Early wins, defense’s upward mobility point Raiders toward playoffs

Make no mistake, what the Oakland Raiders have produced largely abysmal defensive film this season. The spree of investments has yet to pay off, Oakland is somehow fielding a defense worse than Cleveland and all.

But against the Jacksonville Jaguars definite improvement occurred, and this week’s brought some relevant news to the Raiders’ cause.

Aldon Smith planning to file for reinstatement on time poses as a positive development after talk in August essentially dismissed this year for the suspended pass-rusher. And Mario Edwards joining the team for its special Florida practices brings the front seven the Raiders thought they were going to have closer to reality.

Anything from Smith this season will be a bonus, and Edwards (eligible to return from IR in Week 9) is the team’s best interior pass-rusher. Should the second-year lineman, in fact, be healthy (a shaky proposition given his NFL career thus far), he stands to open up opportunities for Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin. Smith could unleash the Raiders’ pass defense come December, or whenever he’s back in game shape should he be reinstated, as a vastly overqualified off-the-bench weapon.

The Raiders are 5-2 with the worst defense in football. That is a major achievement since the defense is almost certainly not going to get worse.

Ken Norton Jr.’s job should be in jeopardy if this futility continues, but a semblance of quality emerged against the Jaguars’ passing attack Sunday and proved one team is much farther along in delivering on preseason hype than the other.

Oakland received stellar work from David Amerson, and Sean Smith continued to make up for his disastrous start. The Jaguars’ Allen Robinson and Hurns did little, although they are largely hamstrung by Blake Bortles — as devoted Thursday-night football viewers saw — but Smith and Amerson shutting down the Allen Robinson-Allen Hurns partnership that entered the season with about as much acclaim as Amari Cooper-Michael Crabtree is impressive nonetheless.

Mack and Irvin frequently pushed Bortles off his spot to continue what has to be the worst month of football of his life, and the disheveled Jags provided the least resistance of any Raiders opponent in the Jack Del Rio era.

It was either a building-block moment for this pass defense — and a building-implosion sequence for the AFC’s other offseason champion’s vaunted aerial operation — or an indication of how truly bad the Jaguars are.

Even if it’s closer to the latter, the Raiders are improving.

They’ve found something in their third middle linebacker, formerly unremarkable Washington cog Perry Riley, and have seen Karl Joseph entrench himself in the starting lineup after being a non-factor in two car-crash weeks to open for the Raiders’ defense. Stacy McGee has been a key emerging piece up front and should be the fourth pass-rusher when the Raiders redeploy Edwards alongside Mack and Irvin.

You will not find many examples of 5-2 teams carrying the league’s worst statistical total and pass defense. As Edwards and potentially Aldon Smith join the group, it’s hard to see the Raiders continuing to reside at No. 32 in these categories.

The Florida State product was a quality run defender for the 2015 Raiders, they of near-complete anonymity compared to the attention that’s following them now, and opened up lanes for Mack on passing downs. There’s room for a fourth player in Oakland’s critical nickel set, one that’s helped make the Raiders the NFL’s only team to average more than 300 passing yards yielded per game.

15 November 2015: Oakland Raiders Linebacker Aldon Smith (99) [17117] celebrates during pre-game introductions in action during a NFL game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, CA. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

15 November 2015: Oakland Raiders Linebacker Aldon Smith (99) [17117] celebrates during pre-game introductions in action during a NFL game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, CA. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

Smith’s re-entry is more complicated, especially considering he faces more obstacles in finally returning to the Raiders. Reggie McKenzie wouldn’t have re-signed the former 49ers star if he thought there was a good chance Roger Goodell will keep him banished, but then again, no guaranteed money exists in the 27-year-old talent’s deal. But as players like Justin Blackmon, Daryl Washington and Josh Gordon bungled their comebacks, Smith’s appears to be unfolding accordingly.

If Goodell reinstates Smith, 2017 will be the year the Raiders see what he’s really got. He will be playing for the contract that eluded him with no strikes left in his complicated career. But the former All-Pro could provide a preview this season once he’s in relative game shape, and having him spell Irvin will put constant pressure on tackles.

Now, some sort of third-and-long NASCAR package with Mack, Irvin and Smith on the field would be fascinating as well. Profiling as a package you’d use more in a Madden format than real life, that just seems like something that can be trotted out in special circumstances as opposed to a primary pass-rushing set. Should that become a thing, though, it will be must-watch as the Raiders attempt to terrorize offensive lines as they mount a now-realistic playoff charge.

Oakland’s offense bought the defense some time with its consistency and going 6-2 for the first time since 2001 will further it.

The Raiders managing this kind of start with what’s happened on defense reminds of that person in your fantasy league who skates into playoff territory being the token points-against beneficiary. Except whereas that person’s luck stands to even out, the Silver and Black’s regression to the mean actually points their arrow higher since the defense is not going to be this bad much longer.

Too much talent exists on this unit to keep laying out red carpets for opposing quarterbacks. The Raiders’ improvement at this critical function, and having padded their win total amid the early chaos, will make them a threat to finally reappear in the AFC bracket.

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