ALAMEDA – Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Chargers means something to Raiders middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman. They all do at this juncture, even with playoff hopes now extinct.
The 29-year old former All-Pro is in a prove-it period, and has been since signing with Raiders in Week 7. The 49ers released him days before, and he joined the Silver and Black to show he could still be a high-functioning three-down linebacker in this league.
He has earned that title in Oakland, playing 96.4 percent of the Raiders' defensive snaps since joining the team. His 84 tackles are five off the team lead despite him spending the season's first five weeks – he was unemployed during Week 6's game -- in Santa Clara. He has a sack, an interception, four passes defense and a fumble recovery.
Bowman's highly motivated to increase those totals against the Chargers in Carson.
"It's about your character as a player," Bowman said after Friday's practice. "People don't understand what goes into this game and how cutthroat it is. We can't afford that mindset of not having anything to play for. We're playing for our families. We're playing for next year. We're playing to not put bad film out there."
Bowman has plenty of good film stopping the run and running a defense he's learning on the fly, something he considers an ‘eye-opening' experience. Coverage was the biggest question mark heading into his Raiders tenure and remains so heading into the season finale, but Bowman believes overall play will continue to improve with further distance from a 2016 Achilles' tendon tear – burst and agility generally returns a second year removed from the injury -- and greater scheme knowledge.
"There are still things I can learn in this defense," Bowman said. "I'm known throughout the NFL for my instincts. I haven't been able to use those instincts in this defense because I don't really know it. I don't know when I can take those chances. I don't know who's backing me up in certain calls. If I'm able to come back next year and get a full training camp and get used to really communicating with everyone on the field, I feel like I'll be able to do a lot more."
Bowman was happy with his choice to sign with the Raiders. He was able to keep family close in the Bay Area, and assume a coveted full-time role right away.
He'd like to keep it next year. Bowman's an unrestricted free agent who has made a positive impression on a franchise sorely missing reliability and experience at inside linebacker before he arrived. If the price and terms are right for both sides, Bowman could come back for more. It's an opportunity he'd appreciate, especially after the defense made significant improvements down the stretch.
"I feel comfortable with (defensive play caller John Pagano) and Coach Del Rio being at the helm and with Khalil (Mack) and Bruce (Irvin) on the outside," Bowman said. "They key, the formula is here, to play good defense. There are things you can improve, and I'm willing to put that work in to get better with them."
Bowman says improvement will come with intimate scheme knowledge, an important factor for his position. Bowman calls plays in the huddle, and helps the front seven get aligined and react to presnap formations. That wasn't always easy, with Bowman learning new parts of the defense each week.
"It's been eye opening for me," Bowman said. "I'm able to take all this in and put it on my back on each week and am still able to execute. There are words being said that I may not have heard before, but it applies to a concept from San Francisco. Understanding which words go with which concepts are new and something I may mess up in practice, but I learn and know that I'll be able to apply it properly in a game and play fast. Those things happen every single week. There's something new that comes up, but I make sure I understand it and go out there and perform."