<
>

Is Las Vegas Raiders' reimagined defense real, or a mirage?

play
Keyshawn baffles Stephen A. by choosing Carr over Wilson and Murray (1:54)

Keyshawn Johnson explains to Stephen A. Smith why he'd prefer to play with Derek Carr over Russell Wilson or Kyler Murray. (1:54)

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Derek Carr looked as though he had taken a whiff of the sweetest smelling aroma in the land or taken a refreshing dip in healing waters.

The Las Vegas Raiders quarterback, in the wake of the team's 26-17 win at the Pittsburgh Steelers, had just been asked about his defense.

Specifically, Carr, who was dealing with an injury to his surgically-repaired right ankle, was asked how if it brought him a certain "joy" to watch the defense.

"Yes," Carr said slowly with a relieved grin. "Just, yes. Yeah, it does. You go get the lead and then you look back up and it's fourth down and you're like, 'We get the ball back.'

"It's a good feeling, you know? It's a good feeling to have the lead and to keep it ... they have, in the last two weeks, come up so big for us."

Is the Raiders defense actually, you know, reliable? Or is it a mirage, not to be confused with the resort on the Las Vegas Strip?

A year after epic last-minute collapses against the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers and Miami Dolphins contributed to a disappointing 8-8 finish, the Raiders' reimagined defense under coordinator Gus Bradley has helped them to their third 2-0 start since the team's last Super Bowl season ... in 2002.

No doubt it's a small sample size, but the Raiders in general, Carr in particular, are impressed. And as Carr mentioned, it's helped him get off to a quick start.

Credit the renewed pass rush, which made life uncomfortable for Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (defensive end Maxx Crosby had two sacks in the opener) and downright miserable for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (defensive tackle Solomon Thomas had two sacks).

"They've done a great job of keeping us in the games and keeping the leads for us," Carr added. "And it is fun. It's a lot of fun. Especially watching that D-line. They're a bunch of adults -- there's no green bananas on that D-line. Those guys are grown men and it's fun to watch them play."

Bradley's scheme up front is based on sending continuous, fresh waves of players at the quarterback, with Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue coming from the edge.

Consider: Through two games, the Raiders led the NFL with a 31% QB contact rate, per ESPN Stats & Information. They were 29th last season.

Plus, Crosby is Pro Football Focus' highest-graded edge defender with a 91.9 mark thanks to his two sacks, eight QB hits and nine hurries, just ahead of the Steelers' T.J. Watt (91.8) and the Arizona Cardinals' Chandler Jones (90.5). Ngakoue, hampered by a strained right hamstring suffered late in the opener, is seventh.

"He's a strange tough, a really strange tough," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of Ngakoue, who still managed to play 27 snaps (48%) at Pittsburgh.

"This guy likes it. I think he enjoys the misery. Being double-teamed, being chipped, the hot moments, pressure-packed situations. I think he takes a lot of pride in performing at a high level when he's not 100% physically, and maybe the protection sliding to him, he finds a way. That's why he's one of our captains and that's why he's one of the premier rushers in the league."

Again, small sample size, but the Raiders are tied for 10th in the NFL in fewest points allowed, 16th in yards surrendered and their three takeaways are tied for fourth most.

It's all a marked improvement from last season, when Las Vegas was No. 30 on points allowed, No. 25 in total defense and No. 30 in takeaways.

"First and foremost, we want a defense that plays fast, and that's just understanding the game, understanding what we're asking of them," Bradley said after the comeback win over the Ravens. "A lot of times, we look at just ... the attempts at going for the ball. We got a couple fumbles that we caused, so it appeared we played fast. I thought we played very good assignment football.

"I love the communication that takes place on the field. They seem to take ownership of it more. They've done a great job understanding the game plan and going out there and executing it. Everybody seems to be in tune."

Adding veterans that already had an intimate knowledge of Bradley's scheme has also helped.

A lot.

"Well, usually that's what happens," Gruden said. "When a coach comes in, he tries to bring in a couple guys that he had been with in the past. Getting a guy like [linebacker Denzel] Perryman is huge for us. He had another 12-tackle day [against the Steelers]. He's a hell of a player. He's just had some ups and downs with injuries. [Linebacker] K.J. Wright is a storied player. He’s come in here and given us leadership and presence and playmaking. And Casey Hayward, he's been one of the top corners in the AFC for several years.

"So, to get those guys to give us not only system intelligence, but leadership is really big. They are strong in the meeting room, they are good on the back of the airplane, they are great at halftime, on the sidelines. Things you don't see that are helping our young team play better."

Up next for the Raiders -- the Dolphins (4:05 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS), who have an injured quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa and an offensive line which garnered a 27.3 pass-blocking grade from PFF Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, more than 17 points lower than any grade it received last year.

What's that saying about the best offense being a good defense?

Per ESPN Stats & Information, Roethlisberger was contacted on 10 offensive plays while running or throwing against the Raiders, his most in any game since Week 9 of the 2013 against the New England Patriots.

"You've just got to give all the credit to Coach Gus," Carr said, "and their staff and our players."

Yeah, it smells and feels great. For now.