'Limiting explosives,’ consistency key to improved Raiders defense

'Limiting explosives,’ consistency key to improved Raiders defense

ALAMEDA – The Raiders defense ranks among the NFL’s worst in yards allowed after eight games. There are, however, signs of life.

Their yardage totals went down in four consecutive weeks, with a season-best 270 over essentially five quarters in a 30-24 overtime victory at Tampa Bay. That’s only 23 yards less than the Denver Broncos average, but defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. sees it as a step in the right direction.

Not great, but better.

The Raiders have gotten by thanks to solid third-down defense and frequent, timely takeaways. They’ve been plagued in other areas where Norton saw improvement against Tampa Bay -- consistency and preventing the big play.

The Raiders only allowed two “explosive” plays – passes of 20-plus yards, runs of 10-plus – and were steadier against the Buccaneers.

“It’s a matter of really limiting those explosives, playing and executing ball for the entire game,” Norton said Thursday. “Not having times where we kind of let up a little bit, but at the same time, really seeing them execute for the entire five quarters. They’ve really set a high standard. Now it’s about being consistently playing at that high standard.”

Norton’s defense is premised on making things simple to play fast and not giving up the big play.

The Raiders defense had to hunt and peck at positives early on. Now there are broader strokes to be proud of during a continued work in progress.

“We’ve been seeing some good things on film, but only in segments,” linebacker Malcolm Smith said. “Now we’re starting to see things we’re practicing well show up more consistently on game day.”

Look, the defense knows too many flags are flying their way, including two for having 12 men on the field against Tampa Bay, on third down no less. Those pre-snap penalties and substitution errors won’t fly, and the coaches won’t dwell much on them after initial corrections.

At 6-2, they’d rather focus on positives.

The Raiders are executing better, and the yardage totals have dropped. If those totals improve and the defense’s third-down defense continues, this unit should improve.

“It’s kind of what we’ve expected, you know?” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “Doing some good things and there’s still some things to clean up there as well. But, yeah, coverage is tighter. We’re much more sound, not letting anything get behind us.”

The Raiders still stepped up in the clutch against Tampa Bay, with three straight three-and-outs to close the win and a yardage total finally deemed respectable.

“When I heard 270, it was very pleasing,” edge rusher Bruce Irvin said. “We’ve been averaging a lot more than that. It just shows that we have the guys we need to compete at a high level. As long as guys do their assignment and we leave it out on the field for each other, you see the results.”

