While most people point to the Oakland Raiders offense as the reason the team reached its first Super Bowl in 19 years, the improved play of the defense should not go ignored.
Oakland's defense, particularly against the run, was a sieve in 2001 but achieved above-average status last season and will need continued improvement in 2003. The Raiders ranked 11th in the NFL in total defense but No. 3 against the run.
During a four game losing streak at midseason, the Raiders gave up an average of 153 yards on the ground and 24.5 points. During its stretch of winning nine of 10 games, Oakland has yielded an average of 78.4 yards rushing and 13.4 points. Even the rushing yards figure was misleading because Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair rushed for 53 yards against the Raiders in their 41-24 AFC Title Game win over the Titans. Oakland also finished the season tied for second in the AFC in turnover margin at plus-12.
The Raiders figure to operate with greater efficiency on defense this season because they have established a level of continuity.
"I like the way our defense is coming along in the coverage element," Raiders head coach Bill Callahan said. "Guys are making plays on the ball. I feel we're stronger against the pass than we've ever been. If we're not ranked in the top five to eight teams in the league, I'd be real surprised."
Second-year middle linebacker Napoleon Harris was one of those new starters last season. Harris, like the rest of his teammates, had his ups and downs in the first half before becoming more comfortable in the second half of the season.
"I definitely feel like the defense will run more efficiently this year because I'm more assertive," Harris said. "I know what's going on. My formation recognition is a lot better."
Oakland, which hosts Minnesota Friday in an exhibition game, had its first-team defense keep both St. Louis and San Fran Francisco out of the end zone in its first two exhibition games.
Even the Raiders offensive players notice a difference.
"They've gotten much better," Starting left guard Frank Middleton said. "They're faster."
Vince D'Adamo can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org