Neiron Ball was an unlikely star going into Sunday’s game against the Broncos.
The rookie linebacker, a fifth-round pick from Florida, had played just eight defensive snaps through the Raiders’ first four games of 2015.
But on Sunday, Ball was inserted as a linebacker on passing downs and played 36 snaps, taking over from starting linebacker Curtis Lofton, and made a huge impact, providing tight coverage on Denver tight end Owen Daniels.
After the Raiders had allowed opposing tight ends over the first four games to almost roam free – they had 32 catches for 388 yards and six touchdowns – Daniels had zero catches Sunday, although quarterback Peyton Manning went his way five times.
As Jimmy Durkin of the Bay Area News Group noted this week, Ball provided great coverage on Daniels in the end zone on one play, and also knocked away a pass intended for him later in the game.
Though the Raiders lost the game, 16-10, Ball was part of a unit that held Manning much more in check than in past seasons (he threw for 266 yards and was picked off twice) and allowed the Broncos to convert just 2-of-13 third-down plays – a down on which opposing tight ends had been feasting on the Raiders.
In his postgame remarks, Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said the Raiders “finally got it right” when it came to covering tight ends.
Safety TJ Carrie (who switched from cornerback earlier this season to replace the injured Nate Allen) said Ball made a big impact.
“That guy is very athletic,” Carrie told reporters. “He’s smart and he knows what he’s doing. He made sound decisions. You’ve got to give him credit for what he did today.”
The Raiders, at 2-3, have a bye this Sunday before resuming action on Sunday, Oct. 25, against the Chargers, who happen to have one of the best tight ends in the NFL in Antonio Gates. After Sunday’s showing, it seems likely Ball will be due for more playing time against Gates.
From what he’s seen, Del Rio is optimistic about Ball’s abilities.
“He’s got skills and athleticism,” he said of the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder. “He’s a really instinctive guy. He can really run, has a good feel for the game and we were able to match him on their tight end some and he did a pretty good job in that role.”