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Raiders defense must step up big time in order to advance in playoffs

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All season long, the Raiders’ offense has carried them. Sure, the defense has made some key plays along the way, but putting together a complete game has eluded them for the most part.

In most cases, either the offense has had to mount a comeback based on the defense putting them in a hole or the defense was able to make a key play because the Raider offense put the opponent in desperation mode.

They must do more this week. It’s possible the Raiders might need the defense to carry them, which is a scary thought.

The Texans have proven their defense can carry them to wins. They have the league’s number one defense and have very few vulnerable spots.

Can the Raiders dominate on defense? Though it seems unlikely, it’s certainly possible. So, how do they find it?

It isn’t this “bend but don’t break” mantra, because they have broken plenty of times and thus put the responsibility on the offense to bail them out.

It isn’t a strong pass rush, because they finished near the bottom of the league in sacks, including being held without a sack in the crucial season finale in Denver.

The primary area where the Raiders defense has been able to mask their faults this season is by being opportunistic. They were second in the league this season with 30 takeaways. Only the Chiefs had more with 33.

While the Raiders defense has done well to take the ball away, the Texans haven’t done a great job of protecting it. They had 24 giveaways which was 13th most in the league.

Leading the way in the takeaway category for the Raiders is Khalil Mack, who was second only to Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward in takeaways this season. Mack had 5 forced fumbles and 1 interception returned for a touchdown.

Right behind Mack is his pass rushing compatriot, Bruce Irvin, who led the league with 6 forced fumbles. After that it’s safety Reggie Nelson with 5 interceptions.

Last Sunday in Denver, they got down early and never recovered due in large part to poor tackling. With all their other defensive issues, that was somewhat of a new one this season. This time they were unable to make up for their issues with timely takeaways, as they would force just one turnover on an interception.

“Well, you work on it,” said Ken Norton Jr. “Obviously, turnovers, we’re the league leaders in turnovers. So, there’s two sides to it. You go after the ball, sometimes you’re going to miss the player, but at the same time, there’s certain skill to tackling the ball. There’s a certain skill of putting your shoulder on the ball and same time, second man in getting the ball out. But, you know, we have to tackle. I think they understand what they have to do and that shouldn’t be a problem anymore.”

Pluses for the Raiders defense is second-year defensive lineman Mario Edwards Jr playing in his third game since returning from his hip injury and rookie top pick safety Karl Joseph returning from the toe injury that kept him out the final four games of the season.

Edwards Jr helps in run defense and Joseph helps in the pass defense. Both areas can use all the help they can get going against Lamar Miller — who ran for 104 yards in the first meeting — and 2015 Pro Bowl receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

All these defensive pieces are great, but we all know this defense goes where their 2-time All Pro pass rusher Khalil Mack takes them.

Mack has shown throughout his career that he starts a bit slow and finishes strong. While his blockers are wearing down through the game, he does not. He continues his relentless pursuit and it’s the reason why he led the league this season by a large margin with 96 QB pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

Adding to that, he will be facing a major weak spot on the Texans in right tackle, Chris Clark.

Osweiler knows full well what Mack can do with lackluster blocking. He was the victim of Mack’s 5.0 sack game last season with the Broncos -- all of which came in the second half alone. Mack sacked Osweiler again in their meeting this season.

That match-up last season is very similar to this one, actually. The Broncos, like the Texans this season, were the league’s top defense. But their weak area was their offensive line, and Mack and company made them pay for it with the Raiders winning 15-12 over the eventual Super Bowl champions.

With the Raiders offense fielding rookie third string quarterback, Connor Cook, who is also without Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn, a low scoring, defensive game is the best bet for the Raiders to pull out a win in Houston.

For a defense that has only once held a team under 16 points (Titans scored 10 points in week 3) and averages surrendering over 24 points per game, and 375 yards, it may just require their best performance of the season to get it done.