Sean Smith losing grip on Raiders starting CB spot

Sean Smith losing grip on Raiders starting CB spot

NAPA – Raiders cornerback Sean Smith has been a mainstay on the first unit since he signed a four-year, $38 million contract two offseasons ago.

That grip is loosening some. He hasn’t worked with the starting 11 the past three days in deference to TJ Carrie. He was a second unit outside cornerback on Friday and Saturday, but was used as a hybrid linebacker/safety covering tight ends in sub packages on Sunday. He was also a slot corner when the offense went four wide.

That’s a new world for Smith, who has been a starter his entire career. This rotational change doesn’t mean he won’t start in the regular season. It is, however, a sign the Raiders are pushing him with younger cornerbacks. Pressure will likely increase when first-round cornerback Gareon Conley comes off the physically unable to perform list.

His starting spot has become an open competition.

Head coach Jack Del Rio said Smith is handling the assignment change like a pro.

“I think he is,” Del Rio said after Sunday's practice. “Everybody wants to be the guy, and we love that about our guys. We also understand that there’s a lot of competition that takes place out here.”

Smith’s paycheck suggests he should start. That doesn’t mean he will. Del Rio doesn’t include status in his lineup decisions.

“I’m a big believer in that you get what you earn,” he said. “As a team you do, and as a player you do. It’s there for us to decide as we go through camp and get ready for the season. In the meantime, we’re rolling guys through there to make it ultra-competitive. You make something more than you say when you back it up and let other guys get a shot in the rotation.”

Del Rio pointed out competition is being created at several other spots that aren't drawing attention. He's right, but Smith's pedigree and paycheck put him under a stronger spotlight. 

Working Carrie in with the first unit has been warrented. He has been good. Smith hasn’t played particularly well early in camp, and has been part of some blown assignments that led to big plays.

That was an issue last year as well. Smith played well for stretches but fell victim to the big play. Passers had a 114.0 rating against Smith last year, with 44 completions on 77 targets for 749 yards and eight touchdowns. His first game was a nightmare, than got him benched after giving up two long touchdowns. He rebounded well starting in Week 3, with a seven-game stretch without a touchdown allowed. He was stingy then, playing to vast potential.

He slipped some at season’s end, when he dealt with a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery.

He needs to play through this camp setback and rebound again to become a major contributor in this defense.

“What we want to see from all of our guys, is for them to play with positive energy and see a desire to get better,” Del Rio said. “Everybody’s basically in the same boat in terms of meeting the standard we have with the way we want to practice, from the energy, the attention to detail and the focus.”

Smith will be here in 2017, with his $9.5 million salary fully guaranteed in March. His release is far easier next year. That action would not come with dead money or guaranteed funds owed to the defensive back.


-- The Raiders engaged in a physical camp practice in pads, with hard hits especially in 9-on-9 rushing drills. Safety Karl Joseph played especially well in those instances, using an aggressive playing style to knock offensive players. His best effort came early on, when he stripped Marshawn Lynch and allowed the defense to record one of several takeaways on the day.

-- The Raiders held their annual family day on Sunday, where family and friends watch practice and then join a BBQ afterward.

Head coach Jack Del Rio made his players run after practice, but said the action was not punitive. He wanted to get some extra work in before an off day.

“Just a little extra conditioning before they ate some bar-be-que,” Del Rio said. “It was nothing punitive. They’re going to have bar-be-que and get a day off tomorrow, so it’s a good way to finish up. The work their legs some and get back to work on Tuesday.

-- Del Rio creates punitive action for mental mistakes or focus issues, forcing an offensive or defensive unit to do up-downs when one team member makes a mistake. It’s commonplace in his camps, but Del Rio picks his moments when to do it.

“If we’re in a move-the-ball period I generally don’t do it because they’ll feel the effect (of a penalty). When we have scripted plays it’s a reminder that, when you make that kind of mistake, we’re making it a lot harder on ourselves. …We can condition the mind on how to react and respond to the adversity.”

