The 2016 Raiders intercepted 16 passes, landing the defensive unit in the top one-third of the league and fueling a plus-16 takeaway differential — tied for tops in the league.
This season has been a completely different story. Oakland has not picked off a single pass, making its secondary the only yet to snare a takeaway. Having recovered five fumbles, and aided by the offense’s seven turnovers (T-6th fewest), the Raiders (3-4) have thus far maintained a somewhat respectable minus-2 differential.
That number finds Oakland just outside of the top-half of the league, which is far from terrible. But the strength of a defense that has allowed the NFL’s seventh-most yards per game (360.6) comes in the form of a pass rush — which has incurred 13 sacks (T-13th fewest) — and using it to force takeaways.
Answering the question of his unit’s shortcomings is simple in the mind of head coach Jack Del Rio, who intercepted 13 passes in his 11-year career as an NFL linebacker — more work on the jugs machine:
“We’ve got the Jugs cranked up. I think we burned out a motor, we’re going at is so much. But we’ll just keep going, we got a new motor in and we’ll keep shooting them balls.”
It certainly hasn’t helped Oakland’s cause having defensive backs Karl Joseph, David Amerson, Keith McGill, Sean Smith — a combined career 21 interceptions — and first-round draft pick Gareon Conley suffer injuries. Still, the defensive backfield has playmakers, just ask Raider quarterback Derek Carr:
“It’s one of those weird things because they’ve definitely picked me off before. I like to take chances, especially in practice, figure out what I can and can’t do, but that still doesn’t go — they still have picked me off. … So, we get into games and you hear that stat and you’re like, ‘what? That doesn’t even make sense’ because we have guys that are really good around the ball.”
Meeting the mid-way point of the 2017 campaign Sunday in Buffalo, Oakland will look to get off this Schneid against Tyrod Taylor, whom they picked once in a Week 12 matchup last year. But they will have to do so without Nate Allen, that game’s interceptor, who is currently a member of the Miami Dolphins.
As they have shown three times, including once on the road against a playoff hopeful Tennessee Titans, the Raiders can win without the benefit of a picked pass. None of those wins were bigger than a Week 7 Thursday Night Football victory over the division-leading Kansas City Chiefs, against whom the defense came up with a pair of late snaps, aided largely by a successful pass rush.
But, as has been the case all season, it was despite deficiency in the defensive passing lanes, bottoming out with a near-pick by McGill that instead deflected off the safety’s hands and caroming into the hands of Albert Wilson for a 63-yard score. The play screamed: “jugs.”
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. joked:
“You have to keep coaching, you have to keep teaching obviously, and we have to teach them how to catch better.”
“It’s about making plays. It’s one thing to study it, it’s one thing to practice it, it’s one thing to actually be on the field, it’s another thing to go up and make the play. It’s a process that has to be done … to put it all together, it’s hard.”
Even with the shortcomings, the Raiders are in position for a playoff push, beginning in Buffalo. A push that will need some help from a recovered secondary, which Carr does expect to arrive:
“It’s only a matter of time. And when they come, they come in bunches.”