The Raiders had the No. 3 defense in the NFL last season, based on yards given up, but at the news conference announcing the hiring of coach Lane Kiffin, owner Al Davis said, "We have a good defense, not a great one."
What Davis saw watching games and video was that, because the Raiders were so inept offensively, opposing coaches could afford to play very conservatively on offense, knowing it would only take a couple of touchdowns to win. Against the Raiders, they were all Marty Schottenheimer (trying only to avoid mistakes). So, the Raiders’ defense looked better statistically than it actually was.
That all changed in Sunday’s season opener against the Detroit Lions. Using as many as four receivers, Lions quarterback Jon Kitna skewered the Raiders, completing three-quarters of his passes (27-of-36) for three touchdowns. He also threw two interceptions, but one was a pass that skipped off the hands of the receiver. Oakland’s pass rush was seldom a factor. And on the play that put the Lions ahead for good in the fourth quarter, Kitna had time to look and look and look, until he found a wide-open Shaun McDonald in the end zone.
Raiders fans may regard this as an aberration, but it’s something that is likely to be repeated often this season.If a team can give its quarterback time, the weaknesses in the secondary can be exploited. Nnamdi Asomugha is an outstanding cornerback and Fabian Washington does a good job on the other side, but the safeties seldom make plays. Nickel back Stanford Routt was picked on often by the Lions, too. Even his interception was a result of his coverage being too soft; because he was playing off the receiver, he was in position to catch the ball.
Most telling of all was the way the defense collapsed in the fourth quarter.
The Raiders had fought back from a 17-0 deficit to take a 21-20 lead, midway through the quarter. They had the momentum and McAfee Coliseum was shaking with the energy of their cheering fans.
But then the Lions drove 80 yards on seven plays, capped off with the 32-yard pass to McDonald. That took all the air out of the Raiders’ balloon. There were no excuses for the defense. Defenders should not have been tired because the Raiders won the time of possession battle, and it was not a hot day. But the defense could not stop the Lions at this critical point.
And remember, this was Detroit, whose record has been almost as bad as the Raiders — 3-13 last year, 19-45 over the last four seasons.
There were some positive signs for the Raiders. The offense certainly looks better this season. The play-calling is much more imaginative than last season; of course, that bar is not very high. Helped by the fact that McCown was rolling out and mostly throwing short passes, the offensive line gave up only one sack before the two-minute warning. McCown played well, though he threw a critical interception near the end.
The Raiders will certainly score more points this season — but so will their opponents as they challenge the defense. If the Raiders can’t beat the Lions at home, don’t look for that dramatic turnaround just yet.