ALAMEDA, Calif. — Initially Sunday, the Raiders made progress in an important area.
They stopped a jet sweep.
That play design, which generally involves a wide receiver sprinting parallel to the line of scrimmage, past the quarterback, and either accepting a short pass, handoff or fake, proved difficult for the Raiders to defend in Weeks 1 and 3 against the Los Angeles Rams and Miami Dolphins, respectively.
Predictably, in Week 4, the Cleveland Browns tested them early.
On third and goal from the 1, Cleveland ran the same jet sweep that the Kansas City Chiefs twice ran for a goal-line touchdown on Sept. 9 against the Los Angeles Chargers. Defensive end Arden Key was part of a three-player brigade setting the edge on the opposite side.
A 6-yard loss. Progress. But there is still room to go.
The Raiders’ defense has demonstrated a knack of starting fast. As games wear on, however, the crispness wears off. Poor tackling on a jet-sweep fake in the fourth quarter Sunday led to a 41-yard touchdown by running back Nick Chub. Such explosive plays have been the unit’s undoing, a trend it looks to stop this Sunday versus the Chargers.
In all four games, the Raiders have forced a three and out on their opponent’s opening possession. Only one other team, the Browns, has yet to allow a first down on the first drive this season.
But the Raiders also have ceded six touchdowns of 20-plus yards, worst in the NFL, and 23 plays of 20-plus yards, tied for second-most in the league. Last Sunday, Oakland allowed single-play yardage gains of 63, 59, 49, 41, 34, 23 and 21 yards.
Oakland managed to win in overtime, 45-42.
This output, however, won’t do.
“That’s absolutely the main focus,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “I’m not used to giving up 42 points. I think the only time I gave up 42 was the ‘onto Cincinnati’ game in Foxborough (in 2014 against the New England Patriots), and we ran into a buzz saw that night. I told those guys that my expectations are way higher than this.
“If we can have teams going 12-, 14-play drives, get them in the red zone, hold them to three, that’s what we have to do. We can’t give up 60 yards on the grass where we can’t catch a player. It’s a matter of angles, a matter of speed to the ball to get the guy on the ground.”
The Chargers make for a timely test.
It’s not the Chiefs or the Rams or the New Orleans Saints who lead the NFL with the most gains of 20 or more yards. It’s the Chargers. They have 25 and also pace the league with five touchdowns of 20-plus yards. Four have come in the air via quarterback Philip Rivers, who will be without wide receiver Travis Benjamin (foot) this Sunday.
Next offseason, a recurring phrase will be “team speed.”
The Raiders are expected to add more of that in 2019, be it in free agency or the draft. They could use more speed at the safety position.
“Well, we got what we got, so we have to do the best job with what we got right now,” Guenther said of limiting long plays with his defense’s speed. “I think we can. I think if we can just diagnose the play a little bit sooner. I told the guys the margin of error for us is very minimal. All 11 guys have to do their job. (If) you’re fit the right way and see it all through the same eyes, those things won’t occur.
“It’s like when we get out of place a little bit, ball gets through there and all of a sudden, we can’t get the guy on the ground. Like I said, the margin of error is razor thin for us.”
True progress takes time.
Sunday offers the next chance.