In the final minute of the Oakland Raiders’ 35-32 Week 12-win over the Carolina Panthers, Khalil Mack swarmed Cam Newton as the quarterback stood at midfield, desperately searching for an open receiver.
Mack dragged the reigning MVP to the ground, forced a fumble and recovered it to seal the win and push the Raiders’ record to 9-2. It was the kind of play that perfectly embodied Mack and the Raiders defense at large.
“When it comes down to it, we want to be on the field when the game’s on the line,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said during his weekly press conference in advance of the team’s matchup with the Buffalo Bills. “We want to be depended upon to make the plays that we’re supposed to make and we want to play at the highest of our ability.”
For much of the fall, very little has been high level about Norton’s defense. Opponents have moved the ball at will and the unit has allowed the fourth-most yards per game in the NFL.
“Football isn’t about how many yards a team scored on you,” Norton explained. “It’s about the points, the situations, the two-minute, the red zone. It’s about the first down. It’s about third down. It’s about getting turnovers. All those things make up your win, and it’s about winning at the end of the day and that’s our emphasis.”
The numbers support Norton’s defensive philosophy. For all the bending that the group has done, it rarely breaks.
The Raiders have faced nine drives in the final five minutes of regulation-overtime while leading by eight points or less, according to the Associated Press. During those nine drives, Oakland hasn’t allowed a single point, while forcing four punts, one fumble, one missed field goal and three turnovers on downs.
The Bills (6-5), who arrive at the Coliseum perched on the edge of the AFC playoff picture, are ideally built to challenge the Raiders’ crunch-time supremacy.
While the Raiders have allowed the third-most yards per rushing attempt (4.6) in the NFL, the Bills roll into Oakland averaging the most yards per carry (5.3).
“That’s our thing,” Bills running back LeSean McCoy told reporters in Buffalo. “Our thing is that we run the ball very well in the back field and the guys up front — they block very well. Our quarterback [Tyrod Taylor] can move. So, just kind of play off of that.”
The explosive McCoy poses an especially difficult matchup for a defense which has made a nasty habit of giving up chunk plays. Last week, that damage was done against the pass defense, as Newton gashed the Raiders for touchdown strikes of 88 and 44 yards, respectively.
This week, the trouble could come against the run defense. Per Pro Football Focus, McCoy’s breakaway percentage of 50.7 — a stat which measures how many of a player’s total yards come on plays of 15 yards or more — is the highest among all running backs.
McCoy and Taylor have not only anchored a running game which has tallied the second-most total yards, but also headline an offense that almost never gives the ball away. With six turnovers (four interceptions and two fumbles), the Bills have established a new NFL record for fewest giveaways through 11 games.
“I’d be lying to you if I just told you we do some super thing of protecting the ball because I kind of run with the ball out,” McCoy admitted. “It’s just something that we can’t have fumbles. If we want to win games, we can’t have turnovers. Simple as that.”
“There’s really no secret,” McCoy added. “Just protect the ball, man.”
When confronted with the Raiders underwhelming defensive rankings, McCoy said his eyes tell him a different story.
“The numbers say they’re not that good on defense,” McCoy said. “But watching them on tape, they look good. They do.”
During those film sessions, no player stood out more than Mack — a Defensive Player of the Year hopeful and the rising star in whom McCoy sees a reflection of his younger self.
“He’s a dog, I’m surprised he went to [the University of] Buffalo, I thought he’d be at USC or Alabama,” McCoy said. “He’s a hell of a player, simple as that. He gets to it, he reminds me of a young player that just wants to go out there and make plays. He reminds me of myself when I was about 23 or 22.”