Richard Seymour's statement that the Raiders were capable of having a top five defense has gotten a lot of run lately. The defensive line has backed up that statement in their first two preseason games even though they lost both games. Raiders' defensive coordinator Jason Tarver says living up to those expectations in his book is not about stats.
"The No. 1 thing with this, and with defense, is you want to control what you're able to control." Said Tarver. "Last week we had the ball in our own zone, who cares? It's not about where they start, it's where they finish. So No. 1, of course, is points allowed, like you said. But points allowed is a team stat, and that's missed at times. Points allowed is attributed right to the defense, but it's a team stat. This is a team game, that's what's great about it."
"How do you rank a Top 5 defense? OK, there's a lot of ways, but the biggest one is getting the heck off the field and giving the ball back to Carson and the guys. That's the biggest one. That's what we want to do, out of the end zone. So the other stats with that, that's a result of controlling how we get off the field -- third-down percentage, red-zone touchdown percentage, those are a couple that are good markers. The yards at times, I mean there's some games where they catch a couple balls. Tackle them, go to the next play."
Stopping opposing teams on third down and getting off the field is extremely important. That is what Tarver values most and rightfully so. The last time any part of the Raiders defense was celebrated it was the 2006 secondary. But those stats were meaningless for a 2-14 team. You had to go beyond the numbers to discover what was really going on. Opposing teams scored early and then ran the rest of the game out.
The players have been raving about the "mad chemist" Tarver and the schemes he is cooking up. They keep talking about all the plays they will be able to make in the new defense. Tarver likes that the players are confident and he thinks he knows why.
"They see themselves getting better, and making more plays, and then it builds. And that's where you build confidence. And the other thing that's happening is guys are learning how to work together. And that's a team. It's 11 men working together to stop the offense.
"It's all about process. It really is. It's about teaching progressions and process and keeping the guys, putting everything together in categories, so that we can progress to where we want to go. It's great that they can see that because now they're putting those things together going, ‘Oh this looks like this. I see myself in this, making plays.' But now we've got to do it and we've got to do it 11 guys together."
Many of the players have pointed to the improved tackling of this team as a big improvement. Tarver has emphasized proper tackling technique and wrapping up. Although, one of the bigger hits that has happened this preseason came when Rolando McClain nailed Jason Witten after a catch behind the line of scrimmage- one in which he didn't wrap up. That is a teachable moment.
"As he was coming off the field I said ‘that is a great job on a bootleg, like we've been working all camp. Now wrap him up.' That's exactly what I told him."
Tarver wouldn't say what areas he thought needed the most attention. He said he will be watching them all on Saturday. But he emphasized the progression of rookie linebacker Miles Burris and the uncertainty in who the backup corners will be. And with the questions on the defense surrounding mainly the linebackers and corners, that makes sense.
The defensive line may be walking the talk but without the linebackers and secondary doing their part, it will be difficult for this defense to get off the field. There is always also the danger of overconfidence. Coaches talk about guarding against overconfidence.
This is Tarver's first job as a defensive coordinator at the NFL level. It's a lot different than being a position coach or coaching in the college ranks. No doubt there is still a lot of learning to be done from Tarver as well as his players have to learn from him. What looks rosy now could turn ugly real fast and all that confidence goes downs the drain.
This week the team will face a tough task in the Detroit Lions. Facing their high-powered offense with quarterback Matt Stafford and All World, freak of nature receiver Calvin Johnson will go a long way toward discovering just how warranted this confidence is. If at all. If they can consistently stop the Lions offense on third down and get off the field, they will have lived up to Tarver's expectations as to what a top five defense looks like.