The improvement of the Oakland Raiders defense this season has been astonishing. This is a unit full of one and two year contracts and players that teams were willing to let go to free agency. Since strong safety Tyvon Branch has been out with the leg injury, ten new starters are playing for the Raiders defense. All this has combined into inspired effort and a defense that is playing like some of the best in the league.
Two glaring issues with the Raiders defense a season ago were lack of a pass rush and the inability to create turnovers. This year, the Raiders have massively improved both areas. Last season, the Raiders only mustered 25 sacks and 19 takeaways in 16 games. Through seven games in 2013, the Oakland defense has 21 sacks and 11 takeaways.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, the Raiders defense put their best foot forward. They were able to bring consistent pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to the tune of five sacks. Linebacker Sio Moore led the way with two sacks, while Lamarr Houston, Daniel Muir, and Vance Walker has the others. Roethlisberger is extremely difficult to tackle and has a knack for extending plays, but the Raiders kept coming and made him uncomfortable.
As important as quarterback pressure and forcing turnovers, being able to get off the field on third down is paramount. The Oakland defense forced the Steelers to go 4-15 on third down. They held the Steelers to just 35 yards rushing and 1.8 yards per attempt. The Raiders now have the sixth best rushing defense in the league, allowing 89.9 yards per game. Pittsburgh's first ten offensive series ended with a field goal, two missed field goals, six punts, and an interception.
Once the Raiders stuffed the running game and began to get pressure on Roethlisberger, they came up with huge defensive plays to swing the game. Roethlisberger tested cornerback Mike Jenkins deep down the sideline early in the fourth quarter. Jenkins ran stride for stride with Emmanuel Sanders, got his head around to locate the ball, and kept great position while making the interception. Jenkins has been an enormous part of the Raiders defense success this season.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Raiders were able to make another important takeaway. With the score 21-10 and the Steelers furiously trying to mount a comeback, Tracy Porter made a super interception. Roethlisberger was looking for wide receiver Antonio Brown in the middle of the field when Jenkins knocked the ball loose and Porter got his hands under the deflected pass and made the interception. The play stopped the Steelers at the Oakland 25 yard line.
Despite the offense providing no help closing out the game in the second half and continuously putting the defense in bad positions with very little time to rest, the Raiders defense carried them to the win. Oakland has a chance every game with this unit playing so well. Every position is improved and they are playing with the necessary togetherness required of good defenses. Head coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver are finally able to implement their defense and the dividends are enormous.
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