Safety Tyvon Branch (33) is one of only two starters returning for the Raiders. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
A year ago, the Raiders went into the season believing they were on the cusp of new and exciting things on defense.
With a new head coach in Dennis Allen and new coordinator in Jason Tarver, the Raiders were planning a more modern defense, complete with more complex coverages, varying fronts and blitzing – things that weren’t part of the package while owner Al Davis was running the team.
Said safety Michael Huff last summer: “Now with D.A. out there, we’ve got all kinds of blitzes. We’ve got 3-4, 4-3 fronts. Just a lot of different variety and a lot of different things going on. So, I’m going to love it.”
Once the season began, however, the Oakland defense was no better than it had been in 2011. In fact, it was worse in some ways. The Raiders finished the 2012 season 28th in the NFL in points allowed, 27.7 points per game. They also allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 66 percent of their passes and sacked opposing QBs only 25 times.
Then, in the offseason, veterans across the unit (including Huff) were allowed to walk away or were released, meaning only two starters from 2012 – defensive end Lamarr Houston and safety Tyvon Branch – are back for 2013.
A unit with nine expected newcomers is usually not a reason for optimism.
At the Raiders training camp in Napa, though, that’s exactly what the feeling is for Tarver.
With a mixture of veterans acquired in free agency, young draft picks and Branch and Houston, Tarver likes what he’s seeing in practice and loves the chemistry – something that doesn’t come through on paper.
“This group wants to know where each other are, as much as the coaches do,” Tarver told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Vic Tafur. “They’re demanding of each other in practice. … It doesn’t take two times to correct something.”
Starters still haven’t been determined at some positions.
The defensive line likely will include some combination of Houston, returning pass-rushing end Andre Carter and free agents Pat Sims, Jason Hunter and Vance Walker. Nick Roach is set at middle linebacker, but rookie Sio Moore, second-year man Miles Burris and free agents Kevin Burnett and Kaluka Maiava are competing for the other slots. In the secondary, Branch will be joined at safety by veterans Charles Woodson and Usama Young, while top draft pick D.J. Hayden and free-agent vets Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins compete for cornerback spots.
That mix of young and old is one of the reasons Tarver likes the chemistry.
“In each position group, we have a veteran, a middle-level pro who’s in his third or fourth year who now knows the scheme and the mentality of how to be successful, and a rookie with something to prove,” Tarver told Tafur.
Woodson, 36, who has returned to Oakland after several outstanding seasons in Green Bay, says he’s also energized by what he’s seeing in practice.
“When I look at the way we move around, I think we’re going to be a fast-flowing defense,” he told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group. “I think that if you can have that on any team – a team that’s willing to sell out every play and get to the ball – you’re going to be in ballgames.”
To Tarver, this group, this season, has the potential to be much better in 2013 than the Raiders' defense in 2012. This mix just feels right to him.
“The biggest difference at camp this year is we’re very physical,” he told Tafur. “And, extending our hands. There are times when you’re blocked, but what are you going to do? That’s what we’re focusing on right now. … That and communication with each other. And this group of guys has embraced it.”