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Big turnaround for Raiders defense gaining momentum

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first five games this season, the Raiders defense was among the worst in the league. The offense wasn't much better, but it seemed no matter what happened, it was the defense that would collapse when it mattered most.

The opener, they allowed Geno (freaking) Smith to lead the Jets downfield routinely and score. They were the only team in the NFL to lose to the Geno Smith led Jets this season.

That defensive effort went from bad to worse when they were trampled by Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Houston Texans.

Then after a surprise defensive performance that had the defense pumped up and full of hope, they were embarrassed badly in London by the Dolphins. All that confidence seemed to fizzle in the lights at Wembley stadium and they had a lot to think about over they bye week.

With two weeks to prepare for the Chargers, along with a new head coach, they came out firing on offense. But the defense was still a sieve and the Chargers scored almost at will to come back late and pull out the win.

The Following week the Cardinals offense had the ball for nearly a quarter more than the Raiders and won easily.

Since then, there has been a turnaround.

One of the main problems the defense was having over the first six games was getting off the field on third down. Opponents were converting a league high 53% of their third down opportunities against the Raiders. That includes allowing the Cardinals to convert on 60% of their third down opportunities.

In the past five weeks, that third down percentage has been turned on its head. During that time the Raiders have allowed the lowest conversion in the NFL of 28.7%. That's nearly have the percentage from the first six games.

Often times the improved defensive play lines up with improved offensive play. But that just hasn't been the case. The Raiders offense has been just as bad on third down as they were before. In fact, their conversion percentage over the past five games is lower than it was in the first six. They converted 38% of their third down attempts over the first six games and are converted 32% since.

No, this is just about the defense stepping up. So, what has happened to cause this newfound defensive play? What's changed?

The first game the Raiders defense began to show up big was against the Browns. The first glaring difference was that was the first game LaMarr Woodley was not in the lineup. He was placed on injured reserve and replaced by Benson Mayowa at defensive end. Along with that change, C.J. Wilson was given the start at the other defensive end spot with Justin Tuck brought in as a situational pass rusher.

Those changes had a ripple effect to the linebackers. Suddenly Khalil Mack went from run stopper to being a force in every facet of the game. Though he didn't get his first sack against the Browns, he wreaked havoc on them, including having a couple tackles for loss. As a result, the Raiders held one of the better run offenses in the NFL to a 1.6 yards per carry average and a total of 39 yards on the ground. Clearly those were changes that were working.

That game was a defensive match with the Raiders down just 9-6 heading into the fourth quarter. They were done in against the Browns due to two costly turnovers on fumbles late in the game to allow two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

The following week, it was turnovers early in the game that doomed the Raiders. But the defense stiffened after half time, allowing just six points with no touchdowns in the second half to the defending Super Bowl champs in their own house.

Late in the first half against the Broncos, things went off the rails. The Raiders had a 10-6 lead with three minutes left in the second quarter before the Broncos rattled off five-straight touchdowns. It's not dissimilar to what the Dolphins and their stingy defense did yesterday. They were ahead early only to see Peyton Manning get in a groove and start putting points on the board in bunches.

Then just over a week ago in San Diego, the defense had probably their best game. After blowing a great offensive effort in their first meeting in a shootout, this one was the complete opposite. Neither team could get anything going offensively. The thing was, the Raiders' failings on offense were mainly because of their own issues, not anything the Chargers were doing. The Chargers issues on offense appeared to be a direct result of what the Raiders were doing on defense.

The Raiders put constant pressure on Philip Rivers and blanketed his receivers in coverage. Khalil Mack also got his first sack in that game and Antonio Smith was a one-man wrecking crew against the Chargers' offensive line. They only scored one touchdown and it came off of a turnover on a fumbled snap on the first play of the game. The Raiders defense played their hearts out from the opening whistle to the final down.

Antonio Smith spoke after the tough loss. He said it was something Tony Sparano said the previous week that stuck with them and brought the most out of them.

"He used a quote this week and it was amongst us as a team and everybody hung onto it," said Smith. "And that's the fight you saw out there today. I believe that this is going to be the fight that we need to bring every day. I don't know what else we need to change to get a win. But when Coach Sparano asks us to sacrifice and give what he needs us to give, I'm proud of my boys for giving it today. We are going to give it for the rest of these games."

"It's been instilled in me ever since I've been playing this game, when you line up on the field, a man against a man, a grown man against another grown man, you have to (beat) that grown man. You aren't out there to play with him. You aren't out there to go toe-to-toe. You are out there to dominate him."

Even after that hard-fought loss, the Raiders came out in a short week against the AFC West Division leading Chiefs and brought it. The defense held up early to allow the team to jump out to a 17-3 lead until late in the third quarter. The Chiefs made a run to get back in it, then the defense shut the door at the end to help the team get its first win of the season.

That domino effect from the defensive ends and linebacker has extended to the play of the secondary where the team has gotten strong contributions from rookie T.J. Carrie and second year corner, D.J. Hayden. All the while continuing to get some stellar safety play from Charles Woodson and some surprisingly solid play from Brandian Ross.

In the past two weeks, the contributions have come from all over the defense. D.J. Hayden has been starting due to the injuries to Carlos Rogers and T.J. Carrie. Hayden is playing some of his best football and no offense to Rogers, but Hayden has the team not missing him much. Justin Ellis has looked pretty good at nose tackle, and Justin Tuck has been playing very well as a rotation guy. Even Miles Burris' play has improved.

It's odd to think that after how bad this defense was over the first part of this season, what they look like now. From getting gouged by Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick - both of whom have since been benched - to giving serious issues to Brian Hoyer, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, and Alex Smith.

Next up: Shaun Hill and the Rams.