Raiders Secondary: Building A No Fly Zone

It’s no secret that the Oakland Raiders currently share the NFL spotlight with the Dallas Cowboys as 2016 teams to watch. Through an uncanny series of movie-like comebacks led by quarterback Derek Carr, the Raiders are 8-2. While the Oakland offense gets all the praise, the defense continues to sputter weekly. Yet somehow, Oakland continues to win, usually relying on the defense to defend a lead late. Despite statistics showing the contrary, Oakland’s rudimentary secondary is getting the job done.

Week one of the 2016 season kicked off with a ballsy 2-point conversion call by Raiders coach Jack Del Rio securing a win over the New Orleans Saints. Oakland’s win pulled the wool over a secondary that allowed Saints receivers, Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks, to combine for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Free Agent acquisition cornerback Sean Smith struggled in his first start for the Silver and Black, playing catch up more times than not. It got so bad, that Smith was benched for corner D.J. Hayden, the recurring scapegoat for blame by fans. On the other side of the field, former Washington Redskins corner David Amerson fared no better. The talks of his 2015 improvements in his first year in Oakland quickly went out the window. Amerson spent several defensive series emulating a chicken with his head cut off. The trio was abysmal, to say the least, yet Oakland managed to win.

In week two, Oakland’s secondary was diced with culinary precision by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Throwing for 396 yards, Ryan hooked up with nine different receivers, with Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones giving Smith the blues. Jones made light-work of Smith and company, with five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. Oakland loss in a late-game shootout and the finger pointing began.

Del Rio took precaution to alleviate the wound, holding Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota to 214 yards passing. Oakland even forced two interceptions – one by Smith, one by Safety Reggie Nelson. A 17-10 win by Oakland soothed talks of a flawed system by defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

Week four capped with a 28-27 road win over the Baltimore Ravens. Carr’s four touchdown passes cloaked another sketchy performance by the Raiders D. Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. led the way with 111 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions. The sublime feeling of an Oakland return to prominence overshadowed the issues at hand.

The routine of the Raiders winning in close games began to feel taboo, outpointing the San Diego Chargers 34-31 in week five. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers scorched the Raider defense for 359 yards and four touchdowns. Receivers Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin combined for 134 yards and a touchdown, giving Oakland’s secondary fits. Yet once again, a win managed to suffice, saving Norton Jr despair.

Suddenly, Oakland’s luck ran out, in a 26-10 smashing at the hands of arch-rival Kansas City Chiefs. Quarterback Alex Smith’s 224 yards doesn’t delineate the pin-point precision in which Smith decimated Oakland’s defense. 10 receivers were targeted, with none going over 50 yards receiving. But the short yardage gains were enough to march down the field at Kansas City’s leisure.

Damage control took place, with fans calling for Norton Jr.’s head at an attempt to salvage a season that showed the most potential in 13 years.

Suddenly, it clicked, with Oakland rattling off a four-game win streak capped by Monday’s 27-20 victory over the Houston Texans. While Oakland continues to mend its defensive woes, the competition grows stiffer, and they keep winning. From the defensive line to the linebacker core to the secondary, Oakland has been deterred in some fashion.

The Raiders rush is missing two key entities – the injured Mario Edwards Jr. and linebacker Aldon Smith. Edwards Jr. continues to take paltry recovery steps from a 2015 hip injury. Smith recently finished a one-year suspension for evading the league’s substance abuse policy and awaits reinstatement.

At linebacker, former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith continues to show inconsistencies weekly. Safety Reggie Nelson has been late to the party more than anyone, often a step behind or jumping the gun in untimely situations. While Oakland’s personnel is far from perfect, much of the blame should be placed on Norton Jr.’s bland play-calling. Week in and week out, Norton fails to adjust, forcing players to fend for themselves.

Strangely enough, over the Raiders last four wins, just one receiver has hit the 100-yard mark. Top-tier receivers Mike Evans, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins have all been held scoreless. Over the next six weeks, Oakland will face star wideouts like Kelvin Benjamin and T.Y Hilton. Not to mention rematches with each of their three AFC West counterparts.

Statistics don’t always tell the true story, and in this case, the eye test beats the numbers. There is much to quarry about Oakland’s defense, but amid the chaos, Oakland’s secondary is doing its best.  General Manager Reggie Mckenzie’s draft history and free agency signings are worth gawking over.

By the same token, rookie safety Karl Joseph has been more than impressive, coming up big throughout. There is a big possibility that Oakland can contend for a championship this season, and hopes are high. But if they don’t, the future is definitely bright for the young team, especially in the secondary. The average age of Oakland’s cornerbacks is a ripe 25.3. At Safety, the Raiders are an average 27.75 years old.

Amerson and Smith have climbed into the top 15 of ProFootballFocus.com’s analytical leaderboard for cornerback performance. Hayden and fellow corner T.J. Carrie have stepped up to the plate and exceeded expectations, namely against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Norton Jr. has his hands full for the remainder of the season, trying to patch his own leaky pipework. Nevertheless, he has a secondary that has made the best of what they’ve been given.

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