Since the Oakland Raiders have finished 30th and 32nd in total defense in each of the last two seasons, most people have reasoned that the team will have to win games with scores that would make Arena Football League fans proud. After all, the team has all kinds of weapons on offense with quarterback Kerry Collins, running back Lamont Jordan along with wide receivers Randy Moss, Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry.
There's little doubt that the Raiders defense failed miserably last season despite first-year coordinator Rob Ryan's attempted makeover from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Oakland finished near the bottom in several defensive categories: yards per game (30th, 371.0), third down conversion (32nd, 47.4%), time of possession allowed (32nd, 33:13), completion percentage allowed (25th, 61.8%), sacks (31st), takeaways (30th) and points allowed (31st).
The Raiders were respectable against the run in one sense allowing just 3.7 yards per rush, good for seventh in the NFL, but gave up 125.8 rushing yards per game, good for 22nd among 32 teams.
Since Oakland's offense has the talent to match any team score-for-score, the defense does not necessarily have to be like say, the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens. Even an average performance would go a long way toward improving on last year's 5-11 performance and perhaps challenging for a playoff spot. After all, the Raider coaching staff is not likely to get another free pass if the team has a double-figure loss season.
"That definitely stings every time you hear someone in the media say how weak our defense is," Brayton said. "I think we have a better grasp of what we need to do."
At this stage of training camp, the Raiders have not necessarily locked themselves in to committing to either front whether it's a 3-4 or 4-3. Among the switches that did not pan out last season was moving defensive end Tyler Brayton to outside linebacker. The Raiders made a similar move with Akbar Gjaba-Biamila and Sam Williams.
The Raiders are counting heavily on the fact that having a full season to absorb Ryan's system will make them better if for no other reason than there will be less uncertainty. "It was new to us," Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. "With things that are new, you're not going to get it like that. People gave us a hard time because we had the talent on paper but just couldn't put it together. They expect things to happen at the snap of a finger but it doesn't happen that way."
Raiders head coach Norv Turner cited the importance of improving on third down efficiency coupled with generating pressure on quarterbacks. Defensive end Derrick Burgess, who signed as a free agent from Philadelphia, is one player Oakland is counting on to improve a pass rush that was on vacation last year.
"I don't think it's a motivation to prove anybody wrong," Burgess said. "What people say really doesn't matter. You still have to go out and play the game."
Sapp is also optimistic about a turnaround because the team evaluated what worked and what did not.
"I think the one thing I always say is that when I was in Tampa in 2002, we had just come out of Philly and got stomped," Sapp said. "There was no way we were thinking about winning a championship. Once it gets rolling, you'll know it. We feel like we have a good group."
Vince D'Adamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org