Raiders focus is on stopping Tomlinson

The Oakland Raiders, despite a 2-8 record, have taken pride in their defense -- and with good reason. But playing well against the best backs in the league has not been on the agenda.

Defense is the only thing that has kept the Raiders even marginally in games as their offense, far and away the NFL's worst, has scored only eight touchdowns in 10 games.

Over the past six games, the Raiders have given up 17 or fewer points in each game. They're the only team in the NFL with such a streak and it's only the third time in franchise history they've done it.

Of course, when the Raiders did it seven weeks in a row in 1973 they went 5-2 and ended up division champions. When they did it six weeks in a row in 1980 they went 5-1 and eventually won their second Super Bowl.

This time, the Raiders are 2-4. To make it a seventh straight game holding an opponent to 17 or less, Oakland will be staring at its one defensive weakness.

The Raiders have given ground against the NFL's premiere running backs, and the hottest runner in the league is heading straight at the heart of their defense.

San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson has 22 touchdowns, 19 in his last six games, and has spent the better part of his career racking up big yards against the Raiders.

In 11 games against Oakland since his rookie season in 2003, Tomlinson has gained 1,345 yards (averaging 122.3 yards per game) and scored 10 touchdowns.

In Week One, Tomlinson gained 131 yards on 31 carries as the Chargers embarrassed the Raiders 27-0 in Oakland before a Monday night audience.

It just so happens that the other two running backs who have broken 1,000 yards in 10 games also had big days against the Raiders. Kansas City's Larry Johnson (1,045 yards) had 154 yards on 31 carries against Oakland last week.

Last month, San Francisco's Frank Gore, who has 1,043 yards, had 127 yards on 27 carries.

Largely because of those games, plus a night in which they gave up 138 yards to Seattle's Maurice Morris, Oakland is ranked 27th in rushing defense at 135.4 yards per game.

And here comes Tomlinson, riding a hot streak.

Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp said the last several games have defined Tomlinson as one of the all-time greats of his position.

"I think the debate's been taken out of it with his performance over the last month and a half," Sapp said. "He has always been special but when you're putting up those kinds of touchdown numbers, it just defines you. He's done it like no other."

Oakland defensive end Derrick Burgess, who came into the NFL the same year as Tomlinson, got an early preview of what was to come and is not surprised.

"I knew from the first time I saw him at the Senior Bowl he was going to be good," Burgess said. "What he's done doesn't amaze me at all. I thought he was the best back out there at the time, and he still is."

Sapp said what makes Tomlinson special as a runner are the steady gains.

"With Barry Sanders, you knew he'd give you five or six minus (yardage) plays," Sapp said. "He'd give them to you because he was just going to try to make that unbelievable, shake-down-12 people-and-go-the-other-way move. This guy is more of downhill runner. He's shaking you once in the hole, then he's on his way for 20."

Slowing Tomlinson, Sapp believes, will mean bringing him down early before he breaks into the second level.

"We have to tackle, that's the biggest thing," Sapp said. "Don't let him in your defensive backfield when you're missing tackles. Then you're going to be in a position where you're at the edge of a cliff. That's just the way it's going to go."

"You've just got to try and keep it down to a minimum," Burgess said. "He's going to get his (yards), regardless. You've just got to try and contain him, and it's going to come down to guys doing the best they can. Because they're going to get him the ball and he's going to get his."

Stats aside, coach Art Shell said he regards the Raiders as solid against the run, considering two solid games against Denver and another against Pittsburgh as more representative of his team's efforts.

He was disappointed with the yardage Johnson was able to get in Kansas City. Johnson had 53 yards on nine carries on the Chiefs first scoring drive.

"We did not do the things we normally do against a running football team, which is get off blocks and make the tackle," Shell said. "We didn't do a good job with our front seven. Our line and linebackers need to be better. With a running back who is fast and explosive, you need more people around him to make the play."

Oakland's leading tacklers against Kansas City were free safety Stuart Schweigert (nine) and rookie strong safety Michael Huff (eight). A repeat of that against San Diego would probably mean Tomlinson is getting into the secondary, and the Raiders are in trouble.


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