Raiders have some tinkering to do

Run defense, pass rush are areas of concern as Oakland begins second half of the season against improved Chargers

The Raiders host the San Diego Chargers this weekend with two objectives clearly in mind: Proving their run defense wasn't nearly as awful as it looked while being ripped apart by Seattle's Shaun Alexander, and trying to find something that resembles anything close to a pass rush. Having failed to capitalize on an opportunity to distance themselves from the rest of the AFC West in losing 34-27 to the Seahawks last Sunday, the Raiders return to Oakland trying to avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time in two years. The Raiders loss to Seattle was an eye-opener for teams around the league. Oakland was being touted by many as the NFL's top team before the Seahawks' Shaun Alexander burst the Raiders bubble by rushing for 266 yards, the fourth-highest single-game total in league history. It was the second straight game in which an opponent found big gaps in Oakland's run defense. A week earlier the Broncos rushed for only 119 yards but averaged 5.2 yards a carry, the highest average the Raiders had allowed prior to facing Alexander in Seattle. In fact, over the last two weeks the Raiders are allowing teams an average of 6.74 yards a carry after giving up just 3.75 in the six games prior. It's a troubling trend that could lead to even more problems down the road if Oakland doesn't get things turned around.If there's one thing that remains true in the NFL year-in and year-out, it's that word travels quickly. Once a team has a weakness exposed, it doesn't take long for the league's other teams to know about it. It hasn't helped that the Raiders' pass rush has been essentially non-existent this season. Oakland has just 20 sacks this season which ranks them in the middle of the pack, but 10 of them came in two games. The loss of defensive end Trace Armstrong was obviously a big blow to the defensive line, yet it's not the only reason the team is struggling to get to the quarterback. The Raiders have gotten just four sacks from starting defensive ends Tony Bryant (three) and Regan Upshaw (one). Defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who was voted to Pro Football Weekly's mid-season All-Pro team, is the only member of Oakland's defensive line playing with any consistency and he's got a shoulder injury that isn't getting any better. ''Am I going to panic over this?'' questioned head coach Jon Gruden. ''No, I'm not going to panic. But I am very concerned. My eyes are wide open.'' This is not a doomsday cry, nor is the sky in danger of falling any time soon. The Raiders are still one of the AFC's upper-tier teams and can still run away with the AFC West title with very little problem. With five of their final eight games at Networks Associates Coliseum, where they have won nine straight regular-season games and where they have outcored teams 104-63 this year, the odds remain in Oakland's favor for a strong finish. But if they want to do more than just finish strong, if they have hopes of getting further than they did a year ago when they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, then the Raiders must answer questions about their defense. They get their first chance against San Diego.

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