Turns out, the Las Vegas Raiders defensive performance the last three weeks wasn’t a fluke. After combating two squads led by backup quarterbacks in Weeks 15 and 16, Gus Bradley’s defense rose to the occasion again and stymied the contending Indianapolis Colts this past Sunday in Vegas’ 23-20 win.
If it weren’t for a fluky touchdown connection from quarterback Carson Wentz to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton on a tip-drill that should’ve been intercepted from the get-go, the contest between the Raiders and the potentially playoff-bound Colts wasn’t that close. Yeah, yeah, so Bradley’s crew gave up 108 yards and a touchdown to all-world Colts running back Jonathan Taylor. Yet the much-maligned Silver & Black defense didn’t get eviscerated by JT and relatively limited his runs with a long of 24 yards. And, perhaps more importantly — impressively so — Indianapolis is now 9-1 when Taylor reaches the 100-yard mark, thanks in large part to Bradley’s defense.
“I think we gave up one explosive run,” interim Raiders head coach Rich Bisaccia said Monday. “And for our ability to push the front around a little bit as the game went on with our defensive front four and the way our linebackers are playing, it was good to get Denzel (Perryman) back playing like that.
“I know he had some issues with his cardio a little bit in the game and breathing and I thought (linebackers coach) Richard Smith did a great job subbing those guys and putting him in there. But I think you saw our team run sideline to sideline. I thought they made really good plays on defense.”
So why all the fuss about Gus?
Statistically, his defense ranks 24th in points allowed (407) and 13th in yards given up (5,292). The Raiders are 10th against the pass in terms of yardage (3,434 yards), 19th in passing touchdowns given up (26). Vegas is 21st in rushing yards yielded (1,858) and 23rd in rushing scores given up (17). Bradley’s unit is ranked dead last in interceptions (five total) and is 31st in total takeaways. So the concern is warranted.
But over the course of the Raiders' three-game win streak — one that’s allowed them the opportunity to win and get into the playoffs now they’re 9-7 — Bradley’s defense held the Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos and Colts to under 300 yards of total offense. Indy was the high-water mark of the trio of games with 262 total yards (140 passing, 122 rushing). It’s a defense that’s backed up the offense and is playing complementary football.
“If I throw a pick, the defense doesn’t care,” Vegas quarterback Derek Carr said. “They go out and don’t even let points happen. It’s unbelievable. You get the ball back and you’re still right there in it. There’s been years in the past where if I had turned it over one time the game might get out of hand. Now that our defense is playing like they are, I’ve been more aggressive, there’s no doubt. But whenever we can play complementary football, as long as we have a chance at the end of the game, we’ll always take those chances.”
Getting the ball back to Carr and the Raiders offense in crunch time has been critical to not only the Raiders' success as a whole, but has re-energized a defense that’s chock-full of Bradley guys. Transplants from Bradley’s days as the Los Angeles Chargers defensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks DC, and even Jacksonville Jaguars head coach, litter the Raiders roster. Perryman at middle linebacker, K.J. Wright at outside linebacker, Darius Philon at defensive tackle, Yannick Ngakoue at defensive end, Casey Hayward Jr. and Brandon Facyson at cornerback, and Roderic Teamer at safety, each had their stint with Bradley before coming to Las Vegas. And all have contributed tremendously to the Raiders’ defense either on or off the field or both.
Perryman is the heat-seeking missile of a linebacker the Raiders have missed since ... well. Let’s put it this way, he’s just two tackles shy of breaking the team’s single-season total tackles record of 146 set by Greg Biekert in 1998. The trade that Vegas made with the Carolina Panthers to acquire him late in the offseason has been a tremendous boon for the Silver & Black.
“It’s unbelievable. I mean you could tell,” Carr said of Perryman. “He’s running, making tackles and he’s taking a knee a little bit longer than he usually does. The fight – that’s why he’s a Pro Bowler. I’ve always thought he’s one of the best linebackers in the league when he was with the Chargers and all that. Now that he’s getting the recognition and he’s played a lot of plays, he’s staying relatively healthy. I’m glad that he’s getting that recognition because he has that mentality. He’s one of my favorites.”
Then there’s Ngakoue, the Raiders' leading sack master (10). Philon, who didn’t play in the NFL for two seasons and has provided a tremendous boost starting in place of nose tackle Jonathan Hankins. Philon may only have two sacks and 23 total tackles, but his motor and tenacity at the line of scrimmage are tremendous. Hayward’s ability to match up and lock down receivers on the outside was apparent from Week 1, while Facyson has been a pleasant surprise leading the team in passes defensed (11) along with an interception. For context, Hayward and rookie free safety Tre’Von Moehrig are tied for second with six passes defensed.
Ngakoue’s terrorizing ways off the edge coupled with Philon and other defensive linemen’s ability to step up when called upon is a big reason why the Raiders were able to limit Taylor’s day this past Sunday.
“Our defensive line just kept coming at it,” Bisaccia said. “And we were rotating guys in, coming out of the stacks and tackling that back. … So again, credit to (the Colts) and the way they played, but our guys just felt like they could keep battling and put themselves in a position to win the game.”
Not only that, but Bradley brought with him experienced and quality assistant coaches who can both teach and develop in defensive backs coach Ron Milus and linebackers boss Smith. That includes the transplants and the rookies the Raiders picked to bolster Bradley’s defense: Moehrig (51 total tackles and an interception), slot cornerback Nate Hobbs (67 total tackles, one sack, one interception), linebacker Divine Deablo (39 total tackles), defensive end Malcolm Koonce (two sacks). It’s the combination of Bradley and his coaches along with the veterans who echo the teachings that have helped advance the rookies’ ability to adapt and assimilate to the defense.
Bisaccia credited Smith, in particular, for having the linebackers ready to play despite Perryman and Wright, among others, hitting the COVID-19 list prior to the Colts game.
“We can’t say enough about those guys,” he said after the game. “The National Football League is a job, and those guys do everything they possibly can when they are at home, or not at our facility, to keep themselves in whatever cardio condition they can.
“Our linebackers went through multiple meetings yesterday with (assistant coach) Richard Smith. I think it might have been marathon meetings with those guys to get caught up. … It is so exciting to see Denzel Perryman, K.J. and get Philon back.”
But the NFL is a what have you done for me lately business and Bradley’s group has a very stout challenge ahead of itself this Sunday night. Against the team he coached last season, no less, in the Chargers. Round 1, back in Week 4, went L.A.’s way in the form of a 28-14 win, a victory that saw the Bolts hold a 21-0 lead going into halftime. Now, more than ever, Vegas must lean on Bradley and his ragtag group to zap the Bolts.
That means another strong performance from Perryman, Philon (who had two sacks against L.A. in Week 4), Ngakoue, Hayward, Facyson and on down the list. Three strong performances can be undone by one bad game in the unforgiving NFL.
“Just doing your job,” Perryman said Sunday when asked what the key was against the Colts. “That’s mainly what it came down to, just fighting and giving it your all.”
Anything short of their all, and the Raiders are more than likely going to fall.