If it’s true that the real NFL season doesn’t start until late November, then the Raiders are about to find out whether they’re legitimate contenders for a postseason berth.
The Raiders can start in Detroit today, when they meet a 2-7 Lions team that was found to be a pretender weeks ago.
“There’s a lot of football left,” defense coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “There’s a lot of games left, and if you look at the standings and you look at the division, this is that time of year, right in the middle of the grind, that the good teams start to separate themselves.
“November, December … those are the times that the good teams start to separate themselves. If we think we’re a good team, then let’s do what the good teams do and put it all together,” he said.
While an offense that ranks ninth in the league in points scored has held its own for the most part, it’s the defense that will have to get it together in the stretch drive. And that may be easier said than done without Justin Tuck and Aldon Smith, its most accomplished edge rushers. Last month, Tuck suffered a pectoral injury that effectively ended his season. Last week, Smith was suspended by the league for one year.
A consistent pass rush is imperative to lessen the load on an undermanned secondary.
“It’s a big hit, knowing the impact that [Smith] had as a player on this defense,” linebacker Khalil Mack said. “It’s going to be a big hit, but we’ll keep the ball rolling. You just have to have guys come in ready to play and fill that role and fill that void.”
In nine games, Smith had 3.5 sacks. Only Mack (5) has more on the team.
“We have great respect for [Smith] as a person and as a man,” Mack said. “But he knows that we have to keep the ball rolling. He would be disappointed if we stopped the grind.”
Now, rookie Mario Edwards Jr. will be expected to accelerate his growth process at right end. In Week 5, he replaced Tuck as a starter and made some positive strides since then.
“It’s definitely a tough loss,” Edwards said. “[Smith] was a big part of the defense, but we’re going to have to move some guys around and make it happen, so we’re ready.”
Edwards comes off his best performance yet — one sack, one forced fumble and 11 tackles in the loss against the Minnesota Vikings last week. Asked if the Florida State product could do even more, Norton responded, “He better.”
“Anytime you have a good football player, you expect the good football players to play good and to really take advantage of opportunities,” Norton went on to say. His development, as we’ve all seen, is right where it needs to be. He doesn’t have a ceiling. It just goes. It’s limitless. We just have to keep having him do what he does best.”