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Cory Littleton sees 2021 as chance for redemption

It’s hard to imagine another player on the Raiders more motivated to begin the season than Cory Littleton.

Aside from all the obvious factors — a new season, the prime-time stage of Monday Night Football, the unique challenge of playing Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens — the opener is an opportunity for Littleton to officially begin the process of wiping the slate clean after he struggled so badly last season.

“That’s everything for me,” Littleton said on Tuesday.

To say last year was a disappointment for the former Pro Bowler is an understatement. He arrived in Las Vegas as the centerpiece of a free agency class that was supposed to get the Raiders’ defense turned around. His combination of run support and pass coverage expertise was expected to shore up two major weaknesses and continue his climb from undrafted free agent to one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

None of which happened. On the contrary, it all moved in the opposite direction for Littleton, who never felt, looked or played comfortably in former coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme. The Raiders’ defense surrendered the third-most points in the league and coughed up three late-game leads to sabotage any hopes of making the playoffs.

It was a bitter disappointment for Littleton, a proud player accustomed to being an asset rather than a liability. And it drove him throughout an offseason for which his only recourse was to recommit himself to his craft, fling himself into new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s playbook and count down the days until he could step back on the football field to redeem himself.

“At the end of the day, nobody wants to have a bad performance,” Littleton said. “That’s not why we play. We just want to do our best.”

That chance finally arrives on Monday against the Ravens, and enough has changed over the last 12 months to set up Littleton up for a major rebound.

Starting with a normal offseason in which Littleton and the Raiders were finally able to build a stable foundation. That is in stark contrast to last year when COVID-19 closed team facilities and created an all-virtual learning process.

The result was a truncated on-boarding process that never seemed to take hold. The new defense Littleton was digesting meant completely different responsibilities and verbiage compared to what he was doing with the Los Angeles Rams.

It left his head spinning.

His lack of command was in contrast to the comfort level he had in Los Angeles. Rather than playing free and easy and flying around the field like he did with the Rams, he seemed to always be a step behind.

Coming off two straight seasons of posting Pro Football Focus pass defense grades of over 82 on a scale of 1 to 100, Littleton slumped to a grade of 49.7 in that category in 2020.

In 2018 and 2019 Littleton finished with 125 and 134 tackles, respectfully. Last year his tackles fell to 82.

Littleton owned his performance level without making excuses. And in describing how much faster he and his teammates are playing in Bradley’s system, it’s clear he feels much better this season about the defense and his role in it.

“Less thought,” Littleton explained. “Less thinking about what your assignment is or how you play a certain concept or formation. Just a lot more just playing football and ultimately having fun with it because you know what to do.”

Littleton should also benefit from a rebuilt defensive line, which could free him up more to make plays. “We have dogs out there that are ready to hunt,” Littleton said.

He’ll need to play better to preserve his playing time. Linebackers K.J. Wright and Denzel Perryman weren’t brought in to just watch from the sideline.

Both Littleton and fellow linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski are slated to get extensive playing time. But if and when linebacker Nicholas Morrow returns from the injured list, it will be interesting to see how things shake out at that position.

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter

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