HOUSTON – The Raiders defense gave up 24 points per game this regular season. They gave up that exact total against the Denver Broncos and lost. That game was a blowout, an 18-point loss just before the playoffs began.
Derek Carr’s dynamic often surpassed that point total, using firepower to win high scoring games.
It’s tough to imagine an average performance earning a playoff win Saturday against the Houston Texans.
This inconsistent unit gives up yards aplenty but takes possession as well as anyone. The defense ranks 26th with 375.1 yards allowed, but finished second with 30 takeaways. They’re a pedestrian third-down defense, with inconsistent tackling and a league low 25 sacks.
All that points to one thing: inconsistency.
That won’t cut it against the Texans, especially with Derek Carr injured and rookie Connor Cook starting at quarterback. A four-quarter effort is required this time around, with some big plays sprinkled in. And not pass break ups and quarterback pressures. The Raiders want picks and sacks.
The defense must lead.
“Our defense needs to step up and play at a high level,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said. “We’ve sputtered throughout the year and had our moments, but we have not put together a complete game yet. It would be real nice to get that starting Saturday.”
The Raiders wanted it Sunday at Denver, when a win would’ve clinched a division title and a first-round bye. The unit put backup Matt McGloin behind the pace, gave up too many big plays and couldn’t get on track in a game they needed and wanted to win.
With Carr down, the defense expected to take control and it didn’t happen. They’ll have another chance to do so against the Texans.
“I definitely have a bad taste in my mouth,” Khalil Mack told reporters. “I am grateful for this opportunity. I can’t wait.”
Mack must lead this effort as he has at several points this season. A contender for the NFL’s defensive player of the year, Mack has done Herculean things off the edge, against the run and the opposing quarterback. The Raiders don’t need pressures this time. They need forced fumbles and sacks that can change a game.
The Texans are fully aware of Mack’s game-wrecking ability.
“He’s one of the best pass rushers this game has to offer, and there’s a lot of good ones out there,” Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler told Houston reporters. “He’s right at the top of the list. What he’s able to do is truly special. He’s a very strong player. He’s a very athletic player. He’s fast. He can bull-rush you. He can speed-rush you. He has a very high motor. He never takes a single play off.
“You need to show a guy like that respect. Obviously, there (are) certain things that you’re going to do to try to help slow him down but you can never completely eliminate a player like that. You hope that you can slow him down and execute your game plan.”
The Texans will try to slow Mack at a time when the Raiders defensive line is finally healthy. Stacy McGee is returning from injury. Mario Edwards Jr. is feeling better after being slowed by illness and is ready to ramp up activity and production after 14 games spent rehabbing a hip injury.
Bruce Irvin has been charging hard off the edge, with seven sacks and six forced fumbles of his own.
A diverse pass rush would help Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson and the secondary capitalize on mistakes. The Raiders have done a good job of that late, with 10 takeaways in the fourth quarter.
Putting forth a complete game requires consistent tackling and smart defense above all else.
“In the playoffs, you can’t have mental errors or missed assignments,” Irvin said. “That’s how you end up sitting at home the next week. I think our guys understand that, and I think we’re going to step up and handle our business.”