Setting the tone

The Raiders may be going nowhere this season, but opposing offenses are finding it difficult getting anywhere against them.

Lost in the wreckage of a 2-10 record, the worst through 12 games in the Al Davis (post-1963) era, is one of the better defensive units the Raiders have produced since they returned to Oakland from Los Angeles in 1995.

Maybe the best.

Oakland is currently the third ranked defense in the NFL in terms of yardage allowed, giving up 275.7 yards per game. That trails only Baltimore (267.4) and Chicago (268.2), teams with a combined 19-5 record.

Free safety Stuart Schweigert thinks the Raiders will get to that point soon, starting next season. He believes the defense will lead the way.

"The defense is going to set the tone for the rest of the team and how we're going to be for the next several years," Schweigert said. "You need to get a start somewhere, and we've started on the defensive side of the ball.

"Now it just takes a couple of guys here on offense to step up or get a couple of free agents to come in. Then you see what happens."

Schweigert said the Raiders want to remain in the top three in terms of yardage allowed and retain their No. 1 ranking in pass defense, where they are giving up a league-low 143.0 yards per game.

Are the Raiders a paper tiger or a legitimate defensive force? They are 25th in the NFL in rush defense, giving up 132.9 yards per game. Some of their defensive numbers have been helped by the fact that opponents play conservatively and don't test the Raiders because they don't have to.

The Oakland offense, ranked 32nd in the NFL, has been so inept some coaches go into full retreat and sit on leads with no fear the Raiders can come back.

The past two weeks, however, the Raiders have had statement games in defeat.

In a 21-14 loss in San Diego, Oakland pressured and harassed Philip Rivers into a 14-for-31 performance. They also did fairly well against LaDainian Tomlinson until a late 44-yard run boosted his rushing stats to 19 carries for 109 yards.

San Diego gained 260 yards, its lowest total of the season and only the second time all year under 300.

Against Houston, the Raiders allowed just 124 yards, including a net of minus-five yards passing, but still lost 23-14 as the offense turned it over five times and allowed Houston a defensive touchdown.

The Raiders get a legitimate test this week when they visit Cincinnati, owners of one of the NFL's most explosive passing offenses with quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Oakland's defensive success has come through an old-style Raiders philosophy -- relying on man-to-man defense from its starting cornerbacks and on a strong predominantly four-man pass rush.

Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, whose name coach Art Shell has floated for the Pro Bowl, has five interceptions in a breakout season. Second-year cornerback Fabian Washington is one of the NFL's fastest corners and enjoying an excellent season.

Over the last four games, Johnson has 32 receptions for 664 yards -- including an NFL record for back-to-back games (450 vs. San Diego and New Orleans). Johnson leads all NFL receivers with 1,146 yards receiving and is tied for third with 72 receptions.

"If you don't look forward to this you've got to change professions," Washington said.

After watching film of Asomugha and Washington Wednesday, Johnson told Bay Area reporters he was as impressed.

"They're (expletive) good," Johnson said. "They are blanketing everybody they play. Whether the guy makes the catch or not, they're always in the vicinity, within arm's reach. It's surprising for me to see a team which has so much trust in its corners."

In the loss to Houston, NFL-leading receiver Andre Johnson and veteran Eric Moulds were held to a combined two receptions for 12 yards.

"It was disappointing to lose the game -- if you'd have told me we held their offense down like that I would have sworn we would win the game," Asomugha said. "But it's a credit to (defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan that he has enough faith in Fabian and I to continue to call man-to-man coverages against the top guys in the league and still be able to get it done."

Washington and Asomugha have been helped greatly by constant pressure applied by defensive left end Derrick Burgess, who leads the Raiders with 10 sacks and has been consistent enough that Oakland has been able to stay in the face of opposing quarterbacks while blitzing only occasionally.


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