Inside slant

There have been very few pleasant surprises in this thus far stagnant season by the Raiders, but one of them has quietly given the defensive unit cause for optimism.

Rookie defensive tackle Tommy Kelly didn't arrive on scene until the seventh game but in the interim, he has opened eyes. He has one sack in each of the three games he has played.

"He's going to continue to get playing time," coach Norv Turner said. "He's a big, physically talented guy who can help us."

Kelly was an undrafted invitee to training camp from Mississippi State. Once there, he made a decent impression in exhibition games but nothing extraordinary. Based on spec, the Raiders kept him but didn't feel it was an area of need since the team had brought in Warren Sapp, Ted Washington and Bobby Hamilton to shore up the defensive line.

But through nine games, the Washington-Sapp-Hamilton veteran combination has combined for two sacks, one fewer than the rookie who never played football until his senior year in high school.

"He kind of slipped in under the radar," center Adam Treu said. "The first nine weeks of practice he was with the scout team and was pretty good. I don't know what questions there were about him (having been undrafted) but so far, so good."

He has filled the gap left by free agent departure Rod Coleman but he is being compared, at least on a cautious level, to another Raider tackle. Treu hesitated before saying it for obvious reasons, but eventually conceded that Kelly most reminded him of star-crossed former first round draft pick Darrell Russell.

Unlike Russell, who rarely left an opinion unstated, the volume knob on Kelly is turned to mute. He refuses to be interviewed, claiming rookie defensive linemen are not permitted to be interviewed. So whatever his story is, no one has found out.

He has agreed to open up next summer in Napa during training camp. In the meantime, if he continues his sack barrage, he may be turning down more interviews in the coming weeks.


It sounds like a reduction in the "multiple" defensive scheme the Raiders were committed to entering the season, but coach Norv Turner said it is not the plan.

"We're not really eliminating but zeroing in on what we do best," he said Monday. "We have had a couple of coverages where we have had mental errors and turned people loose. If we are not ready to play them (those coverages) then we're not going to play them. We're just going to be more specific ... (if) this is what we're playing better than that, let's feature it a little more."

--Wide receiver Ronald Curry isn't counting on the Chargers coming to Oakland overconfident, despite the 42-14 whipping they laid on the Raiders three weeks ago.

"They are playing well," Curry said. "They are supposed to feel good about themselves. If you don't feel that way, you are going to take L (loss) after L after L."


-- Coach Norv Turner said it finally appears RB Justin Fargas (turf toe) will be at or close to full strength for the San Diego game. He returned to practice Monday and Turner said "I think he is going to get there (to the game Sunday)." He has only been able to post two carries over the last six weeks and was inactive the past three games.

-- WR Alvis Whitted (hip pointer) was running short sprints fluidly after Monday's regular practice and appears ready to return after two weeks on the inactive roster.

-- As promised, the Raiders signed a tight end to the roster over the bye weekend, however 6-4, 268-pound John Paul Foschi was placed on the practice squad instead of the active roster. A Georgia Tech product, Foschi was in camp with the New York Jets.

-- Although many nicked up Raiders benefited from the bye week, LB Travian Smith (knee) returned Monday and was once again unable to practice. Although Smith expressed hope he would be on the field Thursday or Friday and play against San Diego, coach Norv Turner did not sound optimistic.

-- CB Charles Woodson (hip pointer) was the most prominent Raider to return with a clean bill of health following the bye week. Coach Norv Turner said he expected him to be at 100 percent efficiency for Sunday's San Diego rematch.



PASSING OFFENSE: D -- In the bygone era when passing effectiveness was gauged on yards gained, the Raiders would be in the upper third of the league -- and it would be misleading, the result of a bad team constantly playing catch-up. That is the 2004 Raiders. Since Kerry Collins took over for the injured Rich Gannon, the Raiders have been passing out of desperation and the statistics prove that it has been an uphill battle. They get yardage, but their 14 interceptions are tied for most in the league. Collins has the lowest pass rating in the league among starters. All this in spite of decent, if not stellar, pass protection given that the line has repeatedly been under extreme duress. It's not all Collins' fault. The season is more than half over but no receiver has stepped forward as the go-to threat, as was expected of Jerry Porter (on pace for a below mediocre 59 catches for 818 yards and less than two touchdowns. The problem has not been dropped passes but a failure to get open, not all that surprising inasmuch as inexperienced Nos. 2 and 3 receivers Doug Gabriel and Ronald Curry entered the season with one reception between them. Playing with a lead has been rare so, if there is an upside, it is that the passing game has shown signs of being effective when the Raiders have had one of those infrequent leads.

RUSHING OFFENSE: D plus -- The Raiders knew from the beginning their chances of having a consistent power running game was hardly a guarantee. Tyrone Wheatley is a strong runner but has not been able to remain healthy since 2000. No. 2 rusher Justin Fargas has been injured through much of his career, both college and pro. No. 3 Amos Zereoue was more a glimmer of hope than a sure thing. Sure enough, Wheatley and Fargas were injured less than a month into the season and the Raider running game was left solely in the hands of Zereoue for a while. He had one big game, then his effectiveness flickered and all but died. Wheatley is back, so things could get better. Fargas is ready to test his battered turf toe. However, the odds of their remaining healthy cannot be considered favorable. Coupled with this predicament is that up to now, as is the case with Collins and the passing game, the Raiders have been playing from behind and have never been able to truly launch their running game. They are probably better than their No. 31 rushing ranking would indicate, but that is strictly on paper.

PASS DEFENSE: D-plus -- The entire defense has been a mess but the one thing the Raiders thought they could count on was solid coverage in the secondary from Charles Woodson and Phillip Buchanon to bail them out. Instead, confusion throughout the entire defense has resulted in coverage mixups, players out of position, others leaving their assignments to cover in places they aren't supposed to be and highly erratic safety play. Buchanon doesn't seem to be able to decide whether to play off receivers, up tight for the bump or to cover for somebody else's mistakes. Woodson has been used as a safety to try to help when the rush defense was performing like a sieve. That takes away his ability to glom onto the opposition's best receiver. Tight ends have caught nine touchdown passes in the last four games. Nickel and dime backs have been largely ineffective and penalty prone. With the exception of a seven sack game against Buffalo's statue-like Drew Bledsoe, there has been little to no pressure on opposing quarterbacks (nine in the other eight games). Defensive ends who were recruited to serve as outside rush linebackers in the absence of adequate outside backers, have been spread wide and made ineffective by alert offensive coordinators. Warren Sapp has 0.5 sacks from his right end spot, where the elite pass rush threat lives. The Raiders have only four interceptions. Only three teams have fewer.

RUSH DEFENSE: C -- It's been a tale of two seasons when it comes to run defense. In the first two games of the year and over the last three, the Raiders have done their job, allowing 3.04 yards a carry and 85 yards a game. In the middle four, they were buried with a 4.30 yard average and during a three-week stretch were clobbered for 160, 152 and 254 yards. Does this mean the problem has been solved? They'll find out over the next three weeks when they take on LaDainian Tomlinson, Reuben Droughns and Priest Holmes. As happens with many teams that struggle against the run, the Raiders found themselves scattering to plug empty gaps, wound up out of position and things kept getting worse. In an effort to solve the problem, coaches have simplified the scheme, cut back on anything exotic and stressed gap responsibility. Bobby Hamilton has been the stalwart and Ted Washington has done his job of jamming the middle. DE Tyler Brayton as a linebacker has been spread wide by opposing formations, negating his strength. LB Danny Clark has panned out as a tackling machine but he can only do so much. There have been far too many downfield tackles by defensive backs.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B plus -- Joe Avezzano was brought in to square away a major problem from the previous year and it has worked. If there is one constant on the team, it has been the kicking game and the coverage. The only disappointment has been in the return game -- punt and kickoff returns by Buchanon and Doug Gabriel are down. Shane Lechler leads the league in punting and is probably the Pro Bowl favorite at mid-season and Sebastian Janikowski is hitting field goals with 88 percent accuracy.

COACHING: C -- Players have absolved the coaching staff for failures to take what they have been coached to do on Wednesdays and Thursdays and transferring it to the field on Sundays. However, the simplification strategy that is ongoing indicates perhaps Norv Turner and his staff were too hopeful their new schemes would "take" right away and tried to do too much, too soon. This is particularly true on defense where the Raiders have tried to plug up breaks in the levee all year only to discover new problems. What happens the second half of the season will be the acid test for what the staff is trying to get across.

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