It wasn’t long ago that teams could run at will against the Oakland Raiders.
Just last season, Oakland gave up 17 rushing touchdowns and ranked 22nd in the league in rushing defense, allowing 4.0 yards per attempt. From Game 1 of 2014, when the Jets rambled for 212 yards overall and 6.2 yards per carry, the Raiders often were shredded by opposing backs.
But 2015 is a far different story.
When the 4-3 Raiders go into Pittsburgh Sunday (10 a.m. kickoff) to take on the 4-4 Steelers, Oakland will boast the NFL’s second-best rushing defense. This season, coordinator Ken Norton Jr.’s unit is yielding just 82.9 rushing yards per game, 3.6 yards per carry and only three touchdowns. Plus, the Raiders have allowed only two runs of 20 or more yards.
The Raiders’ front seven, led by second-year standout Khalil Mack – a multipurpose defender at both outside linebacker and defensive end – has been outstanding. Offseason free-agent additions such as tackle Dan Williams, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and outside linebacker Malcolm Smith have been crucial, as has second-round draft pick Mario Edwards Jr., who now starts at defensive end following an injury to Justin Tuck.
This week, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin – who just recently lost his top running back, Le’Veon Bell for the season – said the Raiders run defense is formidable.
DeAngelo Williams, still a fine running back in his 10th season, will be tasked with starting for Bell and trying to gain yards Sunday.
“Those guys are doing a really good job of utilizing their hands, controlling the line of scrimmage and being ball aware,” Tomlin told reporters this week. “Seeing it consistently from guys like Mack and Mario Edwards and Dan Williams. It starts inside and up front and they’re getting those type of contributions from those men and others.”
The analytic website Pro Football Focus ranks Mack as the league’s No. 2 edge defender, with an outstanding ability to stop the run.
In the Raiders’ victory over the Jets last weekend, Mack had six run stops (along with seven quarterback pressures). Wrote Pro Football Focus’ Kiernan Hogan: “Mack is still the highest-graded player at his position and has virtually no weaknesses in his game, earning positive grades for run defense, pass rushing and pass coverage so far this season.”
But, Mack isn’t alone. Williams and Edwards, along with tackle Justin Ellis (when he’s healthy) are forming a wall up front.
Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio says Edwards, since taking over for Tuck, has been a difference maker.
“He’s really flourished,” Del Rio told the media this week. “He’s really done a nice job for us.”