Analysis: Clutch performance key to Raiders’ 6-2 first half

Analysis: Clutch performance key to Raiders’ 6-2 first half

ALAMEDA – The Raiders fell down with roughly four minutes remaining in Sunday’s game against host Tampa Bay. They had blown a fourth-quarter lead and were in the red allowing 14 unanswered points.

There was no panic on the sideline featuring Silver and Black. These Raiders had been down and seemingly out several times before, then came roaring back.

It happened extremely late at New Orleans and Baltimore. They had to weather late storms from Tennessee and San Diego.

Sunday’s adverse circumstances gave no cause to fret.

“You heard guys on the sidelines saying, ‘We’ve been here before,’ and it’s true,” receiver Amari Cooper said. “Every time we’ve been in that situation we seem to come out on top.”

The Raiders took a strange path to an expected outcome. There were bumps in the road, but they tied it near the end of regulation and won with Seth Roberts’ 41-yard catch-and-run-like-hell late in overtime to notch this year’s third comeback win.

Clutch performances aren’t the only reason the Raiders are 6-2 heading into the season’s second half. There’s a lot of talent showing up in all circumstances.

They have an MVP candidate in quarterback Derek Carr. They have two excellent receivers in Cooper and Michael Crabtree and one of the league’s best offensive lines. They feature an excellent punter, a dynamic return man and solid coverage teams.

There are some glaring issues. There’s talent along the defensive front and in the secondary, but the yards allowed are off the charts. They’re first in penalties by a long shot.

Those deficiencies, however, have been countered by a third-down defense that is tied fourth best in the NFL and plus-7 turnover margin stands alone in the fourth spot.

That fits with the defining characteristic of these first eight games: The Raiders have played well under extreme pressure.

“I feel great about that,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “Last year, I think we learned how to compete for 60 minutes. I think this year, we’ve learned how to continue to compete for 60 minutes and look for and expect to make the plays that need to be made to win.”

The belief has always been there, but the tone was set in New Orleans. The Raiders were down two scores heading into that fourth quarter at the SuperDome, but crawled back into it and were a point back after Seth Roberts' clutch touchdown with 47 seconds left.

Del Rio didn’t play for a tie. He went for two points instead – with was a gamble with logic behind it – and Carr to Crabtree was etched into Raiders lore.

It gave the Raiders confidence under difficult circumstances in Baltimore, when Carr found Crabtree for a go-ahead touchdown from 23 yards out, and the defense sealed victory with some big hits.

“It’s not the first time we’ve done that,” Crabtree said at the time. “I’m not surprised at all. I have confidence in my team. We don’t blink at all.”

That was clear again Sunday, when the Raiders found a way to win despite 200 penalty yards, plus a game-winning field goal and overtime kick sent wide.

That got the Raiders through the halfway point with a 6-2 record, including an excellent 5-0 on the road. It also sets up an epic showdown with AFC West rival Denver in Oakland on Sunday night -- that Raiders coaches are already playing down.

That’s what should happen. It won’t make or break a season, but it would mark the first win over a team that is currently over .500 and quiet detractions. The Raiders want to win the AFC West, and have four division games – three are on the road -- to help achieve that end.

There’s a home-away-from-home game against Houston in Mexico City, and games against Carolina, Indianapolis and Buffalo slated for afternoons in the East Bay.

Oakland, Denver and Kansas City all have two in the loss column. The Raiders and Broncos currently stand atop the division and two games up in the wild card race.

It’s far too early to worry about playoffs or whether Carr could win an MVP. The next eight games will decide those things, and a continuation of this success would make them playoff bound.

And, there might/will likely be a time (or two) where a close game doesn’t fall the Raiders’ way. That won’t swipe their swagger.

They believe in Del Rio’s process and his leadership thanks to early dividends paid. Coaches and players know they can’t rely on dramatics to finish the season strong. They have to peak and play better, more consistent football to break a 13-year playoff drought.

“We have such a long way to go as a team,” Carr said. “We see the end goal in sight, what we want the team to look like, we’re just not there yet but we have a long way to go and we’ll keep working until we get there.”

Vontaze Burfict wants Antonio Brown beef behind him with both on Raiders now


Vontaze Burfict wants Antonio Brown beef behind him with both on Raiders now

Things might get awkward at the start of Raiders OTAs in May.

