The Oakland Raiders, led by a dynamic offense, have powered their way to the top of the AFC West – but an improving defensive unit is largely getting overlooked.
Whenever anybody discusses the Oakland Raiders and their chances of finding playoff success, most replies come with one big caveat – “yeah, they’re good, they’ve got a championship-caliber offense, but that defense is terrible and is holding them back.”
Most reasonable people can agree that defense wins championships. Look no further than last season’s champs – the Denver Broncos – as proof of that. Armed with an offense that was pretty much sub-par, but a defense that was overwhelming, the Denver defense manhandled the league’s number one offense and took home the Lombardi Trophy.
Now, you don’t need a defense that’s as hellacious as Denver’s, or the Ray Lewis-led Baltimore Super Bowl teams to win it all. You can actually win a title if you have a solid offense and a solid, if not entirely spectacular, defense. And believe it or not – and given the amount of caveats most throw into any discussion about Oakland’s defense, most don’t believe it – the Raiders have quietly started putting things together on the defensive side of the ball.
Despite the overwhelming disbelief from so many corners, Oakland’s defense over the last month of the season, has been one of the league’s better units. Let’s say that again because it seems pretty important – over the last month of the season, Oakland’s defense has been one of the league’s better units.
The Raiders’ defense has spent much of the season being mocked and maligned. And deservedly so. You can’t expect praise and props when you give up more than 1,000 yards and 69 points in two games to open the season. The defense is lucky the offense is as electric as it is, otherwise the Raiders might have started this season in a big hole.
But with so many new faces learning a new system, it was going to take a little time to come together. It wasn’t going to be a case of “just add water” and voila, you have a dominant defense. Of course, none of us expected them to be so spectacularly bad early on.
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It’s taken a while – longer than any of us expected or wanted – but the defense has been steadily progressing and improving. And it all started with them getting an absolute butt-kicking.
If you recall, back in week six, the Raiders were absolutely manhandled by the Kansas City Chiefs. The final score was 26-10, but it didn’t even feel that close. In that game, Oakland gave up 406 total yards – 183 of those on the ground. It was an entirely forgettable performance – one that was even worse since it was in-division.
But that game seems to have served as a bit of a springboard for this team – especially on the defensive side of the ball.
It’s not quite enough to say that the Raiders haven’t given up 400 yards to any one opponent since then. It’s a vast oversimplification. A closer look inside the numbers though, shows just how well this defense is rebounding and coming together.
As a means of comparison, we are going to look at how Oakland’s defense, over the last month of the season, has compared to the top five overall units in the league. In order, one through five, the best defenses in the NFL are, Arizona, Baltimore, Minnesota, Denver, and Houston.
In particular, we’re looking at how they’ve performed over the last four weeks – the same period of time that we’re looking at with the improvements with the Raiders.
For the season, the Arizona Cardinals – the league’s number one defense – are giving up 287.4 yards per game, and 19.5 points per game. Pretty solid numbers, right? Over the last four weeks of the season, they’ve been a bit stingier with the yards – giving up just 276 per game. But the points allowed by the defense has increased to 21.5 per game.
The league’s second ranked defense, the Baltimore Ravens, for the season, have given up 295.1 yards and 18.7 points per game. We’ll just ignore the fact that Derek Carr and the Raiders hung 28 points on them back in week four. Over the last four weeks though, Baltimore has managed to stay very consistent, giving up 295 yards and 18 points per game.
The Minnesota Vikings, though beset by injuries and offensive problems, still have the NFL’s third best defense, giving up 307 yards and 17.5 points per game. Over the last four games though, those numbers have risen slightly – to 324.3 yards and 22 points per game.
Next, we come to the Denver Broncos, who at 318 yards and 18.9 points per game, check in with the league’s fourth best defensive attack. We’ll overlook the fact that the Raiders dropped 397 yards and 30 points on Denver and just say that over the last four weeks, the Broncos’ numbers have risen to 353 yards and 20.3 points per game.
The Houston Texans round out the NFL’s top five defenses, giving up an average of 318.2 yards and 21.5 points per game on the season. Last Monday, the Raiders posted 325 yards of offense and 27 points on their way to a win, and over the last four games, Houston has given up 322 yards and 22 points per game.
At this point, you might saying – so what? What does that big number dump mean and why does it matter? Good questions – let’s see if we can clear it up for you.
Over the last four games – ever since that debacle against the Chiefs – the Raiders have taken some big strides forward. Over those four games, Oakland’s defense has given up an average of 317 yards and 20 points per game.
Those numbers, if there is any confusion, puts them right on par with the five best defenses in the NFL.
Is the defense perfect? Of course not. Are the still succeptible to giving up the big play here and there? Absolutely. Do they still have a lot of work to do? Oh, you betcha. But are they as horribly terrible as some are making them out to be? Nope. Not even close.
While the overall numbers are still a bit shabby – 393.6 yards and 24.3 points per game – they’re also a bit overinflated thanks to that abysmal start to the season. This defense is finally beginning to come together and take some big strides forward. They’re playing better football, are forcing some timely turnovers, putting better pressure on the quarterback, and getting key stops at key times.
This defense still has a lot of work to do yet. But they’re getting better. And they’re not quite the Achilles Heel they were in the early part of the season. While not quite the devastating force last season’s Broncos were, they also aren’t – well – the San Francisco 49ers, either.
The point to take away from all of this is that it’s taken a while, but this defense is starting to come together. And they haven’t even hit their peak yet. Raiders fans should take heart and know that it’s not how you start the season, it’s how you finish it that matters.
And if this defense continues building on the momentum they’re establishing, they may just finish strong. Very strong.