The Devin Hester Conundrum


The Devin Hester Conundrum

ALAMEDA -- The last time the Raiders faced Chicago and electric returner Devin Hester, on Nov. 11, 2007, Shane Lechler punted the ball right at him and dared Hester to bust one free.This time around?"As far as I'm concerned, no, it's not the same attitude right now," Lechler said Wednesday. "That guy's too dangerous. With them getting a new quarterback in there, (Hester's) going to be the big-play guy. I'm not sure yet what we're going to do, but I'm going to try to at least make him run sideways early, and we'll go from there."CSNChicago: Hester held out of practice Thursday
Four years ago, Hester returned six of Lechler's nine punts -- two were downed and a third went out of bounds -- for a total of just 14 yards, with a long return of nine yards.
Indeed, Lechler and the Raiders kept Hester in check that day (his 64-yard return was nullified by a holding penalty on Brendon Ayanbadejo). And still, Lechler fears letting him get the Bears going on Sunday at the Coliseum. And for good reason.In his sixth season, Hester is now the NFL's all-time career leader in punt returns for touchdowns with 12 and also has five kickoff returns for scores. Including the playoffs, he has 19 career total return TDs (12 punt return, six kickoff return, one missed field-goal return) to tie him with Deion Sanders for most in league history."Hester has a lot of good guys playing around him," Lechler added. "Watching them on film, they all play hard. The thing is, that punt return unit believes they're going to take it to the house every time he gets the ball. When you're playing with that much belief, you're very dangerous. We're going to do our very best to neutralize that part of the game."Hester's career-best 21.2 yards average on punt returns this season is leading the NFL and he already has two returns for TDs. The Raiders have surrendered the most punt return yardage in the league and have the fifth-worst average at 14.5 yards.
"A guy like Hester, man, you've got to respect, first and foremost," said Raiders receiver Louis Murphy, who has also found work as a gunner on Oakland's punt team. "You've got to respect what he's done in this league, who he is, and you've got to go out there and try and contain him, try and stop him."Quentin Groves agreed."As a coverage unit and as a special teams unit, you live for these challenges," Groves said. "If you want to be the best, and that's what we pride ourselves onyou're going to have to go against the best in the league. And right now, he's the best in the league."Mike Mitchell, though, had a differing opinionsomewhat."He's the best besides Jacoby (Ford), you can quote that, too," Mitchell said. "Extremely fast, he has great vision and his blockers really do a great job blocking for him, too. It's not a lot of times you see him making guys miss. He's getting great blocks and then he might break one tackle."Mitchell does not want to shy away from Hester and agreed with Bears coach Lovie Smith's assessment that coaches cannot tell their players to not kick it to Hester, lest it affect his own team's confidence."Not a chance," Mitchell said. "I mean, if you're a man."As a punt unit, I feel like we have the best weapon in the league in Shane Lechler. We're going to punt to anybody. I don't think we're afraid to punt to a specific player. Like we said this week getting ready for this game, he has to play us. We don't have to play him. He has to worry more about 11 guys trying to take his head off than we do about him housing one."The Raiders have surrendered two punt returns for scores this season, a 90-yarder by Denver's Eric Decker in the season opener at Denver and an 85-yarder by the Broncos' Eddie Royal on Nov. 6.So Raiders special team coach John Fassel has some serious scheming to do. Not that Mitchell wants to deviate from the plan up to this point."We have the biggest, fastest guys in the league covering our punts," Mitchell said. "We just have to get down field and outrun their protection team and make tackles. After (Hester) gets machine-gunned a couple of times, he's not going to be too quick to return punts."Im not talking any trash eitherI think he's awesome. But our mentality is, he has to play us."Then the Raiders have to punt the ball to Hester.

Downing: Raiders offense off track, answers exist ‘in our scheme’


Downing: Raiders offense off track, answers exist ‘in our scheme’

ALAMEDA – Todd Downing has friends with fantasy football teams. Those faux general managers, like many across the roto world, took Raiders with high draft picks.

They would like to know why Derek Carr isn’t throwing touchdowns in bulk, Amari Cooper’s in a slump and Marshawn Lynch isn’t getting more carries.

“I have friends that have him on their fantasy team that are mad at me for that,” Downing said after Wednesday’s practice. “That’s part of the business.”

Ah, the life of an NFL coordinator. Players get credit when things go right. Play callers sit over a Bunsen burner the rest of the time.

Downing understands that part of this gig.

“I welcome the responsibility that this job has afforded me,” he said. “I understand that I’m going to have to deal with negative comments and consequences when things aren’t going well. I’m looking forward to standing up here in a more positive fashion some time soon.”

Positives were expected right away. He was given the keys to a Lamborghini with a franchise quarterback under center, 1,000-yard receivers on each flank, an older back considered among the best of his generation, and the NFL’s biggest and most expensive offensive line.

