This season, the Oakland Raiders have allowed opposing offenses to rush for 144.5 yards per game, but over the past two games, the defense has limited opposing running backs to an average of just 29.5 yards per game.
During the regular season opener against the Los Angeles Rams, the Raiders lost Justin Ellis – one of the team's key defensive linemen – to injury, but he returned in Week 13 against the Chiefs, playing 12 snaps, and then played 13 snaps against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 14.
Is it a coincidence the run defense has improved since Ellis has returned? Head Coach Jon Gruden doesn't seem to think so.
"It's amazing how Justin Ellis has a factor in that. He's helped us," Gruden said Wednesday. "Paul Guenther's scheme is catching on I think. Yes, they have played better."
"I think you can see the difference with having him in there," Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther added Thursday. "Him and [Defensive Tackle Johnathan] Hankins have really been playing pretty good. We wanted to work Justin in, he hadn't played a lot of football in two months, so to throw him out there to play 40 snaps, and all of a sudden something happens. They're two big guys, they're athletic, they can stuff the run, and they can move, so having both of those guys in there has been a tremendous help."
The overall improvement from the defensive line doesn't fall solely on the shoulders of Ellis, but his impact can't be understated. The Louisiana native is a humble soul, and while he appreciates the credit his head coach is giving him, he gave the credit to the rest of his unit.
"It's always good to hear the head man give you some kind of credit, but like I said, I've got a long way to go to get back to where I was before I got hurt," he said. "I've got to stay humble.
"It feels good to be back, I don't really feel like it was really me mostly," Ellis added. "I made a couple good fill-ups, but for the most part I think we've been playing better as a D-line as a whole."
With the majority of the line featuring rookie talent, having another veteran presence back in the fold will do wonders for the younger players. Ellis' return to the field was something he waited 12 weeks for, and he couldn't be happier to play football with his teammates again.
During his five seasons with the Raiders, Ellis has totaled half-a-sack, 113 tackles, six tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, and two passes defensed. What Ellis brings to the table isn't completely reflected in the stat sheet, but you can tell just from the last two weeks what a difference it's made for the Raiders defense.
As the team's Week 15 battle approaches, much of the defense's preparation has been geared toward stopping another versatile running back, Joe Mixon. The second-year back for the Cincinnati Bengals has the ability to break off chunk gains, use his power to lay the boom, and can be an elusive pass catcher out of the backfield as well. The Raiders defense was formidable against the Chiefs, and Steelers, but Ellis knows the defensive line will have its work cut out this weekend.
"You've got to put everybody out there and play gap," he explained. "We got gap assignments, and everybody has to hustle to the ball. He can make a guy miss, he can run through a tackle, he can outrun us, so we just got to run to the ball and be gap sound."
If the Raiders are able to pull out the win on the road it would be the first time this season the Silver and Black have won back-to-back games; here's to hoping that comes a reality. With Ellis back in the fold, that battle in the trenches will be the tale of the tape on Sunday.