With the offense exploding again in a huge Week 7 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, what the Raiders need was is for the defense to improve in order to contend for a Super Bowl. They’ve shown some signs of improvement but sitting at a 3-4 record, there isn’t much margin for error.
Navorro Bowman’s performance after three days with the team tells us that was a great acquisition. He instantly improved the run defense. Bowman taking the MIKE LB could solve the one major weakness in the defensive front-seven.
Next up will be to field a decent secondary to catch the type of winning streak they will need in order to contend. The two players they need in that secondary are already on the team; First-round cornerback Gareon Conley and second-round strong safety Obi Melifonwu.
Conley showed us what he can do briefly in Week 2 against the New York Jets but a nagging shin injury led him back to sitting out of football games.
The former starting duo of Sean Smith and David Amerson have has serious issues. Smith is now benched and buried on the depth chart and Amerson has not performed like a number one corner. TJ Carrie has done a fine job both filling in as a starter on the outside and in the slot. Conley could potentially cover the No. 1 receiver upon his return.
We have yet to see Melifonwu in a real NFL game but his talent is undeniable. The 6’4”, 225-pound former CB runs a 4.4 40-yard-dash, still has CB hips and is one of the best tackling safeties that came out in the 2017 NFL Draft. So he’s a good bet to play well against the run as well as blanket opposing tight ends. Melifonwu would fix two positions in the Raiders secondary once he’s inserted into the starting lineup.
Karl Joseph one area of concern is covering TE’s in part because he’s too short for that. With Melifonwu in the lineup, Joseph could move to free safety, where he had five interceptions in just four games in his last year at West Virginia. He could take current starter Reggie Nelson spot as he no longer covers enough ground to play FS. He is consistently too late on arrival on all deep balls thrown in his coverage area.
Melifonwu returned to practice last week and is eligible to come off injured reserve as early as week 9 when the team heads to Miami. No one knows if or when Conley will be able to play football again. Even Del Rio said it’s too early to speculate on his long term status.
“I think we’re going to be patient and do the right thing at the right time with him,” Del Rio said of Conley. “We were trying to kind of get him going and see if we could get a little bit and just didn’t appear to be making the kind of progress we need to make. When he can do the things that he needs to do and gets cleared to come back and be full speed for us then he’ll go.”
The hope of Raider Nation is that their first two 2017 NFL Draft picks can come back before it’s too late. Otherwise they have to again rely on quarterback Derek Carr’s fourth-quarter comebacks and Khalil Mack to shut the door behind him. As exciting as that may be, you don’t want to rely on that every week. Not when you have to darn-near run the table to get into the playoffs, and not if you hope to go deep in the playoffs.
Editor’s note: Levi Damien contributed to this piece.