Raiders linebacker Kevin Burnett makes one of his 14 tackles Sunday night. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
So far, the “Extreme Makeover” edition of the Oakland Raiders defense in 2013 has exceeded expectations. The Raiders began the season with just two holdovers from the 2012 defensive unit, safety Tyvon Branch and defensive end Lamarr Houston, then quickly lost Branch to injury.
Coordinator Jason Tarver’s unit is a group of veteran castoffs and rookies, and there were many who wondered when the season began if this collection of individual parts could come together to form a more cohesive and effective corps than the one in 2012 that included some much bigger names (and salaries).
The verdict after just five games? Yes it can. After defeating the San Diego Chargers 27-17 Sunday night, the Raiders are 2-3 on the season and now preparing to play at Kansas City Sunday against the 5-0 Chiefs in a meeting of AFC West foes.
And the Raiders go into it with a defense that has kept Oakland in games, except for one blowout loss to the Broncos (who have the most explosive offense in the NFL). Instead of being one of the worst defenses in the league, Oakland now ranks in the middle of the pack. The Raiders are 17th in scoring defense, 17th in total defense and 14th in sacks with 13 (after having just 25 for all of 2012).
On Sunday, veteran safety Charles Woodson received most of the media’s attention by returning a fumble for a touchdown, his 13th career score, and rookie corner D.J. Hayden’s first career interception late in the game helped seal the victory. But at the heart of the Raiders’ 4-3 defense is a trio of linebackers: Nick Roach in the middle, rookie Sio Moore on one side and veteran Kevin Burnett on the other.
And it was Burnett who was all over the field Sunday, leading his team with 12 tackles and two assists, a sack of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, a forced fumble on running back Danny Woodhead that led to Woodson’s touchdown return and a highlight move -- a leap over the block of Woodhead on a blitz of Rivers. It was a terrific night for Burnett, now in his 9th NFL season, to come up big against one of the three teams for which he’s played (2009 and 2010). In fact, Burnett was named a team captain for the game against the Chargers. “Kevin is like a lot of guys that we have on our defense that not many people talk about,” Raiders head coach Dennis Allen told the media after Sunday night’s win. “But they’re good football players.” Burnett has bounced from the Cowboys to the Chargers to the Dolphins, where he played the past two seasons. He’s been a steady performer wherever he’s played, and in combination with Roach (a longtime former Chicago Bear) has given the Raiders a solid duo at linebacker to go with the rookie talents of Moore.
Last season in Miami, Burnett set a career high in tackles with 110. According to Pro Football Focus, Burnett graded out as the NFL’s fourth-best 4-3 outside linebacker in 2012. Burnett and his teammates were able to hold in check a Chargers offense that had been clicking, especially through the air. But on Sunday, Oakland held Rivers & Co. scoreless in the first half and came up with some big defensive stops in the second half when they were needed. Oakland intercepted Rivers three times (Woodson, Hayden and Usama Young), after going the first four games without an interception. Tarver said he knew it was just a matter of time until the Raiders got one (or more), interceptions and he’s happy with the way his defenders are coming together. Though his defenders took some heat after a lopsided loss to the Broncos on Monday night football Sept. 23,
Tarver vowed his team would get better, saying, “We played one where we can obviously tackle better and take care of our own stuff better.” On Sunday night in the win over San Diego, his players proved him right.