ALAMEDA -- The Raiders had three defensive captains to start this season. They’ll play the Cincinnati Bengals with only one.
Vontaze Burfict is suspended for the rest of the 2019 season at least, and Lamarcus Joyner’s out with a hamstring strain.
That leaves Tahir Whitehead to lead this defense into an important stretch, a patchwork unit that looks a lot different than it did a few months ago.
The Raiders have lost Johnathan Abram, Karl Joseph and Arden Key to injury. Marquel Lee’s coming back off IR but hasn’t been available since Week 3. Burfict is essentially banned and Gareon Conley was traded.
Whitehead is a constant, someone counted on as field general and stabilizing influence from the linebacker position while the defense morphs all around him.
At this point, you could argue Whitehead is the Raiders’ most indispensable defender. He calls signals. He knows the defense as well or better than anyone. He mans a razor-thin position and is a veteran they desperately need to lead this defense down the stretch.
“There’s no pressure in that because I’ve had this responsibility before,” Whitehead said Friday in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. “I know I can’t have any mental hiccups or brain farts on the field. I also know that so much work is done during the week getting everybody ready so that, if I do make a mistake, everyone else is there to pick me up. Everybody has to own the play, own the call and own the defense we’re in.”
He's involved in almost everything, playing 572 of the Raiders’ 613 defensive snaps this season. He can’t leave the field now, not with the state of his position group. Whitehead and Nick Morrow play virtually every snap, with newcomer Will Compton coming to help defend heavier offensive sets.
Whitehead’s leadership role is vital, but he finds it easier this year than most considering how engaged those defenders remain trying to integrate new players and adapt to so much change.
“We have a bunch of guys on this defense who are determined to get it right, get things rolling and make sure we’re ready to win a game,” Whitehead said. “We know people don’t give a damn about our circumstances. People don’t care that we’re playing with so many men down. They don’t care how many backups or young guys or new guys we have starting. They don’t give a damn. Frankly neither do we. We’re focused on communicating well, asking questions and answering them so we get everyone on the same page no matter who is in the lineup.
“We have a bunch of hungry guys who now know what it takes to show up every day and do your job. If you get 11 guys doing that, you win games.”
Whitehead isn’t a perfect player. He has some struggles in coverage but has been strong in the run game and doesn’t miss many tackles. His leadership has proven invaluable during this stretch, which happens both while the defense is on the field and on the sideline.
That’s especially true after something goes wrong.
“I go up and down the bench and look in each guy’s eyes, to see where they’re at,” Whitehead said “I try to talk to everybody and analyze demeanor to see you if a guy is still stuck in a bad play. We know each other so well that there’s no hiding it. That’s when you can pick people up and get things going right again.”
That has been this defense’s best trait. They give up 381 yards per game with the NFL’s 30th-ranked pass defense. They struggle to get off the field on third down and give up too many explosive plays. But…they have several times managed to make that plays required to win the game.
That’s why the Raiders are 4-1 in games decided by one score. That’s how the Raiders beat the Lions and Chargers in consecutive weeks heading toward Sunday.
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That comes from a next-play mentality, an ability to flush out mistakes, refocus on the next opportunity and try to avoid doing too much.
“I’ve been in that position,” Whitehead said. “Sometimes I feel like we’re in a lull right now. I have to go make a play and I do something out of pocket and we get beat right through the spot where I was supposed to be. There’s nothing worse than that. You pick guys up by being smart and disciplined and setting a proper example and proper tone for the entire defense to thrive."