Bruce Irvin certainly felt the altitude’s sting playing in Mexico City’s extreme elevation on Monday night. The effects were real, with a lack of oxygen leaving the Raiders edge rusher and his teammates sucking for air late in a close game with Houston.
No matter. Irvin rarely left field. He played 69 snaps, and one big moment came on on No. 68. He sprinted into the backfield, then cut inside his man and hit Texans quarterback Brock Osweiller hard.
Irvin’s sack killed a final comeback attempt and helped ice a 27-20 victory at Estadio Azteca.
“Everybody was breathing hard at that altitude, but Bruce found a way to get it done,” fellow edge rusher Khalil Mack said. “It was a big moment for sure.”
That wasn’t Irvin’s only contribution. He equaled a team high with 10 tackles, with six stops for a minimal gain. He had a sack and three other quarterback pressures. Irvin was everywhere that night, performing well in all phases of his game.
It was clearly his best game as a Raider, and might have been more than that.
“That might have been the best game of my career to be honest with you,” Irvin said. “It might’ve been my best complete game, not one where I had a good rush or good run defense. I really feel I played a complete game, and it showed.”
The Raiders want Irvin coming forward most often, but signed a complete player comfortable in coverage and run defense. Irvin was an excellent fit at strongside linebacker in Ken Norton Jr.’s defense, an agile pass rusher who can perform other functions in a pinch.
Norton was familiar with Irvin, as his only NFL linebackers coach after getting drafted by Seattle. Norton was integral in bringing Irvin to Oakland this offseason on a four-year deal worth up to $37 million.
“That was him just being a total package football player,” Norton said. “Coming into the league, he may have been detailed as a finesse type player. He’s really rugged now. He’s really strong, really smart, really confident. He can play sideline to sideline. He can rush the passer. He can drop into coverage. He can knock tight ends off the line. He can cover tight ends. He can do all this stuff. Anything you want him to do, Bruce can do it.”
The Raiders have him attacking off the edge most often, but drops into coverage 11 percent of the time. That’s a decrease over his final three seasons in Seattle. That has helped his numbers. He has 33 tackles, three sacks and four forced fumbles, and is on pace to set career highs in every stat except for sacks.
“Bruce plays hard, he’s tough, he’s athletic,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think some of those things that Bruce [Irvin] brought, some of the reasons that he’s here, I think they showed up last night on the stat sheet, when he gets a sack and makes a lot of tackles, he makes an impact on the game.”
Irvin has made grand contributions to a defense that is coming together. The Raiders gave up massive yard totals early in the season, leaving many to wonder it the defense would be a liability this year. Irvin raised that question publicly, and demanded better execution from players when coaches were under fire for subpar defense. Irvin is happy to see improvement from himself and others, but still wants more.
“Bringing in a lot of faces, sometimes it takes a while to come together,” Irvin said. “Ken Norton has been here too long, and becoming an elite defense takes time. I always knew we had the pieces here, and it’s really starting to show off. We just have to continue to get better each week.”