Cornerback Shawntae Spencer was a starter for most of his tenure with the 49ers. (Photo by Greg Trott/Getty Images)
No team in the AFC gave up more touchdown passes than the Oakland Raiders in 2011.
Thirty-one times opponents scored through the air against the Raiders’ defense last season, the second-most porous passing defense in the NFL behind only the Minnesota Vikings (34).
So, in an offseason of change – as new GM Reggie McKenzie purged high salaries and underperforming players – starting cornerbacks Chris Johnson and Stanford Routt both were ejected.
In their place at cornerback, the Raiders have turned to a pair of veterans cast off by other teams, Shawntae Spencer from the 49ers and Ronald Bartell from the Rams. While the Raiders also have a pair of young corners in Chimdi Chekwa and DeMarcus Van Dyke, and two former Packers signed as free agents in Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood, Spencer and Bartell are likely first in line as replacements for Johnson and Routt.
On the surface, Spencer and Bartell hardly seem to be the answer the Raiders are looking for. Both are veterans who lost jobs on their previous teams, and both have been around a while. Bartell was the 50th overall choice of the 2005 NFL Draft and Spencer came into the league a year earlier as the 58th overall selection.
But with a new defensive scheme and coordinator in Jason Tarver (from Stanford), the Raiders hope Spencer and Bartell regain past form and be key contributors to a more cohesive defensive philosophy geared toward consistency and avoiding huge mental lapses and breakdowns that have been so detrimental to recent Raiders teams.
Tarver has said communication will be a key to getting a revamped defense to play better together.
“When you build it from the start – from the head coach to defensive staff to players, with everybody knowing why – and you progress from there, the answers come quicker,” Tarver told Monte Poole of the Bay Area News Group.
Bartell and Spencer were acquired as much for their abilities to step in and play this season as for their experience and leadership to a young secondary. Bartell has started 65 games in the NFL; Spencer has 72 starts. Both players are 30, having been born the same day, Feb. 22, 1982.
“Me and Shawntae, we’ve played a lot of football in this league, we’ve started a lot of games, been in a lot of battles,” Bartell said before the team’s recent mini camp. “We’ve got some young guys, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Chimdi, a lot of young guys who haven’t played much football. I’m just trying to get them little tidbits here and there. … I’m just trying to show them what it’s like to be a pro, how to approach practice, hnow to study film, how to take care of your body, some of the little things I’ve picked up along the way.”
Added Spencer: “It’s funny, because I think me and Ron might be the two oldest guys here.”
Spencer, who lost his job last season with the 49ers, has 11 career interceptions. He’s also familiar with Tarver, who was a defensive assistant in San Francisco before going to Stanford.
Bartell, who has eight career picks, missed all but one game with the Rams last season because of a neck injury.
“I’m looking forward to stabilizing the position for Oakland and showing everybody how effective I can be when I’m healthy,” Bartell told ESPN.