A quick glance at the stat sheet from the season opener won’t reveal a great deal about the Raiders’ defense in their overtime win over the Ravens.
Baltimore amassed more than 400 yards of total offense and scored 27 points in the loss, traditional metrics that would put the Raiders squarely in the bottom half of the league, where they are accustomed to finishing the last few years.
But it doesn’t take much digging into the numbers to find why there is so much optimism about how the defense played.
New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s unit generated pressure on 54.5 percent of dropbacks while rarely sending more than four pass rushers. The Ravens were 3-for-12 on third down, and the Raiders forced two fumbles in key situations to give their offense opportunities.
Over the last few seasons, the most fatal flaws of the defense were an inability to force turnovers and the recurring failure to make big plays with the game on the line. There was immediate progress in both of those departments.
The Raiders also boast the ninth-ranked defense through one game, according to Football Outsiders, after finishing 28th last season.
Bradley has his own way of measuring the success of his defense, and he issued a passing grade for the debut.
“I think missed tackles, busts on the field, missed assignments, blatant things like that (is how you judge success),” he said. “When guys are left running wide open, things like that. I didn’t see many of those. There might be a single-digit number of those which leads in the right direction.”
Now comes the difficult task of following up the promising performance with another on the road in Pittsburgh, where the Raiders play the Steelers at 10 a.m. Sunday.
While the game plan will be different for a different style of offense, the fundamentals of Bradley’s system will remain in place. The onus will be on the front four to generate pressure without blitzing, which is a hallmark of the scheme.
Behind them, the rest of the roles are simple but vital. Bradley believed everyone was developing a good understanding of what to do and found out Monday he was right.
“They seem to be picking it up,” he said. “I love the communication that takes place on the field. They seem to take ownership of it more. They’ve done a great job understanding the game plan and going out there and executing it.”
Bradley knows there will be growing pains. The defensive culture can’t change overnight. Despite the veteran additions, there are still some young players being counted on in crucial roles.
Still, passing their first test was a tremendous step in the right direction for what Bradley hopes to build.
“I think first and foremost we want a defense that plays fast, and that’s just understanding the game, understanding what we’re asking of them,” he said. “We got a couple fumbles that we caused, so it appeared we played fast.
“I thought we played very good assignment football. They got some yards and points, but I think the overall theme is that we played with really good effort.”
Even the bad moments the team experienced can be spun in a positive direction. Baltimore’s Ty’Son Williams burst through the hole for a long touchdown on a fourth-and-1 play that saw several defenders, including Tre’von Moehrig, take bad angles.
“I think when you look at those, it’s banked experience,” Bradley said. “Part of that safety in the middle is the eraser tackler, and he’s got to make that play. And just by his alignment and his angle he took, well there’s a banked experience for him. You’d like to have it be a positive banked experience, but they can learn from that too.”
There were more successes than failures in Week 1. If that continues, the defense may no longer hold back the rest of the team from accomplishing its goals.
Raiders’ keys to victory
1. Under pressure
Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue keyed a defensive front that generated pressure on more than half of Lamar Jackson’s dropbacks. While the task is different this week, the results need to stay the same.
2. Block party
While Kolton Miller was outstanding at left tackle, right tackle Alex Leatherwood and center Andre James were inconsistent last week. They will have to improve in a hurry with both starting guards sidelined with injuries.
3. Deal with it
It’s never easy to play in Pittsburgh, where the fans are loud and intense. The Raiders must play their opponent and not the atmosphere.
Adam Hill Las Vegas Review-Journal