Heading into the Oakland Raiders Week 8 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers you had questions.
Now, as the Silver and Black prepare for the rumble at Raymond James Stadium, we have answers.
Here is this week's Raiders.com Mailbag, presented by BART.
From Piotr K: What seems to be the problem with our 'big uglies' on the defense? Peanut Butter and Jelly were supposed to be an impenetrable wall, but they rarely play side by side.
EP:I don't really think there's a "problem" per se with the big fellas up front; like the defense as a whole, I think they're just starting to get used to playing with each other. As far as PB&J is concerned, you're right, Williams and Ellis haven't played a ton of snaps together, but that's just a function of the personnel shifting along the defense front, and not so much an indictment on the play of either of the big men. Both Williams and Ellis have similar skillsets; they both excel at taking up space and being a stout force against the run, so at times, it doesn't make a ton of sense for them to be in there together. Paired with the emergence of rookie defensive end Jihad Ward, and the improvement of defensive tackle Stacy McGee, Williams and Ellis have been rotated in the defensive front the past couple weeks. While the defense is admittedly not quite where they want to be just yet, the unit has shown a marked improvement in recent weeks, and they'll get another chance to right the ship Sunday afternoon against the Bucs.
From Jim B: How was the week of practice in Florida? Do you think the team was able to focus in, or are you worried at all about their concentration?
EP:The week of practice in Florida was good. Truth be told, outside of the team holding practice at IMG Academy instead of their usual Alameda, Calif., facility, it was business as usual for the Silver and Black. Practice ran the same way it usually does, and for the most part, the team kept the same schedule that they do when they're back in the Bay Area. In regards to the team's focus, make no mistake about it; this was a business trip. Yes, the week spent in Sarasota provided a change of scenery – a pretty nice one at that – but at the end of the day, the team has spent their time in the Sunshine State preparing for Sunday's bout with the Buccaneers. Head Coach Jack Del Rio has done an excellent job of making sure the team has traveled with a purpose all season, and this week was more of the same in that regard.
From Larry G: The secondary seems to have improved. What's the biggest difference from the beginning of the season?
EP:As simple as it sounds, the guys in the secondary – and the defense in general – are just more comfortable putting the pads on and playing together. A few weeks ago, Sean Smith said that with all the new additions to the secondary, it would take a while for everyone to get on the same page and gel defensively, and it sure looks like he was right. Let's not forget that both Reggie Nelson and Karl Joseph missed nearly all of the Offseason Workout Program recovering from injury, and combined with the addition of Smith, the Raiders entered the regular season with an entirely reworked secondary. In order for that group to get comfortable playing together, it just took time and some game reps. So much of what the Raiders want to do defensively is predicated on trusting the guy lined up next to you, and as the Silver and Black approach the halfway point of the regular season, that trust seems to be resulting in improved play across the board.
From John W: What are some of the actual differences being away from home preparing for Tampa Bay?**
EP:Like I said earlier, really the only difference for the team this week was its location. While the team was headquartered out of Sarasota for the week, practices were held at the state-of-the-art IMG Academy in Bradenton. However, the schedule remained the same, from meetings, to meals, to even lifts and recovery. Another difference compared to a normal, game week is that the team was sequestered together in the same location, away from all the distractions of home. While the players and coaches didn't have a ton of down time, they were able to get some quality team bonding in, whether it was going to dinners together, or just hanging out and playing video games. To a man though, the players said that even though they were in Florida instead of back home, the preparation and focus for the Buccaneers remained the same.
From Vincent M:Do you feel that Khalil Mack is starting to heat up here and is set to have a multi-sack game?
EP:The thing with sacks is that they tend to come in bunches, and No. 52 certainly looks to be finding his footing as the Silver and Black approach the halfway point of the regular season. With a sack last week in the win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Mack now has sacks in back-to-back games, and three for the season. Coming into 2016, the All-Pro defensive end knew that opposing offenses would now be game planning to try to neutralize him, and I think that added attention took some getting used to. However, Mack will most certainly have his chances to bring down Jameis Winston Sunday, as the Bucs offensive line has allowed 14 sacks in just six games.
From Jasmine L: Who do you expect to line up on Mike Evans?
EP:I anticipate defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr., throwing a lot of looks at the dynamic wide receiver, but I think we'll be seeing a lot of Sean Smith lined up against Evans Sunday afternoon. Evans is a physically-imposing wide receiver, but at 6'3" and 218 pounds, Smith has the measurables to go toe to toe with No. 13, in what I think will be one of the more intriguing matchups during Sunday's rumble at Raymond James Stadium. Evans is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season for the Bucs thus far, with 545 receiving yards, and six touchdown, and has turned into Jameis Winston's favorite target, but behind him, there really isn't much depth at wide receiver on the Buccaneers roster. If Smith and the Raiders defense are able to effectively limit Evans' production, it would go a long way in helping the Silver and Black secure their fifth road win in as many attempts this season.
From Jose C: Is Perry Riley Jr. a long-term solution at linebacker, and are you surprised at how much he's contributed so far?
EP:Is Riley the answer long-term at linebacker? Only time will tell, but he's no doubt enjoyed an impressive start to his career in Silver and Black. In just three games, Riley has tallied 13 tackles, and one forced fumble, starting all three games that he has been on the roster for. But to answer your question, I am a little surprised at how well he's played since arriving in Oakland. While Riley is just 28 years old, he was essentially a street free agent, prior to signing with the Raiders. To be fair though, Riley does have a lot of football under his belt – he's now in his seventh NFL season – but I am surprised at how seamlessly he's fit into Ken Norton's defensive scheme. However, the Raiders do have a track record of finding gems midseason, and then having those players contribute almost immediately, you have to look no further than David Amerson for proof of that.
From Ben D: Do you think Jalen Richard is going to be our returner all season, or is anyone going to challenge him for that job?
EP:The undrafted rookie running back has done a really nice job returning kicks for the Raiders this season, averaging just under 25 yards per return through seven games. Head Coach Del Rio has spoken highly of the work No. 30 has done in that role, and I think Richard has provided a nice spark for the offense with his work returning kicks. I would imagine that the rookie will hold onto that job for the foreseeable future, and the only player I think who would really give him a run for his money would be a healthy Taiwan Jones. Jones handled the majority of the return duties last season, but he's been on the shelf for the past two weeks, and has returned just a half dozen kicks in 2016. To make a long answer short though, I think Richard hangs onto the return job.