That's when new teammates Vontaze Burfict and Antonio Brown will share a locker room for the first time.

Burfict (Cincinnati Bengals) and Brown (Pittsburgh Steelers) played on opposite sides of one of the AFC North's fiercest rivalries, and things came to a head in the 2015 postseason. That's when Burfict knocked Brown out of the playoffs with a dirty, illegal hit to the head, and received a three-game NFL suspension. 

But Burfict, who signed a one-year contract with the Raiders on Tuesday, told reporters in a conference call he isn't concerned about any lingering tension between himself and the talented wide receiver.

"We're on the same team, with one goal. It's all positive, man," Burfict said. "He's a great player, he's gonna be a Hall of Famer one day, and honestly I'm gonna approach him just like I do all my other teammates. I'll introduce myself, all that good stuff. ... There's nothing negative over here, man. We're on the same team, everything's [about] trying to win a championship over here."

The Raiders traded for Brown earlier this month, and he tweeted Tuesday that he had already reached out to Burfict.

That's a marked departure from the ex-Steelers star. When former Pittsburgh teammate Juju Smith-Schuster crushed Burfict with a vicious block, "no one enjoyed [it] more than Brown," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook wrote Tuesday. In the aftermath of Burfict's hit, Brown made his displeasure with the play clear to Cook.

“I feel like guys don’t want to stop me no more,” Brown told Cook in early 2016. “They want to take me out. They want to kill me. They want to steal my dreams. They want to ruin me. They want to end me.”

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Burfict, for his part, sounded more than ready to bury the hatchet Tuesday. He said he'll keep an open mind when he meets Brown, as well as the rest of his new teammates.

"Honestly, we might [end up being] the closest friends on the team, you know what I mean," Burfict said. "So, just gotta go along with it, and I can't wait to meet him."

If Brown's tweet is any indication, he feels the same way. 

Vontaze Burfict wastes no time reuniting with Raiders DC Paul Guenther


Vontaze Burfict wastes no time reuniting with Raiders DC Paul Guenther

Vontaze Burfict was cut by the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday, and immediately called his mother. The veteran linebacker explained the situation, ended the call and then made another one.

“The second person I called was Pauly G,” Burfict said. “He didn’t pick up. I think I called him like seven times straight.”

Those who know Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther best call him “Pauly G.” Count Burfict firmly in that class.

That’s why Burfict didn’t last long on the open market. The Raiders signed him Tuesday night to a one-year contract reportedly worth up to $5 million, less than 24 hours after he was released.

A Guenther-Burfict reunion seemed inevitable because of the veteran’s expertise running the coordinator's defensive scheme and a clear bond on and off the field.

Player and coach have a close relationship dating to Burfict’s rookie season in Cincinnati. Guenther was Burfict's position coach in 2012, and the two fostered a strong working relationship during a long-night cram session before a Sept. 23 game against Washington. Thomas Howard hurt his knee, Burfict recalled, and Guenther told him he would start and play out of position. Burfict was a middle linebacker by trade, but the Bengals needed him on the outside.

“It was like 8 p.m., and he took his time out to set the trash cans up and go through the whole playbook over like two hours with me,” Burfict said in a conference call after he signed with the Raiders. “I got like nine tackles that game, and I just looked at him and said, ‘I appreciate that. You took your time out when you could’ve just gone home.' Ever since then, it has been a close relationship to where I know his kids and his wife. We go out to dinner. It’s a good time to have a good relationship like that with a coach.”

That should help Guenther’s system run smoothly, an important factor with so much youth on defense. Burfict can be an on-field coordinator if he can stay healthy and out of trouble with the NFL.

Burfict said he’s fully fit after concussion problems last season and health issues in recent years. The NFL has disciplined him several times for vicious, illegal after-the-whistle hits that some consider dirty. That includes a nasty blow dropped on former Steelers receiver and new Raiders teammate Antonio Brown that generated plenty of negative press.

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Burfict doesn’t consider his style poor form.

“I’m not a dirty player,” Burfict said. “I play a physical position at middle linebacker. I can’t go in there playing patty-cake. If I do that, I’m going to get run over. I have 300-plus-pound linemen coming in trying to block me. If I play soft, I’m not doing my job. … I play a physical position where I have to put my jockstrap on right, put my cleats on right and be ready to play physical.”