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Graney: Raiders’ improved defense has bailed out inept offense

Updated November 24, 2023 - 5:07 pm

Antonio Pierce and Nate Hobbs say it’s a mindset, about the mentality each player chooses to have. Maxx Crosby just destroys the opponent.

Whatever the case, the defense has shined the most for the Raiders lately.

If they’re gong to make a run at the playoffs, it will be that side of the ball leading it.

This isn’t a terrific defense, not close to being one of the NFL’s best. But it’s much better than what preseason forecasts suggested and has kept the Raiders in games as the offense continues to struggle.

It’s rallying to the ball more. Creating takeaways, long an issue with the Raiders defensively. Bringing energy and intensity. Nobody is playing outside his specific lanes. It’s an inspired effort.

And they have a coordinator in Patrick Graham who has improved at calling games.

“He challenged us two to three weeks ago not to be a good defense but a great one,” the cornerback Hobbs said. “Everybody in that room knows their role and wants to amplify it to the highest extent. We know we’re doing things right, but we could all be better. It’s now or never. We don’t know about tomorrow. We know about today, and we want to be great.”

It doesn’t get any tougher than Sunday, when the Raiders host the Chiefs at Allegiant Stadium.

Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes is 9-1 against the Raiders with a 112.5 passer rating. He has 27 touchdowns to three interceptions. Virtually unstoppable when these teams engage.

It also doesn’t get any easier covering tight end Travis Kelce, who has 100 receptions for more than 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns against the Raiders.

Numbers are better

This defense had been so bad for so long in recent seasons that any progress would be seen as substantial. And there has been that.

The Raiders rank 21st in average yards allowed and 13th in scoring defense in the NFL. Again, not among the best, but definitely beyond what most had thought would transpire.

They’re allowing 20.5 points through 11 games. That number was 25 last season. Problem is, the offense has scored at least 21 just twice. Hasn’t picked up the defense much.

“What you’re seeing now (defensively) is 11 guys just hungry, everybody being very eager to make a play, to contribute, to do their job,” the interim coach Pierce said. “We’re doing everything in our wheelhouse. And I think our guys are comfortable to start a game.

“I think, overall, between the coaches and the players, what you see is guys really trusting what we’re calling, believing what we’re calling, and executing.”

It happened last week, when the Raiders held the high-flying Dolphins offense to 20 points in a seven-point loss. It had been averaging 31. But takeaways can slow any attack, and the Raiders had three. That makes six since Pierce took over, tied for the most in the NFL during that time.

They’re not allowing the explosive play as much. Their fundamentals are better. Tackling is better. They’re covering things on the back end at a higher rate. And they’re getting another All-Pro season from Crosby, who is doubtful for Sunday with an injured knee, at defensive end.

Be great

“I’m always amazed at the focus they have,” Graham said. “Very few of them don’t have the desire to be great. I said, ‘Let’s do it collectively as a defense. Let’s not worry about people patting us on the back. Let’s be a great defense.’ That has been the challenge since Day 1.

“When you look at the whole season, it has been about getting better throughout. I’m not sure if everything all of a sudden just clicked.”

It’s not a great defense. But if the Raiders make a playoff push, it will be because of Graham’s unit. It’s better than most believed when the season kicked off.

It’s good enough to make a difference.

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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