The offense in Oakland appears to be back together going into the bye week. But if they’re going make the playoffs this season, they need to go on some kind of run. And to do that, they’re going to have to start playing defense.
Having just added inside linebacker Navorro Bowman, defending the run isn’t the problem. Outside of giving up a couple of big plays, the Raiders have been okay against the run.
The pass rush is a concern lately but the secondary has much do with that. It is the team’s biggest weakness as they’re giving up an NFL-high 110 passer rating.
The Raiders have the three worst cornerbacks in the NFL in passer rating given up according to Pro Football Focus. Opposing receivers are getting open as soon as the quarterback gets to the top of his drop. So Khalil Mack and company don’t have a whole lot of time to get to him.
They had only three corners available against the Miami Dolphins for Week 9. And they were so bad, they made Jay Cutler look like Dan Marino put his uniform on and played for him. So going into the bye week, the Raiders look hopeless at the position. But there is reason to have hope that they can improve drastically in the secondary.
The Raiders have already done one thing to improve things with the unit. They started using more Cover-2-man; the scheme Smith was made for. That allows Smith to stay in bump-and-run coverage and have some help over the top. The Raiders ran that against the Dolphins and Smith gave up just one catch on two attempts for six yards.
I would love to be able to tell you that rookie top pick Gareon Conley will be back from his shin injury after the bye, but I can’t. The Raiders are hoping for the best, but still entirely uncertain if he’ll return. They will be making a decision next week one way or the other.
“We’ll see what’s happening after we come back from the weekend, and see if he can do anything early in the week, and then we’ll make our determination from there.” General manager Reggie McKenzie said of Conley’s possible return.
“People’s bodies are different. When you have those type of injuries, you wait and see if it can heal, and feel better, and good enough to play. Early in the season, he was feeling better, and then we had a setback. We’re trying to give it some time to calm down, and see if he can play, so we’ll see what’s happening over the weekend, and early in the week, and see what he can do. If he can’t go, then he can’t go. We’re just going to have to move on, but we’re going to give him every opportunity to see if he can do it.”
Injuries have affected starting cornerback David Amerson as well. He joined the team in 2015 and played well enough to earn his big contract. In 2016 he was okay. In 2017, hasn’t played well, though he’s also been playing hurt.
Amerson has missed three games this season including the last couple of games with shoulder and foot injuries, but is expected to play starting with the first game after the bye. If he’s healthy and can recapture his 2015 form, it would go a long way toward solidifying the secondary.
At free safety Reggie Nelson has been a problem. His instincts have never really been there and his speed to make up for it is no longer there either. So he always arrives just in time to see his CB get beat when they are challenged up top. He can’t get there as a single-high, in deep thirds or deep halves. First-round pick Karl Joseph, who has the instincts and speed could replace him soon if it continues.
Second round rookie Obi Melifonwu just came off injured reserve and got his feet wet with a few snaps against the Dolphins in Week 9. He was made to cover tight ends in Cover-1 so he would figure to be better in that role than Joseph has been to date. He also has the speed and range to cover the deep half in Cover-2. He did well with his snaps last Sunday so it will be interesting to see when he starts playing more.
The only steady presence among the corners has been TJ Carrie. If the secondary is to show improvement over the final 7 games of the season, it will depend on the emergence of Conley, Amerson, and Melifonwu as well as continued to properly deploying Sean Smith.
Editor’s note: Levi Damien contributed to this article.