Raiders relying on improving defense to gain momentum

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Saturday, October 14, 2023

"We want to be the reason why we win." -- Raiders edge rusher Maxx Crosby, on Las Vegas' oft-ridiculed defense.

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Something clicked for the Las Vegas Raiders' defense at halftime of their Week 4 loss at the Los Angeles Chargers.

Something a long time coming. Something that, with a New England Patriots offense that has scored three points combined in its last two games coming to town for a game Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, Allegiant Stadium, CBS), has the potential of continuing to click.

Because as Crosby, the reigning AFC defensive player of the week, acknowledged, the Raiders pitched a shutout in the second half in Week 4 at the Chargers and then limited the Green Bay Packers to 13 points in Monday night's victory. So, what is the Raiders defense doing better now than it was in the first three-plus games?

Crosby gave credit to defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.

"He's doing a great job leading us and putting us in great positions and we have a lot of guys that are bought in, so that's all you can ask for," said Crosby, whose 23 games of at least four pressures the last three seasons leads the NFL by five games (Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons and San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa are next with 18 each).

"Getting more shots at goal and continuously going after the ball and hunting the ball, that's what it's all about. And we've got to play complementary football; everybody's got to be tied in together, and I think it's a credit to all the leaders on this side of the ball ... everyone's on the same page and we're just trying to look for ways to improve in every way we can. I think people are seeing that and we've just got to keep going in the right direction."

The picture the defense took against the Packers was one for the mantle. Three takeaways -- including two interceptions by linebacker Robert Spillane, who entered the game without a single pick and only one fumble recovery in his five-year career, and an acrobatic end zone INT by Amik Robertson with 44 seconds left to seal the win -- were the difference.

They were coupled with veteran cornerback Marcus Peters' unsung but heads-up horsecollar penalty, when he yanked down Packers receiver Christian Watson inside the Raiders' 10-yard line at the end of a 77-yard pass to prevent a sure touchdown. The defense stiffened and forced a field goal, saving a crucial four points in the 17-13 win.

In fact, the Raiders' three interceptions Monday were as many as they had in their previous 10 games combined, and the three-pick game was their first such game in 33 games. Their last previous three-interception game came in Week 6 victory over the Denver Broncos in 2021.

Plus, the 13 points allowed were tied for their fewest allowed in the last three seasons.

"Guys are seizing the opportunity," Graham said. "They work on it in practice, they work on it in the meeting room. It's just constantly working through the process and trying to find a way to reap your reward on Sunday or Monday."

Through five weeks, the Raiders are the 14th-best defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed and the Patriots have been outscored by a combined 72-3 the last two weeks, resulting in two worst losses of New England coach Bill Belichick's 29-year NFL career.

Fool's gold for the Silver and Black, or time for a reinvigorated Raiders defense to hunt? Especially given Raiders coach Josh McDaniels' ties to the Patriots?

Consider: since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002, the Raiders have finished in the top half of the league in total defense only four times -- 11th in 2002, third in 2006, 11th in 2010 and 14th in 2021.

Yes, third in 2006, when the Raiders went 2-14, setting them up to draft JaMarcus Russell with the first pick of the 2007 NFL draft. Another statistical oddity: in 2016, when they had NFL defensive player of the year Khalil Mack and went to the playoffs, the Raiders finished 26th in total defense.

"This league, everybody's good," said Crosby, who has five sacks, ninth-most in the league. "So whoever wins the turnover battle typically wins the game. That's something we focus on every single day. We drill it, we practice it, we do it in every single way. Finally starting to see more [takeaways], but it's just the beginning.

"We've got to keep doing it at a high level, keep hunting the ball and that's how we're going to help the team win. Just got to focus on the details and keep improving."

Still, the Raiders, with only four takeaways (safety Tre'von Moehrig also had a third-quarter interception of Chargers QB Justin Herbert), are at minus-7 in turnover ratio, tied for third-worst in the league.

On the flip side, those four takeaways have come in Las Vegas' last six quarters.

Then there's this -- while the Raiders are the fifth team since 2010 to score less than 20 points in each of their first five games of a season, they are the only team among that group to win a game, and they are 2-3.

Yes, 2-3 with ultra-winnable games upcoming against the Patriots (1-4), Chicago Bears (1-4) and New York Giants (1-4) and New York Jets (2-3) with a Monday nighter at the Detroit Lions (4-1) wedged between the Bears and Giants matchups.

Small sample size, but with the offense still finding its bearings, the defense has carried the day of late and might have to continue doing so.

Just as they scripted it in the offseason, no?

Well ...

"We're just trying to stay focused on the mission -- we're trying to win," Crosby said. "It doesn't matter who's in front of us and we know [the Patriots] have a lot of talent, a lot of great coaches, and it's going to be a big challenge. Yeah, we're focused on ourselves and finding out the best way we can go out there and get another win."

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