The Raiders ranked No. 6 in total offense before adding Lynch, tight end Jared Cook and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency. Now they’re 30th heading into Thursday night’s game against Kansas City.

The mob is lighting torches, armed with pitchforks. After six weeks.

Everyone has an opinion on what’s wrong and how to fix this offense. More interior runs, less outside zone. More play action, please. Go deep, a lot. Have Derek hold on to the ball longer. Have Derek get rid of it quick. Do all that at once. Do it now.

Downing’s going to stick with his system. The Raiders will stick with their process, thank you very much, with faith that things will turn.

“When you look at the tape, you can see that we’re so close on so many things,” Downing said. “I know that sounds cliché and I know that sounds like someone sitting up here and trying to give you the rose-colored glasses, but it’s the truth. We know that we’re just this close to making a couple more plays each game and being able to come out on top and feeling like we put together a good product.

“…We’re looking for answers right now, but we know those answers exist in our room and in our scheme. Once we hit our stride, we’re excited to see what it looks like.”

There’s reason to believe that can happen. Take the season’s first two games, for example. The Raiders scored 71 points in that span. There’s talent everywhere in the starting lineup and behind it.

That’s why concern reigns during a four-game losing streak where the offense is averaging 13.1 points. They can’t sustain drives, come through on third down or block consistently in the run game. Their play count is dismally low. According to the Associated Press, the Raiders aver averaging 54 plays per game. Every other team has at least 60. The 2005 49ers were the last team that averaged such a sum. The Raiders haven’t had a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard rusher or a 100-yard receiver.

Offense is blamed for a dismal 2-4 start. Even the universally beloved Carr has taken some heat for lackluster performances.

“I don’t think there’s a single guy that can look back over the last few weeks and say, ‘You know what, I’m really pleased with how I’ve played over the last three weeks,’ or, ‘Called the last three weeks’ or, ‘Coached my position the last three weeks.’ We all own this together,” Downing said. “There’s no one guy that is going to save it or break it or anything in between. We need to do this as a team and everybody needs to make the plays they’re afforded the opportunity to make and I need to call the right plays when afforded the opportunity to call them.”

The Raiders can and must do better before falling further. Righting the ship too late to reach the season’s goals might hurt as much as a completely dismal campaign.

Pressing, however, isn’t the answer.

“You do have to stay patient,” Downing said. “I tell the offense this every week, but it’s never been more true than where we’re at now as an offense. We have a belief in what we’ve done this far, and the system we’ve put in place, and the playmakers we have in that room, and the coaches that are up in the room with me, and you will never see me waiver in my belief of any single one of those guys, including myself. If I did, and I started acting different or started calling games differently, then that would mean I didn’t really believe in the first place.”

Melifonwu back at Raiders practice, designated to return off IR


Melifonwu back at Raiders practice, designated to return off IR

ALAMEDA – Obi Melifonwu participated in a Raiders practice Tuesday afternoon, his first session in months.

The second-round safety has been on injured reserve all season and hasn’t done football activities of any kind since suffering a knee injury in a preseason game in Dallas.

He had arthroscopic knee surgery and was put on the shelf for the season’s first half. Melifonwu's professional career barely started and then quickly stopped. That's why Wednesday's practice was such a big deal. 

“It was awesome to get back out there, finally,” Melfonwu said. “It’s been a while. It was beyond fun to just be out there and practice with the team."

He nearing a return to game action. That’s why the Raiders designated him to return off injured reserve. Wednesday marks the start of a three-week practice window where the Raiders can decide whether to put him on the 53-roster.

He’s expected to do so when eligible. Melifonwu was first able to practice this week, and can join the 53-man roster after Week 8. His NFL debut could come in Week 9 at Miami.

He can't wait, especially because he's physically ready now. 

"I feel 100 percent," Meilfonwu said. I feel fine."

The Raiders still struggle covering the aforementioned skill players, using young linebackers or an undersized safety against those guys. The Raiders have given up the most yards to tight ends and running backs in the NFL this season. Melifonwu was drafted to help cover tight ends and running backs right away in sub packages, with a long-term eye on a full-time starting spot.

"I bring versatility, and I think I’m a guy who can fit into a lot of different spots," Melifonwu said. "Wherever the coaches need me to fit and help the team win, I’m all for it."

He has missed significant development time while out. He also missed most of training camp with an apparent ankle injury. The team hopes he can be ready to contribute when eligible despite missing so much time. The downtime was difficult, but Melifonwu now hopes to hit the ground running.

"It was definitely tough," he said. "As a competitor, you always want to be out there helping your team win. As a guy who hasn’t been hurt, it was pretty tough. It comes with playing football. I’m just glad to be out there now."