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Graney: Defense must create turnovers for Raiders to have a chance

Most everything has been about the Raiders offense this offseason. About the health of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The contract of running back Josh Jacobs. A wide receivers group that could be one of the NFL’s best. A promising young tight end in Michael Mayer.

Fine. All good. Gotcha.

But the Raiders won’t win, won’t come close to contending, won’t be much better than a sub .500 team, if they can’t defend.

And, more specifically, turn folks over.

You can’t overstate the importance of creating mistakes and handing the ball back to your offense. Can’t stress enough how many times such things lead to wins.

And the Raiders — who open their season Sunday at Denver — have been awful at such.

They ranked 30th in turnover margin last season at minus-8. They were minus-9 in 2021. They were minus-11 in 2020. They haven’t had a positive margin since 2016.

Yeah. That long ago.

Get the ball

But they’re sure things can change this season. Positive they have the mindset to be better at what is a needed skill for any competent defense.

“Our minds are on the ball,” cornerback Nate Hobbs said. “Go get the ball. Execute, communicate, play together, but go get the ball. We have a lot of people focused on that now.”

Maybe. It certainly didn’t hurt that the Raiders signed cornerback Marcus Peters in the offseason. A nine-year veteran playing on his fourth NFL team, Peters has 32 career interceptions. He’s the sort of ballhawk Hobbs spoke about. A guy who just has special instincts.

They need to take more chances as a team, and there’s a fine line in doing that. A slim margin between making a critical play and getting burned, between creating opportunity and losing one, between hero and goat.

Everyone gets beat at some point. Even the best. But being less aggressive certainly won’t help the Raiders’ cause. They need to trust a defensive line led by star edge rusher Maxx Crosby can apply enough pressure to aid those on the back end. They need to play fast and force miscues, bad throws, fumbles, errors that are just killers for an opponent.

The mystery that is Chandler Jones’ status could affect things early. How long the veteran edge rusher might be out after posting a series of disparaging remarks about the Raiders on social media is unknown. So, too, is whether he’ll play for the Raiders again. He definitely will miss Sunday’s game.

So they need a rookie such as edge rusher Tyree Wilson to play up to his draft status of No. 7 overall. They need a linebacker corps, which hasn’t impressed many, to be more accomplished than merely average. They need to be better everywhere from recent years.

And they looked it in the preseason. There was legitimate competition at most every spot. Things were pretty vanilla — you don’t show much of anything when games don’t count — but the Raiders definitely made progress.

Early in season

It’s only Week 1. They’re going to learn a lot about their defense over 60 minutes against the Broncos. Things that are working. Things that need to be cleaned up.

“Obviously we added some guys like (linebacker Robert) Spillane and Peters, but haven’t all played a real game together yet,” Crosby said. “But they bring good energy and work their butts off. We have great energy as a group. Just go out there and show everyone what we have been doing and how we have been improving.”

There has to be a lot of it for the Raiders to win, to perhaps contend within the AFC West, to be much better than the 6-11 of 2022.

For the first time in a really long time, they need to force turnovers and make things easier on their offense.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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