Khalil Mack

Raiders defense rights wrongs in season opener

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USATSI

Raiders defense rights wrongs in season opener

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Raiders defense took some heat this preseason. It came from the press, the fans and even the coaching staff.

Head man Jack Del Rio said his defenders weren’t on the same page. They weren’t communicating well. They weren’t doing the little things right.

That wasn’t the case in Sunday’s 26-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans.

Wrongs, Khalil Mack points out, were righted.

“Guys were playing disciplined football,” the edge rusher said. “We were on the same page, especially going down the stretch. We didn’t want them scoring touchdowns.”

The Raiders defense was adept at stopping the run. That’s always a team effort. They put Tennessee in check early on. And, after an opening drive hiccup, they consistently got off the field on third down.

That’s winning football. That’s how the Raiders allowed just one touchdown in nine series. That’s nothing like how the Raiders played defense this summer.

“We always believed in ourselves and what we were capable of,” strong safety Karl Joseph said. “We’re still learning how to play smarter and how to play together. We just have to keep improving.”

Improvement was evident on the opening drive. Tennessee marched 75 yards on a 10-play drive capped by Marcus Mariota’s 10-yard run. The Titans converted three third-and-long opportunities, a seemingly bad omen in the season opener.

Not so. The Raiders clamped down after that, allowing 4-of-11 third down conversions and 2-of-7 in the second half. The Titans never saw the end zone again.

The opening drive was disappointing. The second was a three-and-out. Joseph set the tone on the third. Tennessee was eight yards from pay dirt when the second-year pro made a great open-field tackle of Eric Decker. Joseph’s finest play came next when he high-pointed the ball and broke up a seemingly sure touchdown pass.

“Coach Del Rio says you have to go hard every time because you never know what play’s going to make the difference,” Joseph said. “I gave it my all, and made two plays. That was important for us. It’s about us on defense. We came prepared. We came to play.”

Raiders defenders believe Sunday’s performance was a sign of things to come.

“We wanted to make them earn everything,” David Amerson said. “Even the balls they caught, everything was contested. You’re going to win some battles and lose some. You just want to keep competing. As long as we do that, we’ll have more games like this.”

Khalil Mack: Raiders' lack of defensive signings 'shocker for everybody'

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USATSI

Khalil Mack: Raiders' lack of defensive signings 'shocker for everybody'

Raiders star OLB/DE Khalil Mack had about as good as season as one can on defense in 2016. Mack was named the 2016 NFL AP Defensive Player of the Year and became the first player to be named an All-Pro at two positions in one season.

Despite Mack's huge year, the Raiders struggled mightily on defense. Oakland ranked 26th in the NFL as their defense allowed an average of 375.1 yards per game. They also ranked 20th in the league as teams scored an average of 24.1 points per game on them. 

Still, the Raiders only signed one player on defense during the offseason. That player, Jelani Jenkins, has been placed on injured reserve with a groin injury. 

Was Mack surprised by the lack of moves to address the team's defense? 

"That was a shocker for everybody," Mack told The Athletic. "Well … I know Bruce (Irvin) and I talked about it a lot. Yeah, that was unexpected. But those guys upstairs know what they’re doing. We trust in them. And not only that, but we’re all we’ve got and we’re all we need.

"That’s kind of how I look at it. We’re rolling with whoever is out there, and those 11 guys on the field are going to do whatever we can to be great."

Mack was also asked about the lack of pressure up the middle and the Raiders' defensive tackles being a weakness. 

"Everybody could see it. A lot of times people on the couch think they can tell what’s going on and they’re often wrong. But that one, everybody could tell," Mack said. "But now, we’ve added some pieces and the guys are stepping up inside.

"We’ve gotten a lot better. And that’s what I was saying earlier about seeing the improvement in guys. Not only from a physical aspect but mental as well. We’re growing as a group, and it’s good to see and a really good feeling."

The Raiders allowed 117.6 rush yards per game last season, the 10th worst in the NFL in 2016. 

On Sunday, the Raiders open their regular season against the Titans who boasted the third-best running game in the NFL in 2016 with 136.7 yards per game on the ground.

Khalil Mack ready for regular season, but Raiders defense is not

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AP

Khalil Mack ready for regular season, but Raiders defense is not

OAKLAND – The Los Angeles Rams assigned two blockers to Khalil Mack, a common practice against the reigning defensive player of the year. Sometimes it works. This time it didn’t.

The Raiders edge rusher split the double team, found his target and pounced. Jared Goff stood zero chance. There was no evading this one. Mack brought last year’s No. 1 overall pick down with authority, claiming a sack that ultimately won’t count in his 2017 total.

The sacks highlighted a dominant performance that also included three quarterback pressures, four total tackles and two for a loss. All that in three series.

Mack’s clearly ready for the regular season. As a whole, the Raiders defense is not.

Saturday’s 24-21 loss to the Rams at Oakland Coliseum proved that point. A below average offense had no trouble scoring on a starting unit that looks a bit lost.

“I thought our defense was poor, in particular early when we started the game,” head coach Jack Del Rio said in a postgame press conference. “We’re going to have to get a whole lot better there.”

It has to happen quickly, with the regular season bearing down and the Raiders still trying to correct the same old thing. Making proper reads and improved communication has been an emphasis this offseason as coaches work to get this defense playing better together. It’s still preseason and there’s time to teach and coach and fix problems, but the defense isn't quite right.

“I think we’ll go a long way when we clean some of those things up,” Del Rio said. “The things that we’ve talked about for too long in terms of communication errors, eye violations and things like that that just keep you from ever being really good on defense. Those just have to get cleaned up.”

Issues are present in the front seven but more obvious in the back, where explosive pass plays continue to plague the starting unit. The Raiders allowed two plays over 20 yards on the first series and six plays of 10 or more yards in three series on Saturday, when the full starting unit was active. The Rams scored 14 points – Mack’s sack squashed the lone non-scoring drive – in those three series.

Del Rio was bothered by misreads and “eye violations,” in coverage, which make things easier for an opposing offense.

“When you see them, it’s not a good thing,” Del Rio said. “Yeah, I mean it’s really simple. You don’t have your eyes where they belong and you’re playing man? You’re playing man or even in zone. If you’re not seeing what you need to see, it makes it hard.”

Fixing these problems could improve execution and make life harder on opponents. It needs to happen this summer or the Raiders will have to win a lot of shootouts.

“Obviously, I identify what the problem is,” Del Rio said. “Getting it fixed is the challenge.”