Pagano defense clicks, Raiders escape Broncos

In his first game as Raiders defensive coordinator, John Pagano appeared to stoke a fire in the unit that his predecessor Ken Norton Jr. couldn’t — at least not in 2017.

The result was a season-fewest seven points allowed for Oakland (5-6), aided in large part by its first interception of the season.

Given the wiggle room, the Derek Carr-led offense was able to overcome the loss of wide receivers Michael Crabtree (ejection) and Amari Cooper (concussion), and right guard Gabe Jackson (ejection), sneaking past a late onrush from the Denver Broncos (3-8), 21-14.

This story has been updated with quotes and post-game material from the Raiders locker room at the Oakland Coliseum.

Of the performance of his defense, which held Denver to 89 yards of offense and two first downs through three quarters, head coach Jack Del Rio said:

“There was certainty, there was decisiveness — we played fast, we played very fast. It was a good three-quarters effort.”

The Oakland defense entered the game allowing 24.7 points per game (11th-most in the NFL) while sacking opposing quarterbacks just 15 times (T-5th fewest) and recording a league-low six takeaways — none by way of the interception.

The unit which had allowed 363.6 yards of total offense under Norton held the Broncos to 219 yards, collecting five sacks — two apiece from Bruce Irvin and Denico Autry and one from Khalil Mack.

Irvin, who pushed his season sack total to 4.5, said he didn’t think the improved defensive attack had anything to do with the coaching change:

“I just think guys let it rip today. We had a great week of practice and it finally translated to the game. … We’ve been hearing all year how we’re last in sacks, last in sacks, and I think guys just finally got fed up with that.”

Thanks in large part to the early stellar defensive effort, and effective work from Marquette King and the punt coverage team, the Raiders held a clear advantage in field position early on, forcing Denver’s average starting position inside its own 17.

But Oakland’s final offensive possession in the first quarter put Pagano’s unit on its heels, ending in a sack fumble, forced and recovered by Shaquil Barrett at the Raiders 24-yard line.

Backed into a corner, the Oakland defense made its own game-changing play. After a touchdown ruling was overturned on review leaving the Broncos on the 1 yard line, Cory James stuffed a goal-line run by Devontae Booker. The ensuing Paxton Lynch pass was tipped, first by NaVorro Bowman, then tight end Virgil Green, then Reggie Nelson before falling into the waiting arms of a downed Bowman.

It was the Oakland defense’s first interception of the season.

With his team able to pull out the win, Del Rio was able to laugh at the circumstances that brought his team’s pick drought to an end:

“I’ve never seen anything like it. Even later in the game we still had both hands on a ball and it ended up not only not being intercepted, but caught by the other team. I’ve never seen it, certainly as many times as we’ve seen it this year.”

Carr and the offense cashed in on the elusive pick, marching 80 yards in eight plays. They capped the game’s first scoring drive with a nine-yard touchdown pass from Carr to Cooper.

Cooper was not targeted again until late in the second quarter, when a Denver safety Darian Stewart delivered a shoulder shot to the back of his head evoking an extended delay as the Pro Bowl receiver lay motionless in the grass.

Cooper would eventually get up and walk, with assistance, to the sideline, but he was ruled out after being diagnosed with a concussion. The absence was compounded by Crabtree’s earlier ejection, stemming from a first-quarter altercation between him and Denver cornerback Aqib Talib.

The Raiders finished the drive without Carr’s key wideout weapons, reaching paydirt on a one-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch. Lynch finished his heavy work day gaining 67 yards on 26 carries and another 44 on three catches.

Denver did finally find the end zone, twice, led by quarterback Trevor Siemian, on in relief of an injured Paxton Lynch. The first topped off a 10-play, 93-yard touchdown drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Siemian to Cody Latimer on a fourth-down attempt with 10:21 left in the game.

With 2:39 left in the game, a Siemian 22-yard touchdown heave to Bennie Fowler made a Jalen Richard third-quarter touchdown catch from Carr the difference-maker.

Perhaps the game’s biggest play, though, came after Oakland had established its early 21-0 lead, and it had all but relinquished it. Needing to stem the momentum gained by Siemian and the Bronco offense, and facing a third and 8 from its own 15 without either of his top two receivers, and with his third — tight end Jared Cook blanketed Carr and the offense got aggressive. He lofted a high-arching throw over the “No Fly Zone Defense” and into the arms of Patterson, who in turn shedded several attempting tacklers taking it 53 yards to the Denver 31 setting up three kneel downs.

It was that type of play, authored by that type of player, that Carr said showed the expertise of the Oakland coaching staff — able to keep the entire team ready — and ability of the team — to remain ready to make massive contributions despite limited such reps in practice:

“To play Denver, If I would have told you that both our star receivers and our right guard would be out for the game, I’m pretty sure the feelings would have been a lot different. … To do that against a top-five defense, the odds aren’t in your favor.

Siemian out-gained Lynch 149 to 41, leaning on Latimer for 48 receiving yards. Carr, who finished with 253 yards through the air on 18-of-24 passing, used Patterson (72 yards) and Holton (53) in the absence of Crabtree and Cooper.

Next up

The Raiders’ third consecutive home game — second in Oakland — comes next Sunday when they host the Giants (2-9). Like the Raiders, New York began the season with playoff expectations. Unlike Oakland, the Giants’ playoff aspirations have been entirely dashed by ineffectiveness, and the early-season injury of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

Notes

Following a first-quarter altercation between the two, both Michael Crabtree and Aqib Talib were ejected. Raider right guard Gabe Jackson was also ejected for shoving an official. … In the third start of his career, first of the season, Bronco quarterback Paxton Lynch completed nine of 14 pass attempts for 41 yards before leaving with an ankle injury — suffered early in the third quarter. … The Chiefs (6-5) fell 16-10 at home against the Buffalo Bills early Sunday. With the Chargers (5-6) winning on Thursday, the Raiders are now tied with Los Angeles for second in the AFC West, just one game behind Kansas City which has lost three in a row and five of six.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Raiders beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.