This defense was supposed to hold its head along the league’s elite.
As reality would have it, though, the Raiders are just helping their opponents post elite numbers.
Yes, the defense was pissed. They just allowed the Falcons, an offense with talent but not enough of it, to throw 528 total yards on the stat sheet. Despite the addition of Bruce Irvin, Reggie Nelson and Sean Smith in free agency, Karl Joseph, Jihad Ward, and Shilique Calhoun in the first three rounds of the draft.
The offense wasn’t supposed to be the highlight. This was supposed to be a turnover machine, with sack-happy production and even fantasy relevance.
That’s not what they are. Not yet.
Irvin, a new face who easily takes the crown of being his toughest critic — at least at a level that is impossible to miss — explained what went wrong after the 35-28 loss to the Falcons:
“Communication. We’re not on the same page. We went from a bad performance to a worse performance the following week. We did all the talking we can do, and it’s up to the guys in this locker room to turn this shit around. If not, we’re gonna get beat every week. … I’m speechless now. I’ve never experienced this. Until everybody makes a full commitment to turning this thing around, we’re going to keep being a subpar defense.”
Irvin was noticeably upset, something he’d be after any loss of any kind. This one felt different, even though he’s only been in Oakland for a few months now. He wears his emotions on his sleeve.
Khalil Mack, a more reserved personality, seemed equally pissed.
He wore a frown while taking questions from reporters. The slash brothers, as the tandem were called all offseason, are not playing the way they expected to, the way the coaches expected, and at a supremely lower level than most of the media expected.
They know it, and they’re not happy about it. Said Mack:
“It’s surprising because we work hard. At the same time, when it comes to discipline, you can’t really work on discipline as much, know what I mean, when those bullets are flying. You have to be better. And we will be better.”
Mack, who ranked second in the league last year with 15 sacks but has yet to record one in 2016, added:
“It’s football. Boots, running the ball, screens and cuts. It’s football, it’s basic football. They beat us playing basic football. And that’s not good enough.”
Mack reverted to the notion that the defense wasn’t playing disciplined ball several times during an eight minute long session with reporters, which suggests the possibility that some moves will be made up and down the defensive depth chart.
The Raiders had this one. They were in the driver’s seat with no passengers for the bulk of the day, and even when they were trailing by a score. Things are going to change in the personnel department, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what kind of decisions will be made.
Now for the four downs and two yards of thought.
That offense was as smooth as a Cadillac
Eight plays. 2:28 elapsed as the Raiders charged downfield like a raging bull.
No huddle, bang, bang, bang.
The Raiders advanced the ball 75 yards in the fourth quarter with a determined and well-oiled two-minute offense that they ran barely outside of four minutes.
It’s the type of situation no player or coach wants to be in, but the Raiders proved that their late-game comeback in New Orleans wasn’t a fluke. It was the result of plenty of practice repetitions, and commitment.
Though the offense was firing on all cylinders at times, and though the lulls were present as well, this offense will not be stopped when they have their foot squarely on the accelerator.
Someone has to cover the tight end
The defensive unit has been beat up on the field, and the post-game media session surely didn’t help. But the one point of deja vu was tight end Jacob Tamme, catching passes with no defenders anywhere around.
It was almost like the game plan to stop Julio Jones was to leave Tamme wide open. It wasn’t, and the Raiders are still struggling to cover tight ends.
This was a major problem in 2015, which they partially fixed when they brought in safety Taylor Mays, who was responsible for the F-receiver — generally the tight end.
The Raiders will probably have to bring that back, but their faculty is much better equipped to do that than they were last season. The additions of Nelson, Joseph and retention of Nate Allen and Keith McGill make it much easier to do.
Running four down linemen with two linebackers, three safeties and two cornerbacks could match up well against most teams in the league. This sort of set could help the Raiders back to where they’re supposed to be on defense.
Even swapping to an unusual package — rushing five with six defensive backs — might help improve things. Something has to give, though. The Falcons brought out three tight end formations plenty of times, and Del Rio agreed with Irvin and Mack that the woes are at least partly with discipline:
“A lot of mental, a lot of mental, which I take full responsibility for. We have to make sure we’re teaching it better and make sure our guys understand what we’re asking them to do. Physically there are some situations as well. The bottom line is that it’s nowhere near the standard that I expect us the be at. We’ll need to get it rectified. There’s no dancing around the subject. It’s not near where it needs to be.”
The Raiders won two straight challenges, earning a third which they never used.
Their man, George Li, worked in the booth and special teams coach Brad Seely was their eye from the sidelines. The pair worked seamlessly to create a machine that couldn’t be beat Sunday.
