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Nicholas Morrow comes up big for Raiders in relief role

It wasn’t like Cory Littleton, the Raiders’ big-ticket free-agent linebacker acquisition, was playing particularly well through the first eight games of the season. But losing him like the Raiders did last Thursday when he turned up on the COVID-19 list was still a significant blow.

Just four days ahead of hosting the Denver Broncos at Allegiant Stadium, it meant one more worry for a defense that has struggled to play consistently well.

But in 71 mostly effective plays in relief of Littleton on Sunday, veteran linebacker Nicholas Morrow essentially informed everyone the concern was unwarranted.

In the process, Morrow re-emerged as a young player the Raiders have been consistently high on since signing him in 2017 as an undrafted free agent out of tiny Greenville University in Illinois.

“He flies around and makes plays,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said.

Normally the Raiders’ strong-side linebacker in their base 4-3 defense, and oftentimes a player who comes off the field when they move to their five- and six-defensive-back packages, Morrow played an expanded role against the Broncos, staying on the field in pass coverage, as a run defender and as a pass rusher on blitzes.

He responded by delivering his best game of the season. He was an anchor on a stifling Raiders defense that harassed Broncos quarterback Drew Lock into four interceptions and forced five Denver turnovers.

“Cory is such a versatile player, it gives us a lot of flexibility on third down,” Morrow said. In his Littleton’s absence, Morrow said the Raiders made a few minor adjustments to their defensive game plan.

The alterations obviously worked, as the Raiders received significant contributions from all three levels of their defense.

From defensive end Maxx Crosby’s two tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including his sixth sack of the year, to Nick Kwiatkoski’s team-high eight tackles, two pass breakups and interception, to safety Johnathan Abram’s two quarterback hits and five tackles, to Jeff Heath’s two interceptions, the Raiders’ defense was buzzing around all afternoon.

It was the third straight game of improved defensive play. And for a group that has struggled to consistently put it all together, it could be a sign things are beginning to turn around.

At the least, they are beginning to feel better about themselves after being the target of criticism through most of the first half of the season.

“I think that’s what we have here,” head coach Jon Gruden said. “If we have anything, we have a lot of confidence in ourselves, in our players and our work ethic. That’s about all we can offer right now, but it’s paid huge dividends so far.”

At the center of it all on Sunday was Morrow, who finished with five tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, two pass breakups and two quarterback hits while showing the kind of wide-ranging skill set that the Raiders have been waiting to see from Littleton all season.

“I thought he cut it loose and really had his best game as a Raider,” Gruden said.

The decisive performance was the latest in a string of quality relief appearances the Raiders have received from players thrust into the spotlight due to injuries or illness. Among the others: offensive linemen Denzelle Good and Brandon Parker providing quality play as replacements to Trent Brown, Richie Incognito and Kolton Miller, and cornerback Isaiah Johnson saving the day against the Los Angeles Chargers with a pair of pass breakups in the end zoneafter taking over for the injured Trayvon Mullen.

“He’s definitely the guy that when someone goes down, he can make big plays,” Carr said of Morrow.

He’s also a young player who could be coming to his own in his third year in the system.

“I think at this point in his career, I think his experience in the system shows,” Gruden said. “I think his confidence in himself is showing.”

Morrow understood the signing of Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski during the offseason could cut into his playing time. As expected, the two newcomers get the bulk of the playing time as three-down linebackers able to play against the run and the pass.

And with teams spending less time in their base defense while trying to match up with all the various skill players and wrinkles opposing offenses are serving up these days, the new additions certainly meant fewer chances for Morrow.

But that didn’t change Morrow’s approach during the offseason. He arrived in training camp determined to continue to get better. The objective was to fulfill whatever role the Raiders had in mind for him, but also be ready to assume an even bigger role if the situation warranted.

That opportunity arose on Sunday, and he was up to the challenge.

“I think the biggest thing for me is staying locked in and believing in myself and having confidence that I can make the plays in front of me,” Morrow said. “I think the biggest thing is playing with confidence and understanding the defense.”

As Gruden indicated, it is still early in the process for Morrow.

“I think he’s going to be a really good linebacker in this league for a while,” Gruden said.

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore onTwitter.

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