Jason Tarver is in his second year as defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders. Photo by Tony Gonzales.
As I sat in the Coliseum last Sunday watching the final tense moments of the Raiders 21-18 narrow victory over the Steelers, a strange calm came over me. I knew that the defense nobody wanted would come through. Yes the Steelers scored two fourth quarter touchdowns to make the game uncomfortably close after Oakland raced out to a 21-3 lead, but the near orphans sacked QB Ben Roethlisberger five times, grabbed two interceptions and held Pittsburgh to just 35 yards rushing in the win.
The Silver and Black defense has had to at times carry an offense that has endured many injuries along the offensive line while breaking in a young quarterback in Terrelle Pryor and more times than not they've been up to the challenge.
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The improvement is stunning given how this defense was constructed and the short amount of time the unit has played together as a whole. One of the charges of General Manager Reggie McKenzie from day one has been to clean up a messy salary cap situation which left Oakland with one of the lowest amounts of money to spend this past off-season. McKenzie was going to have to shop frugally to get his to do list done. The first wave of free agency went by, as did the second and the third.
McKenzie went to work finding the best players at the best price who fit Head Coach Dennis Allen and Defensive Coordinator Jason Tarver's aggressive scheme on the field and the requirement of being smart character guys who loved football off of the field.
Mission accomplished. Of the 11 starters who were on the field for the first defensive snap versus the Steelers, eight came to the Raiders on a one-year deal. Another, star defensive end Lamarr Houston, is on the last year of his rookie deal. Only two players, middle linebacker Nick Roach and rookie outside linebacker rookie Sio Moore have deals beyond this season. The defense is on a prove-it mission. Players on the last year of their deals tend to be in better shape, fight through injuries and play motivated to earn the next deal. They have a sense of urgency and that's how the Raiders defense has played this season.
Defensive tackle Vance Walker, who came to Oakland on a one-year deal from Atlanta, told me last week on my radio show that a one-year deal is motivation for an NFL player, but at the same time this is a special mix the Raiders have assembled. "It is motivation, but I would say we've got a good group of hungry guys on defense," Walker said. "None of the contract stuff matters when you're on the field, but during the off-season there is certainly motivation to get ready and show what you can do."
There is a reason these guys were available this off-season and every player on the defense has a different story of persuasion in 2013:
- Future Hall of Fame safety Charles Woodson said earlier this season he felt disrespected by the free agency process and wants to prove he can still play at 37.
- Rookie first round pick DJ Hayden's story is widely told. Many still don't believe he can fully come back to what he was before his horrific, life-threatening injury.
- Rookie Sio Moore felt like he should have gone earlier than the third round.
- Young veterans Nick Roach and Vance Walker want to prove they can be every down players and starters for 16 games, something they have never been.
- Corner Tracy Porter intercepted Peyton Manning while he was in New Orleans to seal a Super Bowl. He was largely forgotten on this year's free agent market because of injuries last year in Denver.
- Corner Mike Jenkins is a former first round pick who was replaced in Dallas, he wants to prove he still has that talent.
- Lamarr Houston changed positions this off-season from a base left defensive end to a pass rushing right defensive end. He wants to take the next step to stardom on the last year of his rookie deal.
As incredible as the individual stories are regarding the turnover which has occurred from 2012 to 2013 on the defensive side of the ball, it takes time to develop continuity among individual defensive position groups, let alone an entire defensive unit. Nine of 11 starters are new this season and if you look at week three to the present, there is not one player in the same position as a year ago on the crew. Safety Tyvon Branch was the only player this season who was starting in the same spot he was last season and he has missed the last five games with an ankle injury. Houston was a starter in 2012, but he role and position are different this year. In 2012 Houston was a run stopping base left defensive end. In 2013, he lost 20 pounds in the off-season to get faster and moved to right defensive end. He faces the opponents left tackle, regarded as the best offensive lineman because he has to protect the quarterback's blind side. All Houston has done is rack up a team high four sacks through seven games, nine quarterback hits, which is third in the league, and 25 quarterback pressures, which is fourth overall.
The other surprising part to the defensive turnaround is the lack of snaps the unit has played together. In the preseason the defense did not play together as a whole until the fourth preseason game due to injuries. Essentially this team has been a full unit for about 32 quarters. The defense that nobody wanted is going to get better.
While McKenzie did the shopping for the players, Head Coach Dennis Allen, who is a former defensive coordinator in the NFL, and mad scientist Defensive Coordinator Jason Tarver wanted a unique kind of player.
"We wanted a certain player who really loves football," Tarver said. "We like the players, they want to be great. They study hard when they are with us, they text and call when they aren't here, so the work ethic and passion is there."
Tarver stopped short though of saying the defense is where he wants it to be.
"We're still leaving plays on the table though, we need to finish better, but that comes with more time playing together," Tarver said. "The sky is the limit."
Players play and coaches coach so ultimately the success of the defense rides on the guys who step on the grass and make plays. Tarver's coaching style clearly has won the players over though. He likes the group and the group loves Tarver's energy, passion and pedal to the metal style.
"We've all bought in," said linebacker Sio Moore, who had 1 1/2 sacks last week vs. the Steelers. "Coach Tarver is so passionate, he sets high expectations and wants us to be elite. He knows where to put guys to make plays. He's so smart, we know if we follow his lead we'll make the plays."
The two major statistics that jump out year to year are sacks and the run defense.
No team in the NFL this season has varied their blitz packages to get as many different players to the quarterback as the Raiders. Oakland has 21 sacks by 14 different players. It's a design by Tarver to confuse the quarterback pre snap and the offensive lineman who don't know who is being "activated" (Tarver's term for a blitzing player), and who is staying back in coverage.
"The quarterback picks who sacks them, that's part of our plan," Tarver said. "When you're activated it's your time to win. Our sack numbers need to be higher, we want the most in the league, it's good to be greedy on defense."
As for the run defense, the tape was embarrassing at times in 2012. Missed tackles, blown gap assignments and big plays marked the unit. In 2013, the Raiders are the only team that has currently not allowed a run of 20 or more yards on the season. The run defense is yielding about 30 yards less per game this season and Oakland's 3.6 yards per carry against is tied for fourth best in the NFL. The team faces a big test this Sunday when the NFL's leading rusher LeSean McCoy comes to town with the Eagles.
Tarver told me it's as simple as guys taking care of assignments first and getting as many bodies to the ball fast then making the play once you get there.
"Guys are flying around, taking care of gaps, making the plays, that's what we want," Tarver said.
The defense nobody wanted is quickly becoming the defense nobody wants to face.