Li’s official title is Football Operations Statistical Analyst, which he’s held since the summer of 2012. He was a defensive assistant for the Raiders under Hue Jackson, and has helped craft advance scouting reports from then on. Which makes him ideal for the job of relaying challenge information.
Amari Cooper caught a third down pass on 3rd-and-9 from the Raiders 21=yard line, and went out of bounds right at the marker. The ball was spotted inches shy of the first down, and the Raiders were all set to punt.
Del Rio gripped the red challenge flag in his right hand as he paced back and forth in five-yard intervals, two and a half times. Then he dropped the flag just two feet away from his feet. Del Rio said:
“It’s the strength of the staff to execute in those situations. Make me aware and us be able to capitalize on that and make good, sound decisions for the football team.”
It didn’t hurt that Cooper’s mark was left on the infield dirt, his left toe creating a clear indicator that the Raiders had the first down.
After further review, that’s exactly what it was.
That was Del Rio’s second challenge, and his first might be one of a kind.
The Raiders punted on a fourth and short play from their own 36-yard line. The play was initially ruled a touchback, before Li’s keen eye for the details made a sudden and unique impact on the game.
He saw what Referee Clete Blakeman and seven other judges didn’t: 12 men on the field for the Falcons.
None of the Raiders players seemed to notice. The coaching staff showed no sign that they were aware of the potential penalty. And perhaps the staff wasn’t even sure they could challenge that after the ball had been given away.
Li came to the Raiders as part of a package with defensive backs coach Rod Woodson. Through the former Raider corner, Li met defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan. And Li became a Raider.
His position is mostly analytical, but there are times when a sharp pair of optics can make a big difference. Sunday was one of those days.
No sleep for the wicked running backs
I harped on the rushing attack quite a bit during the preseason.
My apologies, I was wrong.
The Raiders haven’t faced an extremely stingy defense like the Chiefs yet, but so far, have been able to run the ball whenever they want and however they want.
The Raiders ran the ball for 167 yards against the Saints — including a 75-yard burst through the interior line from undrafted rookie Jalen Richard — before adding 155 rush yards against the Falcons.
More impressive than anything is the efficiency: it only took 25 carries Sunday, with their long being 31 yards. That’s 6.2 yards per attempt, which is tough to maintain but as impressive as it gets.
They ran for 6.4 yards per carry against New Orleans.
Oakland has power, speed, finesse and a total complement of backs who would likely combine to be the most dangerous backfield in the league — should they keep up the pace.
Two yards of thought
For the record, this is not a literal two yards. But it includes thoughts I’ve had during each game, and how that may or may not affect the next contest.
Which happens to be the Tennessee Titans (1-1), a team with a legitimate two-headed rushing attack next Sunday. Tennessee’s attack is heightened by tight end Delanie Walker, who had a career year in 2015, and rookie sensation Tajae Sharpe. The Titans have everything the Raiders have been unable to stop.
This will be a litmus test for the Raiders in a big way, to not only show how good their defense can be, but also to prove that they can get better against tight ends.
Oakland desperately needs a win in Nashville, and really, another win in Baltimore for week 4. They play the Ravens on the road then, and haven’t fared well on the road for several years.
One team is young, inexperienced and has something to prove. At the same time, though, the Titans have talent in several areas, and like the Raiders, were expected to be on an upward trajectory.
The Ravens are are on the other end — several players might be playing their final contract, and the veteran savvy may be overwhelmed by the fact that they are among the oldest rosters in the NFL.
Baltimore, though, has yet to lose a game and the Titans are 1-1.
The Raiders will need to win both games if they want to be considered legitimate. The offense has earned their keep. Now it’s time for the defense to make corrections, and ball out.
Of the newest Raiders, the one who is most captivating is Bruce Irvin. He’s no-nonsense, not afraid to be abrasive, and clearly dedicated to his craft. As noted earlier, he was obviously upset about the defensive performance. He’s a team leader, and that’s part of his role, but he is hardest on himself.
One weekday in early August, Irvin was running drills with the pass rushers on the north side of the field, and yelled an expletive. I couldn’t tell what he did, or didn’t do. But man was he pissed.
And though his tinted visor shielded his eyes and made it impossible to look into him the way some of us can with different people, there was a sense that he didn’t feel right. Not at home, in one way, or another.
This might be a turning point, where he kicks into another gear that he knows he has, but needs some adversity in order to reach it. Apologies if that sounds like part of a lame, melodramatic Hollywood flick.
What is known about Irvin, though, makes it clear that he has it. My sense is that he’s going to reach it.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.