The Raiders defensive unit flew back from Atlanta Sunday night with another loss, but also with a new outlook.
After being the team’s weakest link this season, Oakland’s defenders took a big step forward – after putting in extra work over the bye week – and played much better against one of the NFL’s highest-scoring teams in a 23-20 loss to the Falcons.
“We played well,” Raiders linebacker Phillip Wheeler told reporters after the game. “We just have to do more. A little more.”
Oakland, which was ranked 28th in the league defensively before Sunday’s loss, also hadn’t intercepted a pass all season and had allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete a league-worst 71.5 percent of their passes.
The Raiders then went out and played strong D vs. quarterback Matt Ryan and Co., holding the Falcons six points below their per-game scoring average, picking off Ryan three times and holding Atlanta to 286 total yards.
How did they do it?
For one thing, the Raiders played much of the game in a nickel package – with five defensive backs and just two linebackers – that gave the unit greater overall speed. Rookie Miles Burris replaced veteran Rolando McClain in many situations, combining with Wheeler to give the unit a pair of fast, active linebackers.
And, new defensive end Andre Carter, signed recently, helped give the Raiders a bit of a surge in the pass rush. The Raiders may have had just one sack, but they put much better pressure on Ryan than they did against the last two quarterbacks they faced (Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning) and hit Ryan nines times. Plus, after allowing a league-worst 53.3 percent conversion rate on third downs, the Raiders allowed the Falcons to convert just 2-of-9 third-down plays.
“We were swarming,” Carter told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Vic Tafur. “We talked about it and we executed on the field. You always want good results, but we can learn from this and play on an even higher level next week.”
Added McClain: “This gives us some reassurance that we can play with any team in the league.”
The Raiders have had to make do with a remade secondary in recent weeks since losing their starting cornerbacks over the first two games of the season. On Sunday, two corners – Joselio Hanson and Michael Huff – had interceptions, and safety Tyvon Branch had another.
The three takeaways were huge in keeping the Raiders in the game against the undefeated Falcons and putting Oakland in position for the upset.
Raiders head coach Dennis Allen was much happier with his team’s defensive performance Sunday than in recent games.
After installing a different defensive scheme this offseason – one with more blitzing, more defensive fronts and variations in pass coverages – Allen had hoped for more defensive performances as the Raiders produced Sunday. But, it took a while.
“Anytime you can take the ball away is good,” Allen told reporters after Sunday’s loss. “We did a better job in the coverage. We were able to get to the quarterback a few times. With one of those interceptions we were able to him (Ryan) and have the ball float. Those things work hand in hand.”
Huff, who struggled earlier this season after being moved from safety, now has restored optimism. And, with games approaching against the Jaguars this Sunday and the Chiefs the following week, the 1-4 Raiders have an opportunity to pick up a couple of wins if the improvements they showed on defense and offense continue.
Said Huff: “We know we can be an elite defense. We have the talent.”