ALAMEDA — By the time the Raiders board their plane bound for Denver Saturday, they’ll hope to have their Achilles’ heel rectified.
The one that was illustrated in 15-second sequence against Washington,
The Raiders trailed 21-7 with 2:36 left in the third quarter. Washington was faced with third-and-19. With a defensive stop and a touchdown, it was suddenly a game.
The Raiders’ third-down defense had been one of the worst in the NFL up to that point. It was a chance to flip the script.
Instead, quarterback Kirk Cousins completed a screen pass to running back Chris Thompson, Bruce Irvin couldn’t get to the sideline in time, Mario Edwards Jr. was a step slow when Thompson cut inside and then cornerback Gareon Conley tripped over safety Reggie Nelson.
David Amerson saved a touchdown, but not before Thompson’s 74-yard gain squashed any momentum Oakland could’ve stolen.
The longest play the Raiders have allowed through three games was a microcosm of a bigger problem, an inability to get off the field on third down. Oakland ranks 29th of 32 teams in percentage of third-down conversions allowed (51.2 percent). With the Broncos as the NFL’s best team at converting third down, the Raiders need a quick fix.
“There’s so many different situations of the game that you have to master. Our situation that we’re talking about now is third down,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “It’s a matter of just our guys making plays and executing the defense and I think we all know that. They all know that.”
On the first defensive drive of the season, the Raiders allowed Marcus Mariota to convert three third downs. Third-and-10, 19-yard pass to Rishard Matthews. Third-and-8, nine-yard pass to Matthews. Third-and-8 again, 23-yard pass to Corey Davis. Mariota scored a touchdown on the next play.
The Titans converted half of their third downs (7-of-14), but the Raiders held them off for a 26-16 win. In Week 2, the woeful Jets offense even converted 7-of-12 third downs. On Sunday, Washington converted on less than half of its third downs (7-of-15), while the Raiders were 0-for-11, in essence conceding all momentum to the opponent.
“Third down is one of the most important downs that you have on the field,” starting cornerback T.J. Carrie said. “If you don’t get off the field on third down, you extend the drive and extending the drive keeps our offense on the bench still.
“That’s something that we haven’t been as effective on and we need to sure up.”
How, though, can the Raiders neutralize Trevor Siemian, who has helped Denver convert on 23-of-44 third downs for a league-leading 52.3-percent clip?
“You gotta win your one-on-ones. That’s just football,” Carrie said. “I don’t think that we’ve been winning our one-on-ones. It’s not just one particular player. It’s the defense as a whole.”
Third-and-longs (let’s quantify that as a 3rd-and-7 or longer) have been troublesome for the Raiders. Oakland has defended against 17 3rd-and-longs this season. Opponents have converted eight of them, with three of those conversions eventually resulting in touchdowns.
On a 3rd-and-18 against the Jets, quarterback Josh McCown scampered for 22 yards. On a 3rd-and-10 later in the game, McCown found Jermaine Kearse for an 11-yard score. Washington’s first score, a 22-yard catch-and-run to Thompson, came on 3rd-and-6. Vernon Davis’ 18-yard touchdown catch came on 3rd-and-9. Then there was Thompson’s 74-yard gain on 3rd-and-19, the most yards a Raider opponent has needed on third down to convert this season.
If the Raiders want to reverse the narrative that their defense is an Achilles heel, specifically on third downs, they’ll need to get off the field when they have the chance.
“We’re doing so many good things, so many good things on first and second down,” Norton said. “What’s next? Next is third down. Let’s master that.”
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