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Replacing Johnathan Abram won’t be easy for Raiders

Updated December 23, 2021 - 5:25 pm

It’s often said that timing is everything in life. But so often the focus is on the good side of that saying rather than the bad.

The Raiders were the victims of the latter this week when safety Johnathan Abram went down for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. And not just because it deprives them of a key piece to their defensive puzzle as they head down the homestretch of a season for which the playoffs remain a reachable goal.

Abram, it just so happens, was just recently closing in on a firm command of the Raiders’ scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.

In fact, during Monday’s win over the Browns, he told Bradley he experienced a moment of enlightenment. The exchange between Abram and Bradley was the type most coaches dream about when a star pupil finally starts to gets it.

“He said you know what, it was a game that it finally started to click for me,” Bradley remembers Abram telling him. “Understanding formations and how teams are attacking. It was almost like an ‘ah-ha’ moment.”

That, of course, was before all that work, and all that progress, went down the drain when Abram came up injured in the fourth quarter of the season-saving win.

Just when he was turning a big corner — his 116 tackles are second on the team — he was down for the season. With him went his ferocious physicality and emotion. While that approach at times has cost himself and the Raiders, it absolutely set a tone for the rest of the defense.

It’s a big loss any way you look at it. “You always miss really good players like that,” Bradley said.

That it comes this late in the season, just when Abram and some of his Raiders teammates were starting to develop a deep command of Bradley’s defense, is unfortunate. But with the reopening of a potential road to the playoffs, the Raiders have no time to dwell on the significance of his absence.

“It’s just a next-man-up mentality,” said Raiders defensive tackle Solomon Thomas. “A guy goes down, another guy steps up. And everyone has to play their tail off. Execute, have to know different positions, all that. With everything going on, it’s just very imperative that everyone knows their job, knows their position and executes.”

For Bradley, such a situation actually creates a sense of anticipation.

“You’re excited for the next guy to get his opportunity,” Bradley said. “He’s worked very hard for it. Now he’s got an opportunity to really go out there and see what he has. I think that’s what we’re more excited about.”

Who that player turns out to be is not yet known. Reserve safety Roderic Teamer is listed on the depth chart behind Abram, but he landed on the COVID-19 list on Thursday. His status for Sunday’s game against the Broncos is up in the air.

Veteran Dallin Leavitt has played 165 snaps this season, mostly when the Raiders go to a three-safety look. But his smallish 5-foot-10-inch, 195-pound frame makes him an unlikely candidate to replace Abram in the physical role of box safety.

That could open the door for rookie Tyree Gillespie, who was recently designated to return from the injured reserve list, where he has been since Nov. 17 with a hamstring injury. The Raiders drafted Gillespie with an eye on him being an option should Abram not grow into his new role.

And at 6 feet, 205 pounds, he has all the attributes — including zero aversion to playing tough, physical football — to play the position. Gillespie might just be the next man up the Raiders need.

“He very well could, with some of the things that we’ve got going on,” Bradley said.

In any case, Bradley is counting on someone filling the void.

“There’s some story is gonna take place on Sunday,” Bradley said. “We don’t know what it is, but we know some story’s gonna take place. Why not one of those guys that get their opportunity.”

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

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