-- The Raiders are practicing without three of their top four draft picks. First-round cornerback Gareon Conley remains on PUP with shin splints. Second-round safety Obi Melifonwu and offensive tackle David Sharpe have been out several days with undisclosed injuries.

“We’re doing the best we can to get those guys schooled up and working with the trainers to get themselves healthy,” Del Rio said. “They’re involved in everything they can be, with meetings so they can plug in as best they can. There are a lot of situations that come up, and we’ll matter-of-factly deal with it.”

In addition to the rookies, edge rusher Shilique Calhoun was out for the first time with an undisclosed injury.

Defensive tackle Jihad Ward remains on PUP recovering from a foot injury, but seems closer to a return. He was doing side work with trainers before practice.

Seventh-round offensive tackle Jylan Ware got hurt in practice and was slow to get up, but left under his own power. He tweeted “No worries. I’m good,” after practice, signifying that he avoided a significant injury.

-- Several young cornerbacks have played well in this camp. Undrafted rookie Breon Borders has received several compliments on his play. Antonio Hamilton and Kenneth Durden had a strong performance on Sunday. Dexter McDonald has also produced well in this camp.


Raiders counting heavily on lightning rod CB against Patriots


Raiders counting heavily on lightning rod CB against Patriots

MEXICO CITY – The Raiders cornerback David Amerson didn’t practice all week, but ran just well enough to be considered “doubtful” for Sunday’s game against New England.

Translation: Outlook for Sunday is not good, but Jack Del Rio’s fingers remained crossed real, real tight. The Raiders hope there’s a way he can be active against Tom Brady’s buzz saw attack, because their cover men are beat up.

Amerson has missed two straight with a foot injury, and has dealt with injury all year. Gareon Conley’s season officially ended Monday, when he was placed on season-ending injured reserve. Antonio Hamilton and Demetrius McCray were already there.

Reggie McKenzie hasn’t reached out for reinforcements. That leaves TJ Carrie, Dexter McDonald and Sean Smith to play cornerback. Carrie’s been the rock, a sure tackler who hasn’t made spectacular plays but doesn’t give them up. McDonald has been forced into action, with holes let in his game.

Smith should be the No. 1 guy in this group, the steadying presence on the outside. That hasn’t been the case this year, where he lost a starting job in training camp and sub-package snaps during the season, only to have injuries to Conley and Amerson bring him in the fray.

He’s also been dealing with felony assault and battery charges in Los Angeles stemming from a July 4 incident in Pasadena.

Smith has been a lightning rod for fan criticism, a byproduct of his $9.5 million salary this year and explosive plays allowed early in the year.

If there’s an anvil weighing on his mind, teammates insist you’d never know.

“We’re human at the end of the day,” Amerson said. “You feel it, but you have to find a way to remain even keel and professional and do your job well.”

Smith will be counted on heavily Sunday against New England, especially if Amerson can’t play as expected. He has proven vulnerable to speed without help and proper disruption at the line of scrimmage, though that hasn’t been an issue lately because the Utah alum has recovered well after a rough start.

He got pulled after struggling against Vernon Davis in Washington. He didn’t play against the Chargers after giving up two huge plays to Baltimore the week before.

Amerson originally sprained his foot in Week 7 against Kansas City – he hasn’t played since – and Smith was called upon to respond. He wasn’t targeted in that game, and has been strong in coverage ever since.

Smith has allowed three catches for 12 yards in four targets over the last two games. The ninth-year veteran insists he wasn’t doing anything markedly different, and had zero interest in patting himself on the back for recent jobs well done.

“I’m not,” Smith said. “I’m out there doing my job, man, the best way I can.”

Smith says the off-field distractions during a roller-coaster season, one of his career’s most trying yet, haven’t impacted him much

“Nope. Not at all,” Smith said. “As long as I wake up a Raider, I’m all right. I’ll deal with whatever happens. I’ll always be there for my guys, and I’ll do whatever it takes to help our team win.”

