Kirk Morrison has been the Raiders' leading tackler the past three seasons and was a team captain in 2008. But ever since Oakland opened training camp last week, the fifth-year veteran has been splitting reps with Ricky Brown in the starting defense.
During Tuesday morning's practice, Brown actually was on the field with the first team offense significantly more than Morrison. That changed in the afternoon when Brown was back with the second defense, but head coach Tom Cable made it clear the race between the two is wide open.
"I think everything is serious competition," Cable said. "We wanted to do that for a reason. We want to push Kirk, and we want to push Ricky. We want to get the right combination in there, so we just want to give everyone the opportunity when it fits and when they've earned it to do that."
Morrison didn't talk Tuesday but Brown – the team's starting strongside linebacker last season – spoke with SBI earlier this week.
"Basically, wherever they tell me to play I'm going to play there. I'm just ready to play football," Brown said. "I've been here with the Raiders four years so I know all the positions. In my opinion you can't be a great football player unless you know what the guys around you are doing. When I know what Thomas Howard's going to do or I know how Tyvon Branch is going to be playing the safety, then I can do what I need to do."
The reason the Raiders are mulling a change is simple: Oakland's run defense has been among the league's worst for the past seven seasons. New defensive coordinator John Marshall is hoping to turn around a unit that hasn't finished better than 22nd since 2002 and is intent on shaking things up to get it done.
While he has put up dominant numbers in the tackling category, many of Morrison's hits come after the running back has broken through the line of scrimmage and made a big gain.
Part of that is because Oakland's defensive line has done a terrible job keeping opposing offensive linemen off the linebackers, but part of it is that Morrison is much better dropping back than he is defending the run.
Brown has opened eyes around the organization since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2006, though he missed much of last season with a groin injury.
Jon Alston has been taking reps at the SAM linebacker spot while Brown plays in the middle. Brown is also continuing to take reps at the SAM spot with the first defense. The Raiders are also considering using Morrison at the SAM position.
"I don't think it's something Ricky brings," Cable said. "They're very similar players. It's just trying to press the competition as coaches."
Other news and notes from Tuesday:
-- Jeff Garcia remained out with a strained calf, the same one that sidelined him for handful of games last year in Tampa Bay.
-- Cable is having a low tolerance level for mistakes. Offensive lineman Mark Wilson false started during a team scrimmage in the morning and was yanked out of the drill and replaced by fifth-year player Marcus Johnson.
-- Running back Gary Russell continues to impress and has broken off at least one big run each day. He dropped a catchable pass during a 7-on-7 drill but was otherwise solid.
-- Defensive coordinator John Marshall hit the nail on the head during the team scrimmage after the offense strung together a couple of nice plays. "Come on defense, we're too soft in the middle," Marshall yelled.
-- Quarterback JaMarcus Russell had to get his right ankle taped heavily after rolling on it in the morning practice, but he downplayed it and said it was nothing serious.
-- Wide receiver Nick Miller is a longshot to make the roster but he made another dazzling over-the-shoulder catch on a deep pass from Charlie Frye. Miller is the most surprising player of camp so far.
-- John Paul Foschi is off to a rough start. The converted fullback is now playing tight end but dropped a sure touchdown pass in the back of the end zone on a nice throw from Frye.
-- Greg Ellis practiced lightly in the morning then sat out the afternoon. Jay Richardson took reps at left end in his absence.
-- A day after dropping just about everything that was thrown at him, first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey did a complete reversal and caught almost every pass thrown in his direction. He even made a one-handed snag in the afternoon, much to the relief of the Raiders.
-- Tackle Khaliff Barnes had to be taken for an MRI after another player was blocked into him, injuring the veteran offensive lineman's knee and ankle.
-- Center John Wade, battling Samson Satele for the starting job, made a nice play to pick up a blitz by Morrison while at the same time blocking Greyson Gunheim.
-- Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha appeared to injure his right hip while breaking up a pass for Heyward-Bey and left the field briefly in the morning to get checked on by a trainer. Asomugha returned to practice and later said the injury was nothing serious.
-- While Asomugha was out, Stanford Routt stepped in and played the right cornerback spot. Routt is the leading contender for the nickel spot.
-- Wide receiver Shawn Bayes, a rookie free agent from Kent State, made the play of the day when he grabbed a TD pass from Russell in the morning. Bayes was cutting left to right at the back of the end zone when Russell's pass sailed behind him, but Bayes reached back to make the catch and got his feet in for the score.
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