Oakland Raiders

First-place Raiders talking, playing a better game on defense

The Raiders widely used the term “communication” to explain their early-season struggles on defense. With that unit playing better the past three games, the term still applies.

Entering Sunday night’s game against the Denver Broncos, the Raiders had allowed the second-most yards per game in the league (410.4). But that average is falling as their three lowest totals in yards allowed have come in the past three weeks.

Oakland held the Jacksonville Jaguars to 344 yards, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to 270 and the Broncos to 299 in consecutive wins. The Raiders (7-2), who now are giving up 398.0 yards per game, are alone in first place in the AFC West entering their bye week.

“Defensively, the overall communication has been better and better,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said Monday. “I think they’re beginning to play with a little more confidence because of that.

“We’ve got a good group of guys; I’ve said it all along. They really care. We have some talent. And as we gain that confidence and that belief in each other, I think we’ll play faster and faster and more effectively.”

Coordinator Ken Norton Jr., came under scrutiny after the Raiders allowed 507 and 528 yards in their first two games and spent seven weeks ranked last in total defense. But the unit played a key role in Sunday’s prime-time win, holding Denver to its second-fewest yards this season, forcing two turnovers and recording two sacks.

Both sacks belonged to linebacker Khalil Mack, who credited Norton after Sunday’s victory.

“We knew what they wanted to do,” Mack said. “And we were well-prepared for it.”

The defense’s low point came late in the fourth quarter, when Denver running back Kapri Bibbs took a swing pass 69 yards for a touchdown that featured a handful of missed tackles. But the Raiders allowed only 13 first downs and snuffed out the Broncos’ rushing game, giving up just 33 yards on the ground.

With starting cornerback Sean Smith sidelined because of a shoulder injury, D.J. Hayden and T.J. Carrie received more snaps and – along with starter David Amerson – helped limit wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to 103 combined receiving yards on 21 targets. Denver’s second-longest play was a 36-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Siemian to Jordan Norwood, who beat rookie safety Karl Joseph in coverage.

“Battled, battled tough,” Del Rio said of Hayden and Carrie. “Couple things we can clean up technique-wise, but the effort was great, the intensity was great.”

Amid the defensive improvement, reinforcements might be coming. Smith is expected to return after the bye. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., who is on injured reserve because of a strained hip, also could be getting closer to playing. Del Rio said the bye week comes at an opportune time for that reason but added “we’re not going to wait for” missing players to come back.

“What we’ve got to do is continue to grow, continue to do the things that have helped us play much better defensively the last several weeks,” Del Rio said. “I know what, in my mind, I think we’re capable of. And we’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.”

Notes – Del Rio said he has had no contact with linebacker Aldon Smith, who is still serving a one-year suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy but reportedly applied for reinstatement to the NFL last month. Smith’s one-year ban expires Nov. 17, and if reinstated, he could rejoin the team immediately.

“That’s kind of one of those wait-and-see and hope-for-the-best situations,” Del Rio said. “The way I’ve thought about it – and I haven’t thought about it a whole lot since – but let’s let this young man get his life in order first. And then, if he can do that, we can talk about football. But let’s make sure that he’s got his life in order. And I think that’s what the commissioner will do before he decides whether to reinstate him or not.”

▪ The Raiders will practice Wednesday and Thursday before adjourning for the weekend. Del Rio said his staff will counsel players on how to best care for themselves during the bye. Oakland’s next game is Nov. 21 against the Houston Texans in Mexico City on “Monday Night Football.”

▪ Punter Marquette King got some attention for his celebratory dance after pinning the Broncos near their goal line in the third quarter. Del Rio’s reaction: “He’s entertaining, man. I don’t know about that pony ride he went on (Sunday) night. That’s not in my repertoire right now, I can tell you. But he’s having fun.”