Revamped Raiders Secondary Aims to Up Turnover Total

ALAMEDA – Raiders quarterback EJ Manuel muscled his pass into a tight window, one that never reached its intended target. Rashaan Melvin's hand got in the way, deflecting the ball toward the sideline.

Safety Marcus Gilchrist was closest to it, and snatched the ball from the sky and returned his interception a great distance. He didn't make it too far. His fellow defenders wouldn't let him.

They mobbed Gilchrist in raucous celebration, honoring the defense's second interception of Tuesday's OTA session.

Daryl Worley nabbed the first from Connor Cook, jumping a route for an interception that was also cheered from the boys in black practice jerseys.

Those picks marked the sixth and seventh interceptions of this year's OTA sessions, a point of pride for a secondary looking for more big plays this season.

The Raiders struggled mightily intercepting passes in 2017, with an NFL low five interceptions all last year. A defensive back didn't have one until Week 14, when safety Karl Joseph got one. Sean Smith had two picks the following week against Dallas, the only interceptions by a cornerback all year.

The secondary has been overhauled this offseason, the cornerback position in particular. That group now features newcomers Rashaan Melvin and Daryl Worley and Gareon Conley, who missed most of last year with a shin injury.

That crew had nothing to do with last year's struggles, but is motivated to reverse last year's takeaway struggles in 2018.

"We made a big emphasis on turning the ball over," Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. "Obviously, it's a big part of what we talk about in our meeting rooms. Turning the ball over, getting it back to our offense. We've had some opportunities and you see the guys are getting excited about it. It's good to see that they're all running down there, chasing the guy after he intercepts the ball. It's been good. We've gotten our hands on a lot of balls, we just have to catch them more."

Guenther's defense is aggressive generating pressure up front (often with four rushers) and physical in the secondary.

The Raiders have more talent in the defensive backfield after adding Melvin, Worley, Hall, Gilchrist and others. Reggie Nelson was re-signed and will play an important role in the back.

Conley is being counted on heavily this season. Last year's first-round pick has the talent worthy of his draft selection, and is flashing it during this offseason program. He impressed at this time last year, but injured his shin in mid-June and was hindered by it all season. Conley has been fully cleared after shin surgery last fall, and is back in form.

"I'm happy to see Conley out there running around," Nelson said. "A player of his caliber – long, just like Melvin – he's showing why he was the first-round pick. I think there's a high standard out there for him and he's holding that up. I think Conley is doing a great job right now doing what the coaches ask him to do.

"...He just has tight coverage. He's a great athlete. He's going to be great in this game. Just keep learning and playing ball."

Conley has the ability to be a top corner. That title, on this roster right now, belongs to Melvin. The former Indianapolis Colt drew top receivers last year and covered them well, with a 60.3 passer rating against him. He had three interceptions and 10 passes defensed in 55 targets.

Melvin signed a one-year deal and hopes another solid season will result in a major payday. He has extreme confidence, and believes he'll succeed as the team's top cover man.

"Coming in here, my expectation for myself was extremely high. Nothing's changed from when I first said that to now," Melvin said. "I'm extremely motivated, confident to be in the system and I feel like I can prevail.

"…It starts in the film room. It starts on the practice field. When you line up against a guy, you want to make sure you know everything about a guy before you line up against him. I think when you do that, it gives you a better opportunity to win downs and be successful. It's part of my nature to be competitive and be willing to outwork whoever is in front of me."

Conley and Melvin are in line to start, with Worley in immediate support. Hall has experience in the slot, and Gilchrist is versatile enough to play safety and slot corner.

"He's a veteran guy, seen a lot of football," Guenther said. "He's smart guy. Picked up the playbook in no time. So, he gives us a piece we can move around some. He was a good pickup for us for sure."

Nelson and Joseph will rotate in the back, with Guenther choosing to use several players in specific roles to keep folks fresh. Jon Gruden's hand-picked defensive coordinator wants to combine pressure with tight, aggressive coverage in the back. All of that's ultimately designed to play well on third down, create turnovers and have fun doing it. That's why he likes to see defenders celebrating good moments, even during OTAs in early June.

"We want to celebrate with our teammates so we can enforce that this is what we want to be about for the whole 2018 season," Melvin said. "With those guys out there making those plays, you see all 11 guys flying to the (football), that's a great habit to have."

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