Senior columnist and Editor Emeritus Jim Fossum takes a look at the Raiders defense and the key to holding opponents on third-and-long.
“Third and long” . . .
Rarely do such simple words evoke such disparate emotions on opposing sidelines than the desperate decree that it’s now or never if you truly covet possession of the football.
Nowhere is that more steadfast and significant than in the National Football League.
Maintaining command of the ability to score is perhaps the game’s most potent potion for success. Scour the box scores after Sunday’s slate of Week 2 games and you’ll invariably find the teams on top will be led by offenses that best avoid dastardly down-and-distance situations — and the defenses most capable of stopping them.
Each week, there’s a new test, a new type of approach, things that you have to game-plan for, but I thought it was a good start. We now have an opportunity to do a few things better, particularly in the third-down passing game, but the experience was just outstanding. – Raiders Coach Jack Del Rio
Look no further than last week’s 26-16 season-opening Raiders victory at Tennessee. Look again Sunday evening when it’s time to dissect the defenses and distinguish the differences in the decisiveness of the outcomes.
“You’re a lot more effective when you’re able to get off the field on those long third-down situations,” Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio, a former All-Pro linebacker who should know, said.
The Titans converted three third downs of eight yards or more while taking their opening possession the distance for their only touchdown, but failed to convert another long third-down requirement while being outscored 19-9 the rest of the way.
While negotiating demanding third downs with improbable big-gainers is an offense’s obvious desire, it comes with a risk — mostly bad things can happen. That certainly could hold true Sunday when the turnover-minded Raiders try to start a season 2-0 for the first time in 15 years against the substandard Jets.
Led by former Oakland QB Josh McCown, new offensive coordinator John Morton’s undermanned squad will trade touches with an improved Raiders unit that tied for the NFL lead in turnover ratio a year ago, but is hungry for its first one this season.
Wide receivers coach in New Orleans for the past two seasons, Morton will arrive at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on Sunday with the understanding that the Raiders’ 12-4 record last season was largely compiled on their ability to win the takeaway battle. Oakland went 11-2 in games where it didn’t surrender possession of the ball as frequently as its opponent.
“Looking for turnovers certainly will be a key for us going forward,” Del Rio told his weekly Monday morning press gathering. “But I thought overall, the effort, the urgency, the attention to detail, was really strong.”
Behind solid line play at tackle and both ends, defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.’s revitalized unit nullified Tennessee’s heralded front seven and stifled its cache of big-name offensive threats. Three-time Pro Bowler and former NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray ran 12 times for just 44 yards; fleet-footed QB Marcus Mariota managed 26 on three carries; and fellow Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry mustered 25 on six attempts.
“We kept the backs in check for the most part,” Del Rio said. “We knew that was a key coming into the game.”
Jets’ All-Pro receiving acquisition Jermaine Kearse will impose additional long-yardage coverage demands on safeties Karl Joseph and Reggie Nelson, who led the Raiders with nine and eight tackles, respectively. Joseph, who had six solo stops, also deflected a Mariota pass in the end zone.
The defensive backfield, missing promising injured rookie safety Obi Melifonwu, enjoyed capable containment, in part, by rotating Sean Smith and TJ Carrie at right corner. Del Rio promised more of the same against the Jets.
“We’ll rotate where we think it’s smart to, and where we want to open up competition and let guys go for it,” he said.
Probably salivating, NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack, who along with quarterback Derek Carr made his NFL debut three years ago against the Jets, will lead a speedy front that went back to the basics in holding the multi-faceted Titans to under 100 yards rushing and 350 yards total offense.
“We tackled well,” Del Rio said. “We spent a lot of time on fundamentals in camp. If you play good defense, you’re tackling, leveraging well. Those things occurred with high frequency.”
While 60 minutes against teams of decidedly different abilities is hardly a proper barometer of a team’s true standing, the Raiders finished opening week 19th in rushing, passing and total defense, but eighth in red zone and scoring defense. The early long-yardage lapses left Oakland tied for 23rd in third-down efficiency. The Jets, who lost 21-12 at Buffalo, are 23rd in third-down offense.
“Each week, there’s a new test, a new type of approach, things that you have to game-plan for, but I thought it was a good start,” Del Rio said. “We now have an opportunity to do a few things better, particularly in the third-down passing game, but the experience was just outstanding.”
“Third and long” is a situation Del Rio and the Raiders must vanquish.