At times earlier this season, there was no defense for the Raiders’ defense.
They gave up 30 or more points in three straight games in falling to 1-4. They were cut to pieces by the Dolphins, 35-13; managed to outscore Pittsburgh 34-31; then looked helpless in Denver in a 37-6 rout by the Broncos.
The Oakland defense – which had boasted in training camp about its progress under new head coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver – looked like the team’s weak link.
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. Since the bye week, the Raiders’ defensive unit has improved significantly. In wins over the Chiefs Sunday and the Jaguars the previous week, Oakland has surrendered 39 points total. And in a loss to Atlanta, Oakland held the high-scoring Falcons to just 23 points.
The Raiders, now 3-4 and tied with the Chargers for second in the AFC West behind the 4-3 Broncos, are finally coming together defensively as they begin preparations to face the Tampa Bay Bucs this Sunday in Oakland.
“We’re finally understanding each other,” safety Mike Mitchell told Bay Area News Group columnist Monte Poole after Sunday’s win over the Chiefs.
Against Kansas City, the Raiders had three sacks, two interceptions, five passes tipped or knocked away, a forced fumble and 11 quarterback hits.
Once ranked among the worst in the league, the Oakland defense has moved up to 17th overall in the NFL statistically, allowing 348.6 yards and 26.7 points per game and is No. 11 against the run, giving up 102.1 yards per game.
While the last two opponents, Jacksonville and Kansas City, obviously rank among the weakest teams in the league, it’s significant progress by a defense that lost its starting cornerbacks over the first two games, couldn’t play the run and has reshuffled its linebacking corps to move rookie Miles Burris into the starting lineup and turn former No. 1 pick Rolando McClain into a situational player.
Clearly, this unit is evolving.
Linebacker Philip Wheeler, signed as a free agent this offseason, said the defensive group just needed time to come together.
“We believed in what the coaches were telling us,” Wheeler told Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. “We are all on the same page now. It may have taken a little while because everyone was new here.”
Wheeler, Burris, safety Tyvon Branch and defensive end Lamarr Houston have become key players on a unit that shut down one of the top running backs in the league, Jamaal Charles, to 4 yards rushing on five carries.
Said Allen of his defense, to the Chronicle: “Our linebackers and defensive linemen did an outstanding job of using their hands to get off blocks and make some plays.”
The Raiders new cornerback tandem of former backup Pat Lee, a Packers castoff, and Michael Huff, moved over from safety, has made huge progress since being torched in games against the Steelers and Broncos.
On Sunday, Lee picked off a Chiefs pass and Huff again was solid, after allowing just one reception the previous game against the Jaguars for just 2 yards.
As the Raiders close in on the halfway point of the season this week against Tampa Bay, Huff has become a solid cornerback.
“Huff is a great talent,” Branch told the Chronicle last week. “He’s one of those guys that was born to play football. He is a smart guy, is coached well, accepts coaching well and he’s made a great transition.”
So, too, has the Raiders defense.