ALAMEDA — Watch bad defense long enough and it’s easy to be skeptical and even cynical about the potential for improvement.
And let’s face it, the Raiders have been poor defensively for a long, long time. And that includes 2016 when Khalil Mack was on the roster, was an All-Pro at two different positions and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in a 12-4 season.
It was bad when the coordinator was Rob Ryan, John Marshall, Jason Tarver and Ken Norton Jr. When John Pagano took over for Norton last season and the Raiders went from awful to below average, they should have thrown a parade. It was bad with offensive head coaches such as Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable and Hue Jackson.
Defensive-minded head coaches such as Dennis Allen and Jack Del Rio didn’t fare much better.
Enter Paul Guenther, Jon Gruden’s first choice as defensive coordinator, who came in doing more on-field teaching than we’d seen and a clear idea of what he wanted done and how he wanted to do it.
Yet here Guenther sits through five games, with the Raiders ranked 30th in total defense at 404.4 yards per game and giving up a whopping 6.8 yards per play — which ranks ahead of only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 7.0.
No one is more surprised than Guenther, who was confident he could develop a cohesive unit even without Mack, whose asking price the Raiders felt was simply too high for a team which had already locked in its franchise quarterback.
Instead it has been moving parts, big plays and second-half fades — problems that are all too familiar with anyone who has watched Raiders football with only a few exceptions since they moved back to Oakland in 1995.
To be honest, the thought here was the coaching would be at a level where the Raiders could cobble together something average, even without Mack. Then if the Raiders could build an offense around Derek Carr that could score enough points ... well, you get the picture.
Instead, the defense has been far below average, the offense has been able to get yards but not a corresponding number of points, and that adds up to 1-4 heading in to Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday at Wembley Stadium.
If there is anything to point to among the breakdowns and the big plays, it is the sequences — more than you’d think, really — where the defense is actually playing pretty well.
Through five games, the Raiders have forced 16 three-and-outs, tied for third in the NFL. They did it on back-to-back series in the second quarter in what was at the time a 3-3 game against the Chargers and the offense couldn’t capitalize.
“The margin for error is very thin,” Guenther said. “If we don’t have guys in the right spots that’s where we kind of have breakdowns. That’s the thing we are trying to eliminate ... try to work them ahead and say this is a tough snap in practice. The more tough snaps you put them through, the less in games where it’s going to be a stress.”
Guenther said players are coming to practice prepared and ready to work, and while it’s true that every other defensive coordinator that has struggled with the Raiders said the same thing, there is a blending of the old (Reggie Nelson, Leon Hall, Derrick Johnson) and the young (Maurice Hurst, P.J. Hall Arden Key) that is still taking place.