Raiders defensive backs laud Smith’s locker room presence, saying he’s an excellent teammate. Cornerbacks in general must have a short memory when things go bad, to refocus and prevent that from happening again. Smith apparently has that in spades.

“I know how things go, especially when you have a target on your back,” Amerson said. “Sometimes you get hit with the perfect pass and you give up some plays. You can’t do anything about that but take advantage of the next opportunity. Sean’s a good player, and he definitely has that mindset.”

Smith will lend experience to this big game, something the Raiders need after suffering so many injuries.

"It sucks that so many of us have gone down,” Smith said. "You want to have all your guys out there, but that’s the NFL. Injuries happen. As long as everybody comes to work and acts like a pro, we’ll be all right. We all have a job to do. We all would like to start, but you have to be ready when your number’s called.”

Raiders standing by strategy for Mexico City altitude


Raiders standing by strategy for Mexico City altitude

MEXICO CITY – The Raiders spent all week at sea level preparing to play 1-¼ miles up. They left Oakland around noon on Saturday confident that altitude won’t be an issue in Sunday’s game against New England.

Estadio Azteca sits at 7,200 feet, a comparable elevation to where the Patriots have been practicing in Colorado Springs. That has created a debate of sorts about which philosophy works best. There’s science to support staying in altitude with New England.

There’s plenty more to back head coach Jack Del Rio’s desire to get in and out of altitude as fast as possible. We won’t break down the arguments here. There are plenty of stories written about that.

We’ll simply say the Raiders believe in their approach, and have experience to support it. The Raiders best Houston in Mexico City last year in a dramatic affair that required two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

“I thought we handled our business well last year and we’ve got a similar approach this year,” Del Rio said. “We expect to go down there and play in a great atmosphere. The fans are very engaged. It’s a great atmosphere to be a part of. Just go down there and play good football.”

The Raiders have worked toward this game the past three weeks. They’ve worked on exercise bikes and treadmills using elevation machine, which matches oxygen outputs at specific elevation. Players have done that and have then been able to recover at sea level. They’ve worn popularized oxygen deprivation masks during other activities, though they’ve practiced as usual.

The Raiders know what to expect in terms of logistics, altitude and air pollution. The Raiders have prepared well for this experience, but that doesn’t mean altitude doesn’t impact finely tuned athletes.

“When you get there, you’re going to feel it,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. “It’s different than anything you’ve ever felt. It’s different than Denver. It was a way tougher challenge. You felt it right away. It hits you getting off the plane.”

Both teams must play in adverse conditions.

“We just have to go play,” Raiders linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “You guys aren’t going to say the altitude had an effect on the outcome. You can’t use it as an excuse. You can’t think about that. You have to train and prepare the way they’ve been having us prepare and go out there and execute.”

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick hasn’t talked much about his strategy of staying at elevation after playing in Denver last week. Extended time away from home can be a bonding time, as the Raiders experienced a fortnight past in Sarasota, FL. He didn’t consider the time spent at Air Force Academy to be a significant advantage.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Belichick said. “The way the schedule worked out, this worked out for us. We’re here and we’re just doing the best we can to get ready for the game.”

The Raiders anticipate Estadio Azteca to feel like home away from home. Raider Nation turned out en masse last year in Houston, giving the neutral site a silver and black edge. Fans took it to the extreme at times, pointing a green laser pointer in Texans quarterback Brock Osweiller’s eyes.

The NFL will certainly be looking to quell those disruptions, especially with a marquee Patriots team in town. New England fans will be audible this time, but another pro-Raiders atmosphere is expected. That’s why Derek Carr isn’t worried about distractions from the crowd.

“No, no, no, no, no. I think that going down there is a home field advantage,” Carr said. “I’m not worried about the laser pointers. I think that’s for the other guys.”