If there were two trademarks of last season’s 12-4 Oakland Raiders, it was Derek Carr’s penchant for willing the club to late comebacks and the defense’s tendency to deliver game-changing turnovers in high-leverage moments.
Last Thursday, when the Raiders salvaged the season with a 31-30 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, trademark No. 1 was on display: Carr engineered his NFL-best 12th fourth-quarter comeback since 2015.
Trademark No. 2 was almost there as well. Instead, a pass tipped off the fingers of safety Keith McGill — denying the Raiders a sure interception — and supplied Alex Smith with an improbable 63-yard touchdown strike.
A year after tying the Chiefs for the best turnover differential in football at plus-16, the Raiders have slumped to No. 22 in that department heading into the midway point of 2017.
The Raiders’ Week 8 hosts, the Buffalo Bills, have stolen that crown, pacing the NFL in turnover differential.
“That’s one of the things that’s really fueling what they’re bringing … the way they’re taking the football away from people,” head coach Jack Del Rio told reporters during his midweek news conference.
Rookie offensive coordinator Todd Downing has been prepping his players for a Bills defense that has accounted for 13 takeaways in six games, good for fourth-best in the NFL.
“[They’re] very, very well-coached,” Downing said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes and they’re very opportunistic … they’re where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there.”
After Carr shredded the Chiefs for 417 yards, earning him the Week 7 FedEx Air Player of the Week award, the Raiders quarterback will have to watch out for one Bill in particular: Micah Hyde.
The Buffalo strong safety has hauled in four interceptions, tied for most in the NFL.
“He’s a very talented player. He’s a savvy guy,” Downing said. “He has good vision on the quarterback and he has good ball skills. So, that paired with him being a coverage guy in [his] background and now playing safety, he’s a guy that can ball-hawk a little bit.”
With last week’s Thursday night showdown providing the Raiders with a mini bye of sorts, Carr has exploited every extra minute to study up on the Bills.
The film sessions began immediately after toppling the Chiefs.
“I went home. I took a shower. I came downstairs. I ate some eggs, some spinach [and some] broccoli and then I watched tape on the Bills,” the ever-industrious quarterback explained.
Even with the offense sputtering for large stretches, and Carr overcoming a pair of transverse process fractures in his back, the group hasn’t hemorrhaged turnovers.
The offense has committed seven in as many games. It’s been defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.’s crew that has killed the differential.
The defense has produced five takeaways, good for 28th in the NFL. No one player better epitomizes that struggle than reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack.
Last year, the edge-rushing game-wrecker had five forced fumbles and a pick. This year, he’s yet to register a stat in either category.
Norton thinks the team is trending back toward its turnover-producing ways.
Aside from McGill’s near-pick turned blunder, Norton focused in on the fact that his defense shut down Smith twice in the fourth quarter, recording a pair of late-game stops that set the stage for Carr’s epic final drive.
“One thing in our fabric, we’ve always played really hard,” Norton said. “We’ve always finished really well and I think all the guys take pride in their effort and stopping [the opposition] … in the two minute part of the game.”
After ranking No. 6 in the AFC in takeaways in 2015, Norton’s debut season, the defense jumped to No. 2 a season ago.
“I think that’s something we’ve always done,” Norton continued. “We’ve been inconsistent in some areas, but that’s an area we’ve always been really consistent in — being really strong, finishing strong, making plays when we have to.”
If the Raiders are going to spoil the Bills’ 3-0 record at home, and more consequentially, climb back to .500, the takeaways will once again have to flow.
“It has to be the next step for us to go on a run — for us to make the season what it’s supposed to be.”