NFL Power Rankings: Raiders lack killer instinct; brutal turn for the 49ers


NFL Power Rankings: Raiders lack killer instinct; brutal turn for the 49ers

1. L.A. Rams (3-0)
Previous rank: 2
Football can be cruel. Let’s see how the dream team survives without Talib and Peters. Our guess: well enough. The Rams are still stacked. 
2. Kansas City (3-0)
Previous rank: 4
Pat Mahomes has 13 touchdowns, zero picks and limitless potential. If only that defense would kick it up a notch. Even just a little would help a lot. 
3. Philadelphia (2-1)
Welcome back, Carson. 
4. Jacksonville (2-1)
Previous rank: 3
Bortles went for 375 yards and four touchdowns last week against New England. Then he went right back to his below-average self. When does Fournette get back?
5. Tampa Bay (2-1)
Previous rank: 1
They were first last week to make a point. We like teams that freaking go for it. Fitzpatrick plays with zero fear, which was clear after he threw three picks and still got the Bucs on the verge of a massive comeback. Hope Jameis likes holding clipboards. 
6. New Orleans (2-1)
Previous rank: 13
Maybe the Saints don’t need to play defense. Outscore ‘em like they always do. 
7. New England (1-2)
Previous rank: 6
Something’s weird in Foxborough. Maybe not forever, but, right now, the Pats are off kilter. 
8. Miami (3-0)
Previous rank: 17
Gotta move ‘em with an unbeaten record, but I just saw the Dolphins up close. Still don’t think they’re legit. 
9. Baltimore (2-1)
Previous rank: 14
Might this squad fit a Ravens mold? Great defense with an efficient, smart attack wins football games. 
10. Green Bay (1-1-1)
Previous rank: 7
Clay Matthews says the NFL’s getting soft. Let the man play defense. Or, if no defense is allowed, the Pack’s in good shape with Aaron Rodgers. 
11. Carolina (2-1)
Previous rank: 15
Christian McCaffrey is running through NFL defenses just like he did for Stanford at the college level.  
12. L.A. Chargers (1-2)
Previous rank: 9
Bolts have lost to a pair of excellent teams. They need Joey Bosa back, like, stat. 
13. Denver (2-1)
Previous rank: 11
That’s the Case Keenum we all expect. Or maybe the top-ranked Ravens defense brought the Broncos down a peg. 
14. Atlanta (1-2)
Previous rank: 12
Matt Ryan had five touchdowns and lost. Bad beat for a good team. 
15. Cincinnati (2-1)
Previous rank: 10
Bengals miss Joe Mixon already. 
16. Pittsburgh (1-1-1)
Previous rank: 16
Mike Tomlin believes a single win – which they almost blew to Tampa Bay – can turn things around. Maybe not with Le’Veon Bell chillin’ at the pad, or Antonio Brown flipping out after every loss. 
17. Chicago (2-1)
Can the Bears survive on Khalil Mack alone? Real truth: Maybe. 
18. Washington (2-1)
Previous rank: 22
This is a wonky week for power rankings. There will be lots of 1-2 teams above. I’ve pledged allegiance to Alex Smith several times in this space. That still stands. Can’t figure Washington out just yet. Maybe they’ll be as good as Adrian Peterson allows them to be. 
19. Tennessee (2-1)
Previous rank: 20
The Titans won without scoring a touchdown. With Blain Gabbert for a while and then with a Marcus Mariota playing without feeling in his hand. Again, give Mike Vrabel a medal. 
20. Detroit (1-2)
Previous rank: 28
Matt Patricia stuck it to his mentor on national television. Got Belichick to concede he got outcoached. Lions finally roared. 
21. 49ers (1-2)
Previous rank: 19
First McKinnon. Then the Ken doll quarterback. Did Kyle Shannahan step on a crack while walking under a ladder while a black cat crossed his path? Brutal turn for the 49ers. 
22. Cleveland (1-1-1)
Previous rank: 30
Baker unlocked victory fridges all across Cleveland. The Land acted like they won the Super Bowl. Maybe less for the win and more for the fact Baker’s the real deal. 
23. Seattle (1-2)
Previous rank: 26
Love, love, love that Earl Thomas said he won’t practice even with the smallest nick. Pay the man. Or trade him. Or deal with the defiance and let him get two interceptions. Either way. 
24. Indianapolis (1-2)
Previous rank: 21
Colts don’t have much talent. Plain and simple. 
25. Dallas (1-2)
Previous rank: 25
Zeke took the blame for a loss to the Seahawks. All those yards don’t matter when you let go of the football. 
26. N.Y. Jets (1-2)
Previous rank: 24
Hope Jets fans enjoyed that season opener. Could prove a rare moment to smile. 
27. N.Y. Giants (1-2)
Previous rank: 27
Saquon Barkley averaged 4.8 yards per carry. OBJ hit triple digits. Our advice is give those two the ball every freaking time. 
28. Buffalo (1-2)
Previous rank: 32
Bills secured the largest upset in 23 years. On the road, no less. Against a Super Bowl contender. With a rookie quarterback and no LeSean McCoy. That, my friends, is why they play the games. 
29. Houston (0-3)
Previous rank: 24
Deshaun Watson got it rolling a bit in this one. Don’t think the Texans will be down for long, but…0-3 is 0-3. 
30. Raiders (0-3)
Previous rank: 27
Gruden’s crew is one of three winless squads. Wow. Didn’t see that coming. This team has no killer instinct.
31. Cardinals (0-3)
Previous rank: 31
Josh Rosen got the call to start on Monday. Original plan abandoned. Yeah, it’s gotten that bad that quick. 
32. Minnesota (1-1-1)
Previous rank: 5
This is like when a great kid gets grounded. The Vikings are a really, really good team. But there are consequences for losing to the Bills. 

Jon Gruden admits Khalil Mack trade hurting Raiders in 2018


Jon Gruden admits Khalil Mack trade hurting Raiders in 2018

ALAMEDA -- The Raiders are winless after three games, unable to finish games well enough. A thin defensive depth chart partially is to blame for fourth-quarter collapses.

Coach Jon Gruden plans to rebuild his defense from the ground up, an effort that will take time.

Gruden has a long-term vision, which the Khalil Mack trade will help facilitate. The move didn’t do the 2018 Raiders any favors, a point Gruden conceded unprompted Monday, when asked about finding balance between the big picture and trying to win each and every game.

“It’s hard. I mean, it’s hard to trade one of your best players, one of the best players on a franchise,” Gruden said. “It’s hard. It’s hard on the players. We didn’t get anything for him that’s going to help us out this year. [Injured nose tackle] Justin Ellis hasn’t played. We have a lot of guys on the defensive line that are out. We have had to replace basically the entire secondary, some of the linebackers.

“We’re in the process of putting the pieces back together. That’ll be exciting. But right now we just have to continue to get ready for each game individually. Right now it’s Cleveland. They’re a football team that’s emerging. They’ve drafted a lot of good, young players. It’s starting to show on film. [Baker] Mayfield is the real deal. This young man can play.”

It remains difficult to move on from the Mack trade, which gleaned a compensation package from Chicago that includes two first-round picks.

It doesn’t help that Mack is wrecking shop in the Windy City. He has more sacks (4), forced fumbles (3), fumble recoveries (1) and defensive touchdowns (1) than the entire Raiders defense. Oakland's front has 23 total pressures, per analytics site Pro Football Focus. Mack has 20 on his own.

Those numbers, and all the losing, has made it tougher to forget that Mack is playing elsewhere. It will get easier after Gruden uses draft picks from the trade, and if the Raiders can build positive momentum this season. That hasn’t happened just yet, with another tough test coming up against Cleveland.