Time is now for Raiders’ scuffling defense to show improvement


Steve Marcus

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (17) pulls in a pass in front of Las Vegas Raiders safety Johnathan Abram (24) in the second half of the Raiders’ first home game at Allegiant Stadium Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.

A missed tackle here, a blown coverage there; calling for a blitz at an inopportune time, taking one step in the wrong direction.

After reviewing the film and obsessing over the Raiders’ defensive shortcomings through four games, Paul Guenther says it’s the small things that have cost his unit dearly. Las Vegas’ defensive coordinator doesn’t see a systemic failure and believes tightening on fundamentals is a wiser way to proceed than overhauling the approach.

“There’s about four or five plays each game where we’re a little bit off,” the defensive coordinator said. “It’s costing us in some ball games. We have to get that cleaned up.”

The Raiders are going to have to get it cleaned up in time for the 10 a.m. Week 5 kickoff Sunday in Kansas City against the Chiefs, or risk being embarrassed by their AFC West rivals once again. The Chiefs have beaten the Raiders five straight times dating back to the 2017 season, by an average of 20 points.

Swallowing that type of loss is never easy but it would be particularly hard to digest this season given an optimism Las Vegas carried into the season and maintained through winning its first two games. The Raiders never hid the fact that many of their personnel moves in the offseason were driven by a desire to keep up with, or at least close the gap on, the Chiefs.

They felt like they got faster and more versatile on both sides of the ball to match up better with the defending Super Bowl champions. Despite back-to-back losses to drop back to familiar .500 record territory at 2-2 and a rash of injuries, the upgrades have been apparent at times on offense.

That hasn’t been as true on defense, where the Raiders have slotted into their usual spot near the bottom of the league rankings in almost every statistical category.

“We’re nowhere near where we can be,” safety Johnathan Abram said before giving a rundown of issues and concluding, “It’s like at times it’s 11 guys out there instead of 11 guys playing as one.”

Abram is a terrific talisman for the Raiders’ defense as a whole. Many teammates credited his motivation for starting 2-0 as he made numerous big hits to galvanize up the whole unit on the field.

But his constant hunt for energizing plays has also backfired, as he’s whiffed on several tackles when he’s the last line of defense to allow for big gains by opposing offenses.

These dichotomies can be applied all over the defensive roster.

Abram’s 2019 first-round draft pick classmate, Clelin Ferrell, has stepped up in the run game but gotten no pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Top cornerback Trayvon Mullen has been phenomenal in coverage but a liability when teams run to the outside.

Prized free-agent linebacker Cory Littleton has often shown off his quickness but also gotten caught out of position on several occasions.

“Just have to play better period,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “We have to stop the run, we have to start faster, we have to play better on third down, we have to get off the field. We need more stops, and we have to stop the opponent quicker. We have to play better in all areas, and I don’t think that’s an understatement.”

It’s been something different every game for the Raiders’ defense and it’s left to the eye of the beholder whether that’s reassuring or alarming going forward.

In Week 1, the Carolina Panthers shredded the Raiders with their short passing game to allow them to overcome a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter deficit. Timely stops — including back-to-back out of halftime — helped conceal many of the issues in Week 2 but Saints running back Alvin Kamara had a field day against the Raiders, especially though the air where he caught nine of nine targets for 95 yards.

The Patriots gashed the Raiders on the ground in Week 3, averaging 6.6 yards per carry with a three-headed rushing attack. And last week, a bad start where the Raiders allowed the Bills to march right down the field on their first three possessions — resulting in two touchdowns and a field goal — put them at a deficit they could never fight out of.

“It’s very correctable and it’s going to get corrected,” Gruden said. “If we eliminate mistakes, we can be a whole lot better.”

Facing the Chiefs isn’t where teams typically find solutions to their defensive problems, though. Going back three seasons to when Patrick Mahomes, who now has regular-season and Super Bowl MVPs to his name, took over at quarterback, it’s no exaggeration to say the Chiefs have fielded one of the greatest offenses in NFL history.

The Raiders know better than anyone, as they’ve allowed more than 400 yards per game during the losing streak to the Chiefs. Guenther’s defense must show progress against Kansas City on Sunday, or he may risk losing his job.

The third-year coordinator was conspicuously absent from the sideline against the Bills, instead coaching from the press box in a move he said he made to see the field of play better. On Thursday, Guenther said he hadn’t decided where he would coach from in Kansas City.

Gruden downplayed the move and expressed confidence Guenther could correct what’s gone wrong. If there’s any positive in the way things have gone for the Las Vegas defense, it’s how everyone has handled it.

No one is pointing fingers or assigning blame for the losing streak in the locker room, and quarterback Derek Carr said it hadn’t always been that way with the Raiders in the past. Carr reported that the Raiders held a therapeutic team meeting on Monday where many players spoke up, owned their miscues and promised to improve going forward.

The defensive players will need to live up to their word right away for the Raiders to have a chance against the Chiefs.

“As players, we just have to go out there and execute,” Abram said. “That’s all that matters.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at

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