Vontaze Burfict

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."

Suspended Raiders' Vontaze Burfict calls Roger Goodell a 'total b---h'

Suspended Raiders' Vontaze Burfict calls Roger Goodell a 'total b---h'

Vontaze Burfict never stood a chance in his appeal meeting with Roger Goodell and league officials in New York in October.

At least, that's how the suspended Raiders linebacker feels.

In an interview with The Athletic's Vic Tafur, Burfict spoke about the meeting and unloaded on the NFL commissioner.

“I met (commissioner) Roger Goodell in New York and he was a total b---h,” Burfict told Tafur. “He was a b---h. He didn’t let anybody speak, he rushed us in and out of the meeting. The meeting was bulls---t. He already had the suspension in his hand.”

The NFL suspended Burfict for the remainder of the 2019 season following a helmet-to-helmet hit on Colts tight end Jack Doyle on Sept. 29. Burfict was ejected from the game for the hit.

Burfict told Tafur that the NFL wasn't interested in the video he presented showing clean tackles he had made.

“They didn’t give a f--k about that s--t,” Burfict told Tafur.

Burfict even said that calls from Raiders coach Jon Gruden and quarterback Derek Carr didn't help his case.

“That meant a lot to me, but the NFL didn’t give a f--k about that s--t either,” he said. “Derek Carr, my guy, said his piece about how I was a captain and a great teammate and not a dirty player, and (appeals officer) Derrick Brooks almost cut him off. He said we appreciate you coming on the call, but they didn’t need Derek Carr to vouch for me. Brooks made his mind up already. They let me know before I woke up the next day. They didn’t even go in the office, make some coffee and discuss it for a few minutes.”

[RELATED: Burfict scared off scouts before draft]

The Raiders have had Burfict's back throughout this whole saga, and on numerous occasions, have called out the league for the harsh penalty.

We imagine the events that transpired during that meeting in October have a lot to do with the comments made by the team over the last few months.

Nicholas Morrow, Tahir Whitehead used to change in Raiders' LB corps

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USATSI

Nicholas Morrow, Tahir Whitehead used to change in Raiders' LB corps

ALAMEDA – Brandon Marshall returned to the Raiders this week, roughly two full months after he got cut. The veteran linebacker nearly made the team back in September but fell victim to some roster math and questions about whether he still had the explosiveness required of the position.

The Raiders have turned several linebackers over since then, with the spin cycle hitting top speed following Vontaze Burfict’s season-long suspension starting in Week 4.

Marshall thought he’d get a call then. Surprisingly enough, he didn’t.

“I did think [I’d get a call],” Marshall said. “I was wondering about it, but they ended up bring in some younger guys. It’s cool. It’s their team, but they eventually did bring me back, and I’m excited about it.”

Adding Marshall now adds a different dimension to the linebacker room. While newcomer Will Compton still needs to absorb a ton, he’s a veteran and can pick things up quickly.

Marshall and Compton enter just as Justin Phillips was waived with an injury settlement and the Dakota Allen experiment was ended.

Those guys were the first replacement wave, added after Marquel Lee was placed on injured reserve and Burfict essentially was banned in an unprecedented move for an on-field action.

Nicholas Morrow and Tahir Whitehead have learned to adapt to new folks in the meeting room.

“It changes every time somebody leaves and somebody else comes in,” Morrow said. “It was obviously different before and after Vontaze’s situation. We brought in some new and younger guys, and it felt almost like we were going back to training camp. There was a lot more teaching and streamlining things.”

The Raiders were preparing backups. They have become completely reliant on Morrow and Whitehead, who have played virtually every snap since Burfict was first ejected in Week 4. Phillips played some defense against Green Bay, but he wasn’t terribly effective.

Morrow and Whitehead have formed a solid partnership on the interior, where the Raiders almost exclusively remain in two linebacker sets.

“We’ve been playing together for a while and we understand each other,” Morrow said. “I believe in Tahir and trust every call he makes. I think he believes in me, and we definitely lean on each other.”

Bringing Marshall back has eased this latest transition. While Morrow and Whitehead still will be primary contributors, the room isn’t doing as much review as before.

“I think it’s a little bit different in regards that we have a couple more veteran players in there that have played and understand concepts of coverage and those type of things rather than younger guys that haven’t really been through that, so that’s good,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “And both Brandon and Will have picked up the defense really good. Obviously, Brandon has seen it all spring and training camp, but Will has done a really good job. Both of them are smart guys.”

Marshall’s role won’t be huge in Sunday’s clash with Detroit, but his balky knee responded well to the time away from football and he hopes to get back in the mix defensively. Lee can return after Week 12 at the earliest, and having some quality depth, or at least the option to play three linebackers at once would be a luxury rarely afforded in recent games.

[RELATED: Playoffs?! Long road trip showed Raiders what is possible]

Morrow says he and Whitehead are ready for anything, even continued high-volume Sundays, but certainly welcome the veteran help.

“At this point, we’re comfortable with all the change,” Morrow said. “We just move on and adapt and work our tails off and prepare as best we can.

“It’s definitely a unique situation, but this is the NFL. You have to adapt. We’ve had guys coming in and out, but it’s nice to have ‘B-Marsh’ back in the room. He’s a great asset.”