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Improving run defense key for Raiders

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Improving run defense key for Raiders

ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) With their offense still struggling to score, the Oakland Raiders have relied on a defense that has been surprisingly stout against the run this season.

Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who has never been part of a top 10 defense in his nine NFL seasons, expects even more.

The Raiders (3-4) have allowed 55 yards rushing or fewer in three of their past five games and are giving up an average of 102.1 yards rushing.

That's good for 11th in the NFL and is a marked difference from 2011 when opponents rushed for 136.1 yards per game against Oakland.

Two weeks ago, Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew suffered a foot injury on the Jaguars' first play from scrimmage.

The following game against Atlanta, the Falcons didn't run much because quarterback Matt Ryan was having so much success throwing the ball.

For a team trying to get back into contention in the AFC West, it might not be pretty but it has been effective.

``We always have a game or two where we play good run defense, but the key is just to keep it up,'' Kelly said Friday. ``We have to put some games together. I'd rather us be playing better run defense in December. As long as we don't go back to how we looked against Miami, I'm fine.''

The Dolphins ran for 263 yards against the Raiders in Week 2, leading to criticism over the defense being run by rookie coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver.

However in the five games since, Oakland has given up 420 yards rushing - an 84.0 yard average.

The critics have gone silent. For now.

``If you play hard and you get 11 guys flying around to the football, it makes up for somebody that might be out of a gap,'' Allen said. ``You've got to have gap discipline, and that comes back to the players, and the players have done a nice job of maintaining their responsibility and doing what they're supposed to do on most every play.''

The previous time the Raiders were this good against the run? That was in 2002 - the last year they made the playoffs.

Over the past nine seasons, Oakland has routinely been among the league's worst run defenses. The high-water mark came in 2004 when the Raiders ranked 21st. Twice, in `03 and `08, they finished last.

With a new defensive staff this year, Oakland got off to a slow start but picked up the pace considerably over the past month as the players became more comfortable in the system.

Kelly isn't surprised by the turnaround.

``As the weeks go by you're knowing the calls better,'' Kelly said. ``The thinking (has) kind of gone away. Everybody's weaving themselves into the defense.''

Keeping that momentum going could be a challenge for the Raiders against Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Bucs running back Doug Martin is coming off a record-setting performance against Minnesota when he became the first NFL rookie in 25 years to rush for at least 135 yards and have another 75 yards in receptions in one game. Overall, Martin is sixth in the NFC with 543 yards and a 4.2 per carry average.

Tampa Bay has also gotten improved play out of quarterback Josh Freeman, who has thrown for three touchdowns in each of his past three games.

But the Bucs will be without Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks, who was placed on injured reserve with a toe injury earlier this week. That bodes well for Oakland, which is trying to get to .500 for the first time this season after getting off to a 1-4 start.

``I guess everybody honed in a little tighter,'' Kelly said. ``Everybody focused a little tighter, everybody crossed their little T's and everything. The defense is coming together. I just hope we keep getting better.''

Despite the improvements against the run, Oakland has only 10 sacks this season. Only two players, defensive tackle Richard Seymour and defensive end Matt Shaughnessy, have more than one.

``They're wounded and they're coming into our place ... we need to take advantage of the situation,'' Kelly said. ``They haven't gave up as many sacks but at the same time from what I see on film, (opponents) get pressure on (Freeman).''

Notes: Sunday's game will be televised locally, though some tickets remain available. The Raiders had received a 24-hour extension from the NFL to avoid the blackout. ... Allen said he's not ready to decide whether to add LB Aaron Curry to the 53-man roster. Curry, who was on the physically unable to perform list at the start of the season, has a roster exemption that ends Nov. 7. ... DT Richard Seymour was fined $15,750 by the NFL for roughing Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel last week.

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Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

The Wizards' selection of Troy Brown of the University of Oregon with their first round pick has been met with a strong reaction among fans, many of whom argue he doesn't play a position of need, that it was a luxury pick when other areas could have been addressed, most notably in their frontcourt. Big man Robert Williams of Texas A&M, for example, was still on the board. 

The Wizards, though, did address needs by picking Brown. And really, they arguably filled more pressing needs in the short-term than those at power forward and center.

Though the Wizards clearly need some help at big man in the long-term, as both of their starting bigs are on expiring deals, they need help immediately at both shooting guard and small forward. Brown, though he is only 18 years old and offers no guarantees to contribute right away, can play both of those positions.

Shooting guard is where he can help the most. The Wizards have one backup shooting guard in Jodie Meeks and he is due to miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season while serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Even when Meeks was available this past season, he only helped so much. He shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from three. Head coach Scott Brooks often chose to rely more on starter Bradley Beal than go to Meeks as his replacement. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any player in the NBA.

More depth at shooting guard will help relieve Beal of some of that workload. That would be great for keeping him fresh throughout the season and help him be at his best when they need him most in the playoffs.

The Wizards also have some urgency at small forward. It is their strongest position in terms of one-two on the depth chart, but they have no logical third option. That was magnified in the playoffs once Otto Porter got injured. They were left with Kelly Oubre, Jr. and had to trot out Tomas Satoransky, who has limited experience at the position.

Brown can play both shooting guard and small forward, giving them much needed depth. If he can play well enough to earn a rotation spot, the emergency situations the Wizards encountered last season could be avoided in 2018-19.

The Wizards still need to find long-term solutions at power forward and center, but they were going to need to find answers at shooting guard and small forward as well. Both Meeks and Oubre have one year left on their deals. Brown helps solidify the long-term outlook at wing.

Now, there's no denying the Wizards already had considerable talent at both shooting guard and small forward with Beal, Porter and Oubre. That begs the question of how much Brown can offer particularly in the first year of his career. But the Wizards would like to play more positionless basketball and to do that requires depth at wing.

The Boston Celtics have helped make positionless basketball famous and their roster shows that the one player-type you can't have enough of is similar to Brown. Boston has Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris. All are around 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 and offer versatility on both ends of the floor.

The Wizards also now have four players of that size and with positional versatility in Brown, Porter, Oubre and Satoransky. They can roll out different combinations of those guys and possibly have an advantage on defense with the ability to switch seamlessly on screens.

In the age of positionless basketball, players of Brown's ilk have become major assets especially for teams that have many of them. There is such a thing as having too many point guards or centers because they can't coexist on the floor. Versatile wings, in most scenarios, can play together in numbers.

It's different but in a way similar to certain positions in other sports. In baseball, you can have too many catchers but you can't have too many talented pitchers and utility players. In football, you can have too many running backs or tight ends, but you can't have too many defensive linemen. 

Brown gives them options from a roster perspective in the long-term. Oubre has one year left on his contract and if he continues his trejectory with a strong 2018-19 season, he could price himself out of Washington. Brown could move up the depth chart as his replacement one year from now. The Wizards also now have the option to consider trades at the position given their depth.

The problem, one could argue, with drafting Brown over a Williams-type is that it limits their options at center in particular. Drafting Williams would have made it easier to trade Marcin Gortat, for instance, because they would have had depth to deal from. Now, it's more difficult to trade Gortat, whom they have shopped on and off for months, without a plan to replace him. Finding a Gortat substitute in free agency with the limited resource they have would not be easy.

But big man wasn't their only need and in Brown the Wizards may have found a solution at other areas where they clearly needed help.

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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

The first round of the NBA Draft played out expectedly for what the Wizards had planned for the night. In Troy Brown, they clearly got the guy they wanted all along, seeing as there were many interesting prospects they passed on to choose him.

The second round was a bit more chaotic. Team president Ernie Grunfeld said there were a few players picked just ahead of them at No. 44 that they had their eyes on. They contemplated trading up, but no perfect deals were presented.

So, they decided to think long-term, like really long-term. In choosing Ukrainian point guard Issuf Sanon, the Wizards understand it may be years before he plays in the NBA.

"We hope to have him developed in a few years," Grunfeld said.

Sanon, just 18, plays for Olimpija Ljubljana in Slovenia. He may stay in Europe into his 20s before he comes to the United States.

The Wizards have utilized the draft-and-stash model with other players. Their 2015 second round pick, Aaron White, has been playing in Europe for the past three seasons.

Sometimes those players never convey and contribute for the Wizards. But sometimes they do and Grunfeld pointed to a player already on their roster as a model to consider.

"We drafted Tomas [Satoransky] at an earlier age, he went overseas [and] he played at the highest level and it got him ready for the NBA," Grunfeld said.

The difference between now and then is that the Wizards have a G-League franchise starting this fall, the Capital City Go-Go. Because of that, it seemed more likely going into the draft that the Wizards would use the second round pick on a guy who can play there right away. 

Grunfeld, however, opted for roster flexibility. By keeping Sanon in Europe, the Wizards can have another open roster spot. They could either fill that spot, or leave spots on the end of their roster open as they did for much of last season.

"We want to preserve a roster spot, so just because you draft someone in your second round, if you sign him, he still has a roster spot even if you let him play for the GoGo," Grunfeld said.

Sanon may have a bright future. He is a 6-foot-4 point guard with impressive athleticism who doesn't turn 19 until October. He said he models his game after Russell Westbrook, as a guard who can score the ball. More will be known about him once he plays for their summer league team in July.

The Wizards passed on several interesting prospects to pick Sanon. Still on the board were Keita Bates-Diop of Ohio State, Hamidou Diallo of Kentucky and Svi Mykhailiuk of Kansas, three players they brought in for pre-draft workouts. But instead, they went with a long-term investment, hoping they found the next Satoransky.

MORE 2018 NBA DRAFT COVERAGE:

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