ALAMEDA -- Ravens receiver Michael Crabtree got off the line free, went up 5 or so yards and tried a stutter step to create extra separation.
Gareon Conley didn’t bite. The Raiders cornerback followed his former teammate and last week’s enemy stride for stride, anticipated the ball heading his way and got a perfectly timed and placed hand to defense it. The ball deflected softly up, where Marcus Gilchrist could easily intercept it.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Gilchrist said postgame. “That was all Gareon.”
It’s not the first nice play that last year’s first-round draft pick has made this season. He has six passes defensed and two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. He has allowed 51.4 percent of his targets to be completed and a paltry 66.1 passer rating.
Conley's passer rating against is sixth-best among cornerbacks with 100-plus coverage snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. The analytics produced another interesting stat regarding Conely’s good coverage, saying he has forced an incompletion on 28 percent of his targets while playing outside, which ranks third in the NFL this season.
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“He’s getting better,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “I think his practices have been better. I think that’s a big part of it, his preparation on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday has been better and more consistent. He’s been healthy. I really credit Derrick Ansley, our secondary coach. He works good with him.
"His technique is better. He’s more consistent. Playing with confidence. He’s improving. I like it.”
Conley will be tested by the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at the Coliseum, defending both the run and pass. He always has been deservedly confident in coverage, but he isn’t blind to his deficiencies and is working to improve in one particular area.
“My emphasis is tackling, and getting more hands on ball-carrier players,” Conley said. “Besides that, I feel like I can just go out and play.”
Conley’s coverage already is pretty solid, though he has missed some tackles in the run game or taken poor angles that have led to big plays. Those things are being rectified with technique and building strength.
“I think a lot of that had to do with his lower body strength, just coming off the recovery of his injury where he was more rehabbing early in the year,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “Now we get to work on strengthening the lower body and those types of things, becoming balanced and being in a good football position when he tackles. He struggled some in the beginning of the year on a couple of those plays, but he’s gotten better.”
Conley has the size, speed and ball skills to be a top cornerback in this league. This year’s experience has been vital, and it’s one that Guenther considers to be Conley's second rookie season.
Conley played just two games last year due to issues with his shin that the Raiders tried to solve with rest and recovery. He eventually had surgery to repair it and wasn’t fully back until late in the offseason program. He suffered a groin injury in training camp, but he has been available ever since.
“I only played two games last year,” Conley said. "I got the feel of things a little bit, but now I have a better understanding of how the league goes and how teams come at you.”
He’s learning on the job, and is one of a young Raiders defense’s best players heading down the home stretch. The goal is to finish strong and keep building on his talent base.
“I just want keep making instinct plays, relying on my technique,” Conley said. “I missed a couple big tackles this year, and I can always get better in that area. I can get better in press coverage in general and jamming guys at the line (of scrimmage). I can always get better, and I’m going to keep working to do that.”
Conley already is a respected member of the Ohio State cornerback fraternity, many of whom are succeeding in the NFL. Conley, Marshon Lattimore, Denzel Ward, Bradley Roby and Eli Apple have made hay in the pros, and they all remain close while representing different teams.
“Those are all my brothers, man,” Conley said. “We all thrive off each other. When we were together, we competed with each other and always wanted the best for each other. That carries over into the league.”