Defensive changes have Oakland optimistic

Forgive Chuck Bresnahan for acting like a kid on Christmas morning. The Raiders defensive coordinator has been looking forward to training camp ever since February when Oakland first began tinkering with its roster, a makeover that resulted in the addition of three key free agents and a pair of high-priced and highly touted rookies. The wholesale changes on the defense are primary reasons, in fact, why many are touting the Raiders as favorites to win the AFC in 2002.

For Bresnahan, who is entering his third season in charge of Oakland's defense, the changes could also be primary factors in helping him keep his job with the Raiders. With an aging roster and an escalating payroll, owner Al Davis isn't likely to have much patience should the team fall short in its quest for a Super Bowl ring. That includes both players and coaches.

Much of how far Oakland actually does go this year will be determined by just how well the defense plays. And as architect of that defense, Bresnahan, knows the spotlight is glaring upon him.

''I'm really anxious and I think everybody on defense is anxious,'' said Bresnahan. ''The big thing, I'm not going to say anything for about the first 10 days of practice, almost 20 practices, until we really get a feel of who's fitting in where. But we're excited. We feel like we've got players. We've got depth. Putting the pieces in the right part of the puzzle is going to be critical for us.''

Two years ago the Raiders owned the fifth-best rushing defense in the league, allowing 96.9 yards a game. Oakland opened the first half of 2001 strong enough against the run but then watched as Seattle running back Shaun Alexander gauged them for an incredible 266 yards on Nov. 11.

Alexander's big day -- the fourth-highest single game rushing total in NFL history -- opened the floodgates on a series of problems for the Raiders defense. Over the next four weeks opposing running backs would tear through Oakland on the ground, meeting as much resistance as a wet paper bag. The team went 2-3 during that stretch then followed that with a 1-3 streak to close out the regular season.

And in the playoff loss to New England, which will forever be remembered for the fumble/non-fumble by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a slew of defensive mistakes helped contribute heavily to the defeat.

Thus Oakland went looking to clean house. Gone were defensive tackles Grady Jackson and Darrell Russell, linebacker Elijah Alexander and safety Marquez Pope. Linebacker William Thomas and cornerback Eric Allen retired as well, leaving the Raiders to replace six starters on their defense. In came guys like Bill Romanowski, John Parrella and Rod Woodson, who have a combined 40 years NFL experience and who tally among them five Super Bowl rings. Oakland also used its two first-round draft choices to pick up cornerback Phillip Buchanon and linebacker Napoleon Harris. All five have a chance at moving into the starting lineup.

''It gives us that leadership that maybe we were lacking on the defensive side of the ball,'' said wide receiver Tim Brown. ''Guys who will step up and say, 'Hey look we won a championship.' Romo's won a couple and Woodson's won one. I think that's big. On the offensive side of the ball we don't have guys who have won championships besides Roland (Williams) and Jerry (Rice), but we're more likely to speak up and get on each other and do that kind of stuff. Now you have a couple of guys over there who can definitely help. Parrella's going to be a big asset to us. It just makes us that much more of a better football team and that much more of an experienced football team. Hopefully they can push us that much farther.''


Cornerback Phillip Buchanon showed off just why the Raiders were willing to use a first-round pick on him and spend $7 million to get him under contract. Oakland's first-round draft pick made the play of the day during Friday's practice, making a good read on a pass thrown by quarterback Rich Gannon and stepping in front of wide receiver Jerry Rice, who was running an out pattern, at the last second to make the interception. The play drew cheers from Oakland's defensive unit and earned Buchanon a well deserved vote of confidence from Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown. Rice also lauded the youngster's performance. ''He's very quick out there, he's very physical and he's not shy,'' said Rice. ''That's one thing about him. In a situation like that, we're just going to go out there, we're going to go at it, I'm going to try to help him anyway possible. In a way, by helping him, I'm going to better myself and (Tim Brown) probably going to take the same approach." ... Speaking of Rice, the soon-to-be 40-year-old wide receiver reported to camp at 211 pounds, the heaviest he's been since his rookie season of 1985. Rice, who played at 195 pounds last season, said the added bulk is a result of his offseason workout program, which included for the first time a serious weight-lifting routine. ''I was surprised last year because weight training here is mandatory. That's something that we didn't have across the bay with the Niners. That was a shocker last year. Toward the end of the season, I felt good and strong. It showed on the football field so I decided to hit 'em a little harder this year. I'm about 211, 212 now, this is the biggest I've ever been in my entire career.'' ... Cornerback Charles Woodson nearly made a diving interception that would have eclipsed Buchanon's effort but the ball popped out of Woodson's hands and landed in the waiting arms of wide receiver Reggie Barlow, who raced downfield untouched ... Punter Shane Lechler weighed in at 240 pounds, 15 pounds heavier than he was last season. Still, that didn't preclude Lechler from getting off some impressive kicks during practice. Routinely, Lechler landed several kicks 70 yards downfield. His best kick of the day went 81 yards ... Left tackle Barry Sims worked out in the morning but sat out the afternoon session. It's a pattern that Sims figures to follow most of training camp. Two years ago Sims injured his foot and had to have surgery during the offseason. He recovered and was eased into the 2001 training camp and regular season, but eventually had to undergo additional surgery. As a result the Raiders are taking a cautious approach with Sims.


Running back Tyrone Wheatley was held out of the morning practice with a calf injury, though Callahan doesn't believe it to be serious. The Raiders also revealed that safety Calvin Branch had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while playing in NFL Europe. Branch was a longshot to make the team considering the glut of safeties on Oakland's roster and now faces a long rehabillitation.


''It's something that will never be out of your system. As long as they talk about the Super Bowl in 2002, obviously it will be something that you'll be thinking of. But what happened happened and you just have to some kind of way moving on.'' -- wide receiver Tim Brown, when asked if the Raiders are still plagued by memories of the controversial loss to New England in last year's AFC playoffs.

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