Oakland Raiders linebacker Bruce Irvin doesn’t seem to mind playing the role of “Robin’’ to defensive end Khalil Mack’s “Batman’’ in the Oakland defense. It was, in fact, Irvin who came up with the nicknames.
Make no mistake, though, he is more than just some sidekick. As he proved during one of the most pivotal games in the Raiders’ first run to the playoffs since 2002 last year, he’s just as capable of saving the day as Mack.
During the Raiders’ 19-16 playoff-clinching victory over the Chargers in Week 15, a game in which San Diego set out to and actually succeeded in neutralizing Mack, Irvin stepped up like the superhero he has the ability to be.
While Mack sparred all day with two and sometimes three blockers, Irvin delivered the Pow! Bam! and Splat! knockout punches by racking up six tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a third quarterback hit that forced an interception.
It was precisely the kind of game the Raiders were hoping they would get consistently from Irvin when they signed him to a four-year, $37 million contract in the spring of 2016, and they may be on the brink of getting that consistency they’ve been looking for.
That six-tackle, two-sack game was part of a strong second-half surge for the West Virginia product in which he recorded 39 tackles, five sacks, one pass breakup and two forced fumbles in the eight games, including playoffs, he played following the Raiders’ Week 10 bye last year.
It was a stretch in which he became exactly what Raiders coach Jack Del Rio hoped he’d be, which is a perfect pass-rushing complement or “bookend,’’ as Del Rio put it, to Mack, who is clearly the Raiders’ defensive leader.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Mack is a game-wrecker, but the San Diego game proved that Mack can indeed be neutralized at times. It also proved that when that happens, Irvin can step up and wreck a game too.
Del Rio says he believes Irvin has been out to prove that ever since he came to the Raiders after four strong years with the Seahawks and that there’s an ever-brewing competition between Irvin and Mack that is making both players better.
That’s why the Raiders believe Irvin is on the brink of becoming a consistent game-wrecker himself, and the presence of coordinator Ken Norton Jr., the former Seahawks linebackers coach, is one reason he could reach that status.
Irvin credits Norton with saving his career by demanding that the Seahawks move him from defensive end to linebacker, where Irvin can make greater use of his speed and what scouts say is one of the best get-offs in the game.
That combination is why scouts have long thought Irvin has the potential to put up double-digit sacks, and if Norton continues to employ Irvin the way he did a year ago, Irvin could easily reach that potential.
The reason is that Norton has begun to use Irvin more as a downhill player, one who a year ago attacked the line of scrimmage on nearly 90 percent of his plays and therefore dropped back into coverage on just 11 percent of his snaps.
The result, in addition to recording a career-best 57 tackles and the seven sacks that were just one off the eight he had as a rookie when he was used solely as a situational pass rusher, was a career-high 14 quarterback hurries.
That number should increase this year as Irvin develops a better feel for what his role is, and consequently, his sack totals and even his forced fumble figures should rise right along with it.
But it’s not just the way Norton has begun to use Irvin or even Irvin’s increased comfort in the Raiders’ scheme that is putting the Seahawks’ 2012 first-round draft pick in a position to have what could be a breakout year.
Now 29, Irvin says he has matured both on the field and off, but the most important maturation process, he said, has taken place in how he approaches his profession. Simply stated, Irvin has learned how to be a pro.
He attributed his strong finish a year ago in large part to the success he has had separating off-field issues from football issues, and games like the one he had in San Diego suggest he’s right.
“It’s a clear mind,’’ Irvin said of the advances he has made in his approach as the Raiders prepared for the playoffs last year. “I’m just worried about football now and I’m getting all the other stuff that doesn’t matter out of my life.
“I’m committing myself to this team, to this organization, and to trying to put forth the best performance I can. I’m feeling it right now, and preparing hard during the week and translating things well on game day.’’
All that’s left now is for Irvin to translate all that into the best season he has ever had. And that season could be right around the corner.
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