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David Richard/Associated Press
Ladies and gentlemen, the Las Vegas Raiders have a defense.
It’s been a little late to the party, but over the last three weeks, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has likely saved his job with a sharp turnaround from the first six games of the season. Coming off the bye week, the defense surrendered 45 points to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In three wins over the Browns, Chargers and Broncos since then, the team has given up just 14.6 points per game and 5.1 yards per play. If those were their numbers across the season, they would rank first and fourth, respectively, in the league.
The obvious counterpoint to the newfound success is the quality of opponent.
But there’s more to the three-game stretch than playing some less-than-elite offenses. Here’s why it’s reasonable to expect this improved version of the Raiders is here to stay.
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David Becker/Associated Press
Time of possession might be a misused metric in some analysis, but the fact remains, the longer you have the ball the less time your defense is on the field. That’s been a part of the recipe in two of the three games in the Raiders’ current winning streak, and both times they had great defensive performances.
In the first six games of the season, the Raiders running game averaged 3.8 yards per carry on 170 rushes for 661 yards. In the last three, that average has jumped to 5.1 for 572 yards on 112 carries. Simply put, the Raiders have become much more efficient at running the football while committing to running it more.
In both the Browns and Broncos matchups, a strong ground game meant the defense was on the field for fewer than 25 minutes.
The offense has also helped win the battle of field position. The best field position the Broncos had to start a drive against the Raiders was their own 29-yard line. They had four drives that started inside of their own 10-yard line.
The defense has been better because both the offense and the special teams units are putting them in a position to succeed.
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Isaac Brekken/Associated Press
The Raiders spent a lot of resources in the offseason to make the defense better. They signed Nick Kwiatkoski, Cory Littleton, Jeff Heath, Carl Nassib and Maliek Collins in free agency to cure an ailing unit that needed fresh blood.
However, in the COVID-19-affected offseason, it would make sense the Raiders wouldn’t start getting the best out of their new additions until later in the season. For some of those pieces, “later in the season” is now.
Kwiatkoski has put up his best games as a Raider in the last three weeks.
He has 27 tackles, two passes defended and a beauty of a one-handed interception to end the game against the Broncos. Had he not intercepted the ball it’s likely that fellow free-agent acquisition Heath would have had his third interception of the game.
Nassib and Collins are starting to show signs of life on the defensive line as well. Collins has seven tackles and two pressures over the last three games, while Nassib has registered four pressures and a sack in that span.
Whether it’s Guenther figuring out how to utilize these players or them simply becoming more comfortable they are starting to make plays and that has little to do with who they are playing.
Ironically enough, the free-agent acquisition who has struggled the most was the biggest name. Littleton hasn’t made an impact and didn’t play against the Broncos after being placed on the COVID/injured reserve list.
If he can start showing signs of life, the Raiders’ improvement will continue.
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Alex Gallardo/Associated Press
It’s no secret that the Raiders pass rush has been its greatest weakness on defense. Opposing quarterbacks have enjoyed plenty of time to throw with the Raiders 29th in sack. However, they are 14th in pressure percentage.
The improvement in the area of pressures is likely a result of the last two games in which the Raiders got after both Justin Herbert and Drew Lock. The Raider have notched four sacks and 14 quarterback hits over the last two weeks.
Those numbers might not seem like much for a team like Pittsburgh, but that’s 36 percent of the Raiders’ sacks this season and 34 percent of their quarterback hits in just two games.
Some players are in line for some regression to the mean that should help them as well. Clellin Ferrell has 15 pressures with no sacks. He’s the only player in the league with that many pressures and no sacks to show for it.
The Raiders aren’t going to turn into the Steelers overnight, but there’s evidence the pass rush is becoming serviceable. And serviceable is a lot better than what they were in the first half of the season.