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Raiders' secondary took step forward in loