Ken Norton Jr
The numbers the defense has been giving up the past few weeks shows they may be improving. If it continues, Norton won’t be on this list come the end of the season. But over the first half of this season, the defense had far too many issues to just ignore it due to recent improvements.
First of all, the idea that Ben Heeney was the answer at middle linebacker was extremely ill advised. This isn’t a case of hindsight on my part. Thinking Ben Heeney can be the guy is one thing. Putting all your eggs in that basket is another. They had no backup plan should that plan fail. And just two weeks in, they already knew it wasn’t working and made a change.
That change was a rookie sixth round pick. Cory James played better, but still wasn’t the answer. It wasn’t until week five when they picked up Perry Riley Jr as a free agent that things looked up. The Raiders are quite lucky the offense was able to put up so many points to mask the defense’s issues or that would have been a rough first month.
Week two in Oakland, the Raiders offense was unable to come to the rescue against the Falcons. For the second week, the opposing offense looked one step ahead of the Raiders defense. Everything the Falcons tried, worked.
After picking up a total of 20 yards in the season opener, Devonte Freeman ran for 93 yards on 15 carries (5.5 ypc). That remains his second best game of the season.
A trio of Falcons tight ends combined for 181 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches. Meanwhile Julio Jones was flawless, catching all five of his targets for 106 yards and a touchdown. And Matt Ryan looked like Drew Brees, completing 26 of 34 (76%) for 396 yards and 3 touchdowns with one interception for a 131.5 passer rating. That is still Ryan’s second best total of the season. Combined the Raiders gave up 535 yards of offense and 35 points. This a week after giving up 34 points and over 500 yards of offense to the Saints.
Week 6 Norton was Top Buster again (along with the head coach and offensive coordinator) in the Raiders worst loss of the season. The ‘elite’ pair of Alex Smith and Spencer Ware torched the Raiders. Smith completed all but three of his passes. He went 19 of 22 for a franchise record 86% completions. Ware had a career high 131 yards rushing and a touchdown on 24 carries (5.5 ypc).
Two weeks later Norton was Top Buster again (along with the head coach) for the Raiders ridiculous, 23 penalty game in Tampa. With the Raiders still clinging to a lead at 17-16 late, the Buccaneers would go on a drive in which they picked up three third down conversions -- all on penalties. The first was a vicious illegal hit by Karl Joseph. The other two were BOTH 12 men on the field penalties on third and one. Jack Del Rio said after the game that there was even an instance or two when they had ten men on the field.
Smith was a Buster each of the first four weeks of the season. Causing a chicken or the egg type situation. Was the defense improved because Smith improved? Or was he improved because of the overall improved play of the defense? Hard to say for certain, but even after those first four games, Smith didn’t improve enough to be a Baller over the past five games. That would lead me to believe the rest of the defense improving helped mask his deficiencies.
There were several times in the season opener where it seemed like Drew Brees was looking for number 53 and sent the play his direction. It didn’t help that Smith at times ended up defending a wide receiver. Those match-ups never ended well, with one of them going for a touchdown early on. He also gave up the final Saints touchdown of the day on a catch from 2 yards out.
The next week, the Raiders’ long standing issues covering the tight end reared their ugly head. And we were all reminded that Malcolm Smith was one of those coverage liabilities. He also struggled in stopping the run. Two touchdowns went through Smith – one to tight end Jacob Tamme from 14 yards out and the other a 13-yard run to bring the Falcons to 35 points. Smith also gave up a 16-yard catch to Tamme that set up a field goal.
The following week against the Titans, the Raiders defense had their first good effort, but Smith was still not up to snuff. The Titans only scored twice and both of those scores were set up by Smith miscues. His day began with missing a tackle on the third play to give up a 17-yard run and the drive ended with a field goal. The other drive was for a touchdown in which Smith couldn’t get off his block, resulting in the biggest play of the game on a 36-yard run. He was also twice flagged for being offsides.
Smith was just about invisible in the next week in Baltimore. The first shot he had at making a play came on third and 28 on the Ravens’ first drive. He missed the tackle and Cory James had to stop it for a 15-yard gain. The rest of the first half, while James was racking up 8 tackles, Smith’s main contribution was being called for pass interference on third down.
Down 14-6 in the third quarter Smith was blocked on a 14-yard run, and a few plays later gave up a 10-yard catch to the tight end. His final play saw the fullback block him back on a 5-yard run which injured Smith’s foot and he hobbled off the field, not to return.
To Smith’s credit, he has looked better the past five games and his 49 combined tackles leads the team. Though with the turnover at middle linebacker already this season, he really should be leading in tackles.
His 72.7% on field goals is the lowest in the NFL among kickers with at least 15 attempts. He has attempted 8 field goals of 50 yards or more and made just 3 of them. This included missing what would have been the game winner in Tampa TWICE – once at the end of regulation (50) and once in overtime (52). He also missed one from 48 yards out. He might have had more misses, except when your success rate on long field goals is worse than a 50/50 shot, that tends to factor into the coach’s decision whether to attempt a field goal or punt. And Marquette King’s punts have been far more reliable this season.