Late-Season Rise of Raiders Defense Provides Hope for 2018

As Oakland's horrible season comes to a close, Pagano's work with defense at least gives franchise and fans a glimmer of hope for next season

When the Raiders season comes to a merciful end Sunday, good memories of 2017 will be few. When fans look back on these 16 games, they’ll see a season of promise that quickly fell apart.

One of the few bright spots that may give the team hope for 2018 is the transformation of the defense under John Pagano. Pagano took over when coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was fired after 10 games.

As the Raiders head into Sunday’s game against the Chargers at the Home Depot Center in Carson, they’ll still have a disappointing offense with a quarterback, Derek Carr, who took a big step back in 2017 after a brilliant 2016. But the defensive improvement under Pagano has been remarkable.

Over their first 10 games, the Raiders allowed opposing QBs to complete 72.3 percent of their passes and play to a rating of 113.3. Oakland also had zero interceptions and ranked next-to-last in third-down defense, allowing opponents a 46 percent conversion rate. The Raiders had just 14 sacks.

But as Josh Dubow of the Associated Press noted this week, those numbers are dramatically improved under Pagano. Oakland has five interceptions and 16 sacks in five games, while its third-down defense is allowing just a 27.7 percent conversion rate. Opposing QBs passer ratings have dropped to 72.1.

Pagano has tried to get the Raiders to play faster and more instinctively. He’s getting more out of cornerback Sean Smith – who had been constrained by playing in just certain coverages – and energized the pass rush.

“There’s always guys who think too much,” Pagano said this week. “You react. In football, you react. If you’re thinking too long, you may think wrong. It gives us the ability to play faster. How do you slow the game down for your guys? You give them a plan that they understand, that they can go fast and go attack. We’ve been building those things each and every week. I think we can play faster. I think we can even play better.”

While Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing seems a likely candidate to be let go at the end of the season, Pagano should remain and continue to push the Raiders defense to greater heights. Over the past five games, the Raiders have created a more dynamic defensive identity, with a pass rush featuring Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin and Denico Autry.

The Raiders have allowed 20 or fewer points in four of their past five games and have a chance to do it again Sunday.

The 6-9 Raiders and 8-7 Chargers are set to kick off Sunday at 1:25 p.m. The Chargers are 7½-point favorites.

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