Walcoff: Niners, Raiders on the right track 

Amazing but true. The NFL’s two most improved teams may very well be sitting on opposite sides of the Bay. Mirroring their respective old school, lunch-pail carrying coaches, the 49ers and Raiders both showcased noticeably tougher and better defenses in their openers. That’s an enormous boost to inexperienced quarterbacks Shaun Hill and JaMarcus Russell, neither of whom is ready to win high-scoring shootouts.

Monday night in Oakland, an aroused Raiders team outslugged and outplayed the Chargers only to be victimized in the final two minutes by an ill-fated prevent defense.

Dropping defenders into soft zone coverage with a game on the line is like telling a shark to ignore blood in the water. Instead of attacking San Diego’s banged up and makeshift offensive line, the Raiders invited Phillip Rivers to hit wide-open receivers running underneath routes (Rivers completed six of seven passes on the Chargers’ last drive), which set up Darren Sproles’ 5-yard touchdown run with 18 seconds left to play.

The loss was as painful as it was instructive. It’s been so long since the Silver and Black had such a strong secondary and a pair of defensive ends as talented as Richard Seymour and Greg Ellis. Maybe they didn’t realize how tough it is for opposing teams to deal with the added pressure they can now afford to bring.

In the coming weeks, look for Tom Cable to turn loose linebackers Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard or blitz one of his exciting, young safeties Tyvon Branch or Mike Mitchell.

There’s a reason you don’t see the prevent used by defensive powerhouses like the Steelers, Ravens, Patriots, Eagles or Chargers.

They dare you to beat them, and rarely lose.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, Mike Singletary appears to have the personnel he needs to play a more attacking style of defense.

Dashon Goldson is a huge upgrade at free safety over last year’s starter, Mark Roman. Shawntae Spencer is a solid replacement for injured cornerback Walt Harris. Nate Clements and Dre’ Bly may not be shut-down corners, but they are solid enough and certainly are benefiting from a posse of capable pass rushers in Justin Smith, Parys Haralson, Ray McDonald and Manny Lawson. With all-everything linebacker Patrick Willis anchoring the middle of the 49ers’ improved 3-4 defense, yards and points should be harder to come by.

Curiously, in the parallel world of 49ers and Raiders, both teams will need better play from their offensive line and quarterback to become legitimate playoff contenders. With his frequently fluttering passes, Shaun Hill won’t win any beauty contests, but he is a resourceful and gritty leader who has won eight of his eleven starts. That said, opposing teams will still look to stop Frank Gore first before worrying about Hill beating them.

The same goes for the Raiders who will ride their prized thoroughbreds Darren McFadden and Michael Bush for all they’re worth, hoping that Russell will soon harness his enormous talent. After six dismal seasons, there’s finally good reasons to pay attention to pro football on both sides of the Bay.

KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news and is also the co-host of “Raiders Gameday” and “Recap” talk shows on KSFO (560 AM). He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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