Raiders

Tahir Whitehead's leadership vital to keeping Raiders defense together

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USATSI

Tahir Whitehead's leadership vital to keeping Raiders defense together

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.

[RELATED: Derek Carr's season resembling 2016 campaign]

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."

Why Bill Belichick will miss Oakland Coliseum after Raiders' finale

Why Bill Belichick will miss Oakland Coliseum after Raiders' finale

It’s no secret that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn’t a man of many words.

When it comes to his press conferences, answers don’t tend to extend longer than a sentence or two.

But when the six-time Super Bowl champion coach was asked about the Raiders playing their final game at the Oakland Coliseum on Sunday, the famously tight-lipped coach opined on the soon-to-be-former home of the Silver and Black.

“Pretty intense fans. It’s like Halloween every Sunday there,” Belichick said to reporters Friday. “So, yeah. I mean, it’s a great environment.

“When I was with the Broncos, of course we played out there, so that was – especially at that time in ’78, if I get that right – I’m pretty sure the Broncos won the division that year. We were right there with the Raiders. It was the Raiders-Broncos. It was a very intense rivalry, so there was a lot of – there was the game, and then there was all the other aspects of the game.

“But, yeah, the Oakland crowd was a lot more intense than the L.A. crowd, and we’ll miss it. We’ll miss it.”

One thing the legendary coach won’t miss is the iconic Black Hole.

[RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: Davis discusses end of Raiders' Oakland era]

“I think we kind of warmed up down there, so it’s not really where you want to be as a visiting coach,” Belichick said. “Tell the players not to stand too close to them in case they throw something and miss.”

The Raiders will host the Jacksonville Jaguars in their finale in front of the Oakland crowd on Sunday, as the team will officially move its operations to Las Vegas before the 2020 season.

Derek Carr among five Raiders who must play well to win Oakland Coliseum finale

Derek Carr among five Raiders who must play well to win Oakland Coliseum finale

OAKLAND -- The Raiders will play their last game at Oakland Coliseum on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It will be an emotional day for everyone involved.

That includes Jon Gruden, as attached to this East Bay fan base as anyone. The Raiders coach has shut off his emotions all week, driving focus into preparation for this game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s the last Oakland moment he can control, and Gruden plans to take advantage.

Gruden desperately wants this win, and a victory might finally provide the opportunity to be emotional about the team’s scheduled move to Las Vegas.

“I wish I had time to stand up here and thank all the fans," Gruden said earlier this week. "I wish I had more time to really sit down and make that the big story here, and thank the fans for their support over the years, and what this franchise has accomplished, and what it means and what Oakland means to the Raiders. So, I’d like to thank everyone that welcomed us back when we came back and I know that they are going to stay with us when we go, but I appreciate all the fans and their loyalty and their support. We’ll try to give you one hell of a show.”

In order to put on a showstopper, the Raiders will need good performances from these five guys.

QB Derek Carr

I generally try to leave the franchise quarterback off these lists, but we’ll make an exception for the last Raiders game in Oakland. He got booed off the field after last week’s first half and again at the end, but this fan base still has a great affinity for the signal-caller who started virtually every game since 2014.

Carr owes them his best on Sunday, and odds are great he’ll put on a show for the faithful. He must improve upon recent performances to execute his plan. Carr will need help from a so-so receiver corps and an offensive line -- Trent Brown’s questionable with a pectoral strain -- that haven’t been at full strength all season.

Emotional Derek Carr is generally the best Derek Carr -- the season opener is a great example -- so we should anticipate him being on top of his game. The Jaguars have struggled mightily this season. but they’re sure to put up a fight during the final game in Oakland.

Carr is capable of putting a team on his shoulders, and he might have to with the Raiders defense playing as it is.

RB Josh Jacobs

The Raiders don’t have much to play for. Their playoff hopes are essentially dead, with the path to the postseason now complicated calculus when it was simple math not long ago. Jacobs is this team’s offensive engine, the player who matters most in what the Raiders do moving the football.

They know that. They believe his fractured shoulder can’t get worse and are hoping to trot him out there Sunday to help win the last game in Oakland. Jacobs' play exponentially increases their chances to win, and Jacobs knows that. He desperately wants to win this game.

The rookie is expected to be active, though it’s unclear exactly how much he will play. A 20-plus carry dose should do the Jaguars in. If he can provide that, the Raiders are in great shape if the defense holds up even a little bit. If not, Sunday could well be a struggle.

CB Isaiah Johnson

There’s no telling how much the fourth-round draft pick will play Sunday. Heck, he might not play at all.

Johnson hasn’t done much since returning off injured reserve, at times a healthy scratch since being activated around midseason. He has sat behind other guys during a playoff push and that made sense, but now it doesn’t. The Raiders are essentially out of the postseason running, with cornerback Daryl Worley either out with a neck injury or moving to strong safety in the base package.

That provides an opportunity to see what Johnson’s got. He won’t be his absolute best, not after missing most of training camp and half the regular season with a facial fracture suffered in the first regular-season game. Rookies can’t make up for that lost time until the following offseason, and Johnson clearly would’ve played earlier had he not been behind.

But it’s time to throw him out there as a test, to see what you’ve got in a talented young player. If he gives up a massive play, so what? The guy has to learn on the job. That’s how Trayvon Mullen has done it, and the Clemson product has thrived despite making some rookie mistakes. It’s time to let Johnson do the same.

DE Maxx Crosby

A devout Raiders follower made a flag to hang over the Oakland Coliseum railing -- enjoy that while you can Raider Nation, the tradition isn’t following you to Las Vegas -- to honor the departing club. He featured a skull and swords as crossbones, with a name filling out the remaining fabric. It said Mad Maxx.

That honors the rookie pass rusher who has already adhered himself to the fan base with one sack and pressure after another. He has proven a better run defender than people have expected. The Silver and Black need him to step up Sunday and generate heat largely missing from recent games.

Crosby currently has 7.5 sacks and would certainly like to reach 10 in his rookie year, needing at least a sack on Sunday to make that happen and give him a chance to compete for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

WR Tyrell Williams

The veteran receiver just isn’t right. Coaches volunteered that Williams' plantar fasciitis has plagued him all season despite it keeping him out just two games in the early going.

Williams simply hasn’t produced at a No. 1 receiver level, which has hurt the offense as a whole. Drops have been a real issue, and his lack of consistent separation can be attributed to his ailing foot.

He is not even on the injury report and is expected to play, and Williams has to produce if that’s the case. He remains the team’s best receiver and has to act like in the final game played in the spot where his grandparents live, in the town where he spent so much time as a kid.