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The old guard and the young blood

Raiders boast good mix of veterans and youth on defense; need more from them in final 5 games

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders will need every bit of K.J. Wright’s (34) experience, knowledge and instincts to stymie an explosive Chiefs offense this Sunday.
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

Complementary football is a fleeting thing for the Las Vegas Raiders. On rare occasions, when the defense gets a stop, the offense gets into the end zone. And vice versa. When the offense gets seven, the defense hasn’t consistently stopped the opposition. The road goes both ways.

That said, more recently, the Raiders defense has run ragged due to the offense not moving the chains, going 3-and-out, resulting in Las Vegas losing the time of possession battle.

Take the team’s 1-4 performance in the last five games. In that lone win — overtime against Dallas on Thanksgiving Day — the Raiders possessed the ball for 39:02 to the Cowboys’ 26:30. In the losses, however, the Giants (30:11 to 29:49); Chiefs (35:26 to 24:34); Bengals (37:20 to 22:40) and Washington Football Team (33:43 to 26:7) controlled the ball and dictated the pace.

All that time on the field has relegated an inconsistent offense to depend on a ragamuffin defense that’s huffing and puffing in the fourth quarter. But for veteran linebacker K.J. Wright, fatigued or not, the Raiders have a job to do, and if you can’t do it, leave.

“If you’re tired, go home,” Wright said during his mid-week media session. “That’s my mentality. There’s no room for tired. We’re not going to be the team that’s home (when the playoffs begin).”

A bold claim for a team that’s 6-6 with its postseason aspirations on life support. Las Vegas likely needs to go 4-1 in the final five games (and probably get some help) to sniff the playoffs. And the first of those five is a doozy: At the 8-4 Kansas City Chiefs.

The Raiders will lean heavily once more on their defense which does boast a good mix of veterans and youth. But the team will need even more from the defense in the last five games.

Leaning on the vets

The 32-year-old Wright is savvy in the Gus Bradley scheme but hasn’t seen the field too much as he’s off the field when the Raiders deploy the two-linebacker nickel formation. He played the second-most snaps of the year in the 17-15 loss to Washington (35 with his highest snaps of 37 coming in Week 1) contributing three total tackles.

His contribution on the stat sheet is one thing, but what he brings in terms of system knowledge and game-day experience is valuable, too.

“I believe I’m here for a reason. I’m definitely here for a reason,” Wright said. “Everybody kept on telling me that ... and I’m starting to see why. I have a lot of wisdom and expertise I can just share with my guys. And I’m thankful that I’m here to be in this position ‘cause it’s time to show how well I am as a leader and how my message can come across. And then when I step on the field, just playing really good football.

“So I’m thankful we’re in this position and we’re just going to show ourselves and how well we can finish this season.”

The Raiders will need every ounce of Wright’s experience and ability against the Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes-led Kansas City offense. Ditto for veteran cornerback Casey Hayward. Like Wright, the defensive back is also 32, but unlike the linebacker, Hayward rarely steps off the field, playing 92 percent of the Raiders defensive snaps. And his performance has been off the charts for Vegas as he’s yet to allow a touchdown in coverage.

“Casey is very instinctual,” Bradley said last week. “He really brings a sense of poise to the (defensive backs) group. There are some young guys back there kind of learning the ropes a little bit. But I think with him on the field you can see him communicating after every play, talking to guys on some alerts and things like that, and his instincts.

“The way he’s playing and how we position him, I think is trying to best utilize his skill set. … I think that’s what we appreciate the most, is his instincts.”

Impressive rookie slot cornerback Nate Hobbs is a benefactor of both Hayward’s presence on the roster and the example the veteran corner sets on the field.

“Casey has made a huge impact from Day 1,” Hobbs said. “He has been open to everything I have asked and taken me in like a little brother. He gives me tips, but I learn more watching him play. I just try and pick up little things.”

Young blood stepping up

While Hobbs has been a solid contributor since becoming a Day 1 starter, fellow rookie Divine Deablo has been primarily a special teams contributor. But when injuries decimated the linebacking crew, Deablo saw plenty of snaps against Washington and didn’t disappoint. He finished second on the team with 11 tackles and showcased the speed, agility and movement skills that made him a third-round pick.

“To see him come in and play linebacker is pretty cool,” said Wright. “He understands all these run fits, he’s someone who tackles well, obviously he can cover. So it’s pretty cool to see how he stepped in Sunday and just handled business. We [were] out there together, he was handling business, making his plays, making his tackles. And you’re going to see him, he’s getting his career started on defense. It’s been pretty cool to see him have that success in that first game.”

Washington Football Team v Las Vegas Raiders
Raiders rookie linebacker Divine Deablo (5) showed plenty of promise and impressed veterans after getting a ton of snaps last week against the Washington Football Team.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

All that despite learning the new position of linebacker in the NFL after being a big safety at Virginia Tech.

“It’s not surprising. I think that we thought that if he got an opportunity he would play pretty well,” Bradley said of Deablo. “It was the poise, I think, is what we recognized with Deablo. That he got out there, wasn’t too big for him. We really like his speed. That’s kind of what you’re hoping for at that WILL linebacker spot. Kind of that converted safety, he’s putting on some weight, he’s playing more physical.”

Las Vegas needs Deablo to continue his growth and development as he’s the prototype modern-day linebacker in the pass-happy NFL. He runs like a corner, has excellent size and tackling ability. If the Raiders get the same impact takeaway artist Deablo was as a Hokie, they’ll have a cover linebacker it hasn’t seen since the days of Thomas Howard and William Thomas.

Not only that, but the Raiders need Hobbs to remain not only steady but elevate his play in the slot, Maxx Crosby to up his sack numbers off the edge, and cornerback Trayvon Mullen to hit the ground running if and when he returns from injured reserve.

Las Vegas has five more games, five more opportunities to either make or break the playoff race. Time to avoid rolling snake eyes.