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Raiders may have discovered key to stopping opposing tight ends

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Over the first four games this season, what was more expected than death and taxes was the Raiders were going to give up monster receiving numbers to the opposing tight end. But last week that suddenly changed. So, what was the key to lifting the "cloaking device" on the tight end? And can they keep doing it?

The key appears to be shuffling the linebackers and inserting rookie linebacker Neiron Ball into the starting lineup. It was a start which Jack Del Rio said was well-earned for this fifth round pick.

"We see the skills that he brings and the work ethic that he has every day and the way that he prepares, so we increased his role," said Del Rio. "Thought we would seek to take advantage of some of things we think he's capable of and I thought he did a nice job in his first extended activity."

A shakeup was needed in the linebacker corps.

After a couple weeks of the season, the league had already caught on that the Raiders defense with the starting personnel they were putting on the field were just not built to account for the tight end. Some blame the safeties, some blame the linebackers, and some blamed all of the above.

Opposing teams knew coming into the season that the Raiders were vulnerable in the secondary and therefore attacked them through the air more than on the ground. What Andy Dalton discovered in the season opener was that the Raiders' real blind spot on the defense came in coverage by the linebackers - most notably that of middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. And he took full advantage of it.

After four weeks of watching Lofton and company get ripped by tight ends, they made that change just in time to face Peyton Manning and the division rival Broncos.

The solution they came up with was to give Neiron Ball the start at outside linebacker, and give Malcolm Smith the start at middle linebacker ahead of Lofton. It worked like a charm.

Smith had a great game and Ball locked down the tight end in coverage. Tight end Owen Daniels was targeted five times and came away with zero catches. Their other tight end, Virgil Green saw one target in 25 snaps which was a 2-yard catch wiped away by a defensive holding penalty.

Two of those target incompletions intended for Daniels were with Ball covering him. The first one Ball batted down for a pass defended. The second one resulted in the Charles Woodson interception in the end zone at the end of the first half. Those were the only two times in the game the man Ball was covering was even targeted.

Compare those coverage numbers to Curtis Lofton who has given up 16 catches on 16 targets this season, and Malcolm Smith who has given up 22 catches on 26 targets, and you see the problem and why adding a solid cover guy like Ball to the mix was so important.

Ball noted that what impressed the coaches most about him was his athleticism. That athleticism is what has made him a special teams standout all season long, including a key open field tackle on a punt late in the first half against the Broncos to hold the return man to a 4-yard gain and stop him inside the 10-yard line.

What has also been impressive about Ball has been his tremendous character. And even though he says he is always extremely confident in his abilities, he is quick to deflect the credit for the job the Raiders' defense did in covering the tight end.

"I definitely take pride in whatever my role is," said Ball. "I feel like that just wasn't on me -- shutting down the tight end -- I feel like that wasn't my [play that] created [it], I feel like that was a team effort. I feel like the DB's did their job to cover their man and the guys pass rushing the quarterback, they did their job and I feel like it all just worked together. It wasn't just a one-man effort."

He may be right about it being a team effort. But it was his insertion into the lineup that made it possible.

The next test? Future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates.