In 2016, the Raiders defense had its problems. Though Oakland finished 12-4 and went to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, much of its success was fueled by an explosive offense.
This year, the Raiders hoped to be better.
But as 2-1 Oakland marches into Denver to take on the 2-1 Broncos Sunday afternoon (1:25 p.m. kickoff), the Raiders defense has been up and down. It was fairly strong in wins over Tennessee and the New York Jets, then fell flat in a 27-10 loss at Washington this past Sunday.
The Raiders rank 26th in total defense this season, giving up 364.3 yards per game, about 11 yards better than their 2016 average. They’re also better in scoring defense through three games, giving up 21 points per game vs. 24.1 in 2016.
Yet in one key statistic, the Raiders have been far worse.
On third downs, Oakland’s defense has had trouble getting off the field. A year ago, Oakland allowed third-down conversions at a 38.5 percent rate. This season, it’s 51.2 percent, the fourth-worst rate in the NFL.
Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. has been generally pleased with the way the defense has progressed this season, but acknowledges his unit must get much better in denying third-down conversions. Another bad day this Sunday could mean a key loss to an AFC West opponent.
“We’re doing so many good things, so many good things on first and second down,” Norton told Matt Schneidman of the Bay Area News Group. “What’s next? Next is third down. Let’s master that.”
The Broncos come into the game with the NFL’s 10th-ranked offense, averaging 355.7 yards and 27.3 points per game. Trevor Siemian is completing 63 percent of his passes and has thrown for six touchdowns and four interceptions, plus the Broncos have excellent receivers in Demaryius Thomas (17 catches) and Emmanuel Sanders (16). The two-headed running attack with C.J. Anderson (235 yards) and ex-Chief Jamaal Charles (142) has been strong.
Norton says the fact the teams are so familiar with one another as division rivals always makes for a special challenge. But if the Raiders can execute – get pressure on Siemian with the likes of Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin and Mario Edwards Jr., and shut down the Broncos on third down – Oakland should be OK, he says.
“It comes down to execution,” he said. “They are who they are and we are who we are. It’s a matter of really working hard.”
The Raiders go into Sunday’s game as 3-point underdogs, according to NFL oddsmakers.