Norton Jr: Raiders designed plan to increase Smith's interception total

Norton Jr: Raiders designed plan to increase Smith's interception total

ALAMEDA – Sean Smith has two interceptions already this season. His next will mark a career high.

That seems crazy for such an adept cover man, but it’s a verified low interception count that might be rising now.

Smith had 10 interceptions in seven seasons entering his first as a Raider, never more than two in a campaign. It’s something his new coaches sought to change with a personalized plan designed to insure Smith gets more picks.

He has two since signing a four-year, $38.5 million contract with the Raiders, and coaches believe he’s primed for several more this year after letting too many past opportunities slips through his hands.

“Early on, we knew he had good instincts and good knowledge, but he would always drop the ball,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “The ball would come to him and he’d drop it. We put him on a JUGS machine and threw the ball to him often and talked to him about how to catch.

“We set up certain drills for him, and we really individualized his drills to make him aware of what his weaknesses are. He really listened and it’s shown in his ability to get his hands on the ball.”

Smith has two interceptions that count, and picked off a two-point conversion in Baltimore. He let a few slip through his hands this preseason, proving his coaches’ point that he needed to improve in that area.

Last week’s pick against San Diego proves he’s made strides. Smith said he identified Travis Benjamin’s route early and anticipated Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers would favor a one-on-one matchup and go deep.

Smith made Benjamin seem open and quickly closed in after the ball was thrown. He undercut the route, made a leaping interception and returned it 27 yards.

It was a highlight in a solid three-game stretch. Smith has two interceptions and three passes defensed in that span, where passer ratings are exceptionally low when targeting his man. Quarterbacks have completed 8-of-19 passes for no touchdowns and the aforementioned pair of picks against Smith.

That’s a stark improvement over the first two games, when he allowed a touchdown and got benched at New Orleans and allowed two scores against Atlanta.

“Sean is a competitor, and is really prideful about his work,” Norton said. “You can’t get to this level without caring about what you do. He is new to all of us, and he wanted us to know that wasn’t him. He wanted to really show that he’s a really good football player. He is a really good player, and it comes down to consistency and working hard.”

Smith can extend this quality stretch against his former team when the Raiders host Kansas City on Sunday.

Quarterback drafted by Jon Gruden in 2008 signs with Raiders


Quarterback drafted by Jon Gruden in 2008 signs with Raiders

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden had a hand in drafting Josh Johnson a decade ago. The agile quarterback and Oakland native was a Tampa Bay’s fifth-round pick in 2008, Gruden’s last year as Buccaneers coach.

The pair will reunite in Johnson’s hometown. The well-traveled quarterback signed with the Raiders on Monday, the team announced.

Johnson will compete with Connor Cook to backup starter Derek Carr, and brings a veteran’s influence to the position group. It likely spells the end of EJ Manuel’s short tenure in silver and black. The strong-armed former first-round pick, who started one game last season, remains a free agent after a year with the Raiders.

This move should make Marshawn Lynch happy. He and Johnson are extremely close and together run the Family First Foundation, a charitable organization that does significant work for East Bay kids. Johnson and Lynch also played football together at Oakland Tech High.

Johnson has played 10 NFL teams prior to this Raiders stop, but hasn’t played in a regular-season game for some time.

Raiders well equipped to 'slam the ball with a beast'


Raiders well equipped to 'slam the ball with a beast'

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden needed specific tools to run his running game. He wanted blocking tight ends and a bruising fullback, relics of a bygone offensive era.

“If Marshawn Lynch is the feature back, I think it’d be nice if we serviced him with a fullback,” Gruden said at the combine. … You need a blocking tight end if you’re going to slam the ball with a beast. So, those are two things that I’m looking for.”

Gruden said he wanted to import some old-school elements to help run with brute force.

Enter free-agent fullback Kyle Smith and tight end Derek Carrier. Welcome back, Lee Smith.

Then, on Sunday, Raiders made another vital move in this old school effort. They cut Marshawn Lynch a $1 million check.

The Oakland native’s roster bonus came due and the Raiders had no problem paying it, the clearest sign Lynch will be the Raiders feature back in 2018.

He’ll have a great chance to thrive in that role. The Raiders have a hulking, expensive offensive line (that still needs a right tackle). They have new ancillary blocking elements, and the centerpiece remains in place.

That last part was expected in recent weeks. The coaching staff, offensive line coach Tom Cable especially, wanted Lynch back. NFL Network confirmed those facts, stating Lynch will be around in 2018.

That was the case, even with Doug Martin’s addition. The former Tampa Bay back is expected to be a backup bruiser, someone who might put DeAndre Washington or (less likely) Jalen Richard’s job in jeopardy.

The Raiders can cut Lynch without a cap hit. Lynch is scheduled to make $6 million in salary and bonuses, with another $2 million available in incentives. The Raiders should hope to pay those; it would mean Lynch is running well.

The Raiders have given him a great opportunity to do so. They have solid blocking and a coach in Cable who helped him succeed during dominant days in Seattle.

Lynch proved he’s still got it in 2017’s second half, with 70 percent of his 891 rushing yards in the final eight games. He struggled early on, and upset some fans by helping the opposition during a scuffle with Kansas City. That mitigated a PR bump the Raiders looked for when signing a popular Oakland native just months after committing to Las Vegas long-term.

Jack Del Rio and staff grew tired of what they perceived as leeway given to Lynch unavailable to others, and probably wouldn’t have kept him on if still gainfully employed.

Gruden seems committed to Lynch this season, though nothing is ever 100 percent with an enigmatic rusher who doesn’t make private thoughts public.

His elusive, rough-and-tumble rushing style fits well with what Gruden wants, though he demands commitment to the team and sport. Sports Illustrated relayed a story of Gruden saying he needed a “full-time Lynch.”

If he gets that, the Raiders run game should thrive.