his shot.

“Yeah, I’m not one to talk,” Mack said. “I’ll express that when I get on the field, but I can’t wait, I can’t wait to play against him.”