How Raiders Safeties Are Setting Tone for Improved Defensive Play

Denver Broncos wide receiver Tim Patrick had a step on his cover man, and Case Keenum tried to exploit it with a long shot downfield. It was a smidge overthrown, but Karl Joseph wasn't taking any chances.

The third-year Raiders safety came in hot, delivering a fierce blow aimed to dislodge the ball had it been caught. It wasn't, and officials took exception with the hit. Joseph was flagged for unnecessary roughness, but that didn't deter him or the Raiders' secondary from setting an aggressive tone.

There was more shoulder and less helmet/forearm, but the Raiders played physical from the start of Monday night's game at Oakland Coliseum. Marcus Gilchrist and Erik Harris let nothing come easy. Rashaan Melvin was aggressive against the run in addition to coverage duty, with several quality tackles in space.

"As a defense, we came to play today," Joseph said after the game. "I knew I had to set the tone early and that's what I did."

The 2016 first-round draft pick filled the enforcer role well, as he has in recent weeks. Raiders coach Jon Gruden said Monday was the best he had seen Joseph play. Gilchrist and Harris were active and productive in the back, keeping Denver's passing game off balance despite working without starting cornerbacks Daryl Worley and Gareon Conley.

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Keenum threw for just 202 yards and two touchdowns with two late interceptions that iced a 27-14 Raiders win. Monday marked the first time all season that the Raiders allowed less than 20 points, and played with an early lead they never lost.

The defensive line only had one sack but 23 total quarterback pressures. Keenum had a 55.6 passer rating under duress, meaning the Raiders were able to take advantage. They believed Broncos receivers, operating without injured Emmanuel Sanders and recently traded Demaryius Thomas, were playing physical in the pattern. The Silver and Black were ready to match the intensity, and the entire unit fed off that.

"We stayed with our game plan," Gilchrist said. "(Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther) did a good job of knowing when to switch it up, when to pressure and when to play coverage. We did a better job as a defense executing his vision."

The Raiders took a shutout into the third quarter, let the Broncos back in it with two touchdowns, and then slammed the door defensively with two late picks. Being able to finish out a game defensively is a step in the right direction, especially compared with the Week 2 meeting with the same team in Denver. The Raiders held a 19-7 second-half lead and lost 20-19, a moment that still bothers some in the Raiders' locker room.

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That's why it was nice to finish out the game with strong defensive play, which can be taken as a sign of growth.

"I'd being lying if I said it wasn't," Gilchrist said. "When you think back to the second game of the season that we played against these guys, we had a chance to go out there and end it, and we didn't. It was good to come back full circle on a Monday night here and get some stops."

The Raiders have gotten more stops late in the season, and are playing better defense, generally speaking, over the past six weeks.

"I wish it would have started clicking a little earlier in the season, but it's a great opportunity for us going into the offseason to build off of it," Joseph said. "It's fun that we're starting to click. You notice a bunch of new pieces coming together, and you finally see us starting to click together and play well together."

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