HENDERSON, Nev. (AP)Given the lack of explosive offenses the Raiders have faced, how much credit should be given to what suddenly has become a shut-down defense is debatable.
Las Vegas’ defense, though, is at least getting the job done – something that wasn’t the case last season when it was among the NFL’s worst.
It’s the defense, in fact, that sealed victories six days apart. Amik Robertson intercepted a pass in the end zone on Oct. 9 against Green Bay, and on Sunday, Maxx Crosby and Bilal Nichols combined on a sack for a safety against New England.
“We talk about being the reason we win, and that’s our goal as a defense,” Crosby said. “We’re playing better complementary football for two weeks, so you’ve got to keep that momentum going.”
Those game-saving plays weren’t one-offs. The Packers and Patriots combined to score 30 points against Las Vegas, and each team was held to fewer than 300 yards of offense.
“I think we’re connected more on defense,” coach Josh McDaniels said. “Those guys work their butt off every week to make sure they understand who the opponent is, what they do well, what the strengths and weaknesses of the team that we’re playing are. I just love the effort that they’ve competed with the last few weeks.”
As promising as the defense has played the past two weeks, no one will confuse this Packers offense for the ones quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers or the Patriots when Tom Brady took snaps. Both offenses are in the bottom six in terms of average yards per game.
With a stretch of games that includes Sunday’s matchup at the Chicago Bears and Nov. 5 and 12 against both New York teams, the Raiders defense has the chance to build on its progress. Las Vegas will need that confidence-building play when the competition gets considerably more difficult against teams such as the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs.
The Raiders are 11th in allowing 315.3 yards per game, a massive leap from last season when they were 27th while allowing a 365.6 average. Their scoring defense is 19th with a 21.8 average, up from 26th in 2022 at 24.6.
“It definitely gives us confidence,” Robertson said. “We’re able trust one another. We’re a spark, too. We know how it looks when we play as a defense. We’re not where we want to be yet, so that’s a good sign.”
Las Vegas made a number of changes in the offseason through the draft and free agency to try to improve the defense, but it’s the returning players who are most responsible for the uptick in performance.
Crosby remains the star of that side of the ball, overcoming double teams each week to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Robertson has statistically been the toughest defensive back to throw against. The interior defensive line, led by Nichols and Jerry Tillery, has been getting push up front.
It all starts with Crosby, who sets the tone with his ability to disrupt offenses. Even when he’s not getting to the quarterback, the always hard-charging Crosby still find ways ways to make the QB force throws.
He doesn’t just bring it on the weekends.
“My office is right over there by the parking lot, so when you look down there, his car is here most of the time,” McDaniels said. “You’d think he was coaching because he’s here early, he’s here late and all the rest of it.”
And good luck getting Crosby to take a break in practice.
“McDaniels has had to literally beg me to take reps off,” Crosby said. “Having little bumps and bruises forces me to do it now. If I can do it during the week, it allows me to play more on Sunday.”
Training camp is where the defense first showed it might be more of an asset this season. Defenders made life difficult for Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers when they held joint drills in August.
The question was whether that kind of production would carry over to the season.
It has so far.
“It’s all about improving each day,” defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said. “Coach talks about it. I hear the players talk about it. If you start feeling good about what you did the prior week, complacency is a killer in this league.”
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