Linebacker Nick Roach (53), defensive end Lamarr Houston (99) and cornerback Mike Jenkins celebrate Jenkins' interception vs. the Steelers. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The Raiders’ defense this season is a mishmash of various parts, a group of cast-off veterans and rookies.
Yet once again Sunday in a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland’s defense showed it is far better than its individual pieces. While the Oakland offense struggled in the second half of a 21-18 victory over the visiting Steelers, the Raiders’ defense was weathering a Pittsburgh comeback effort to lock up the team’s third victory in seven games.
Oakland sacked Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times, intercepted him twice and held the Steelers to just 35 yards rushing.
“They’re a good defense,” Roethlisberger told reporters after the game. “They got after us and they were better than us.”
The win over Pittsburgh came just a year after Roethlisberger threw for 384 yards and four TDs against the Raiders, completing 36-of-49 throws. But that Oakland defense of 2012 is long gone. Nine of the 11 starters last season are gone this year and, with the injury to safety Tyvon Branch, only one starter from last season – defensive end Lamarr Houston – was on the field Sunday. The secondary, so porous in 2012, is much improved, led by veteran safety Charles Woodson, veteran corners Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter (who each picked off Roethlisberger Sunday) and rookie corner D.J. Hayden, the team’s top draft pick in April.
“We are better in the secondary,” Raiders head coach Dennis Allen told Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com. “We do a better job of covering. We do a better job of keeping the ball in front of us.”
It’s also helped that Oakland’s pass rush is much improved over 2012. Rookie linebacker Sio Moore sacked Roethlisberger twice on Sunday and Houston and defensive tackles Daniel Muir and Vance Walker each had sacks.
The Raiders now rank 10th in the NFL in total defense, allowing 330 yards per game, and have 21 sacks in seven games after collecting just 25 in 16 last season.
As Bay Area News Group columnist Bob Purdy noted, the Raiders’ goal this season has been to hold opponents to 17 or fewer points per game. In their three victories, the Raiders’ opponents have averaged 14.7 points.
“I think the feeling with us,” Woodson told Purdy, “Is that if the offense gets us 21 points, we should win the game.”
One of Allen’s primary goals this season was to bring in players that would mesh together in defensive coordinator Jason Tarver’s schemes. So he and GM Reggie McKenzie brought in a large group of veteran free agents, such as linebackers Nick Roach and Kevin Burnett, the secondary group and defensive linemen Vance Walker, Pat Sims and Jason Hunter.
In a shock to the rest of the NFL, that defensive unit has come together very well – and there’s still room for improvement. The defense’s next test will be a tough one, against the Philadelphia Eagles at O.co Coliseum this Sunday.
Allen, however, has confidence in Tarver’s troops.
“I knew we had pros that wanted to come to work every day, that were going to be unselfish,” Allen told Purdy. “I knew we didn’t have a lot of big names. We probably wouldn’t do very good in Hollywood. But I knew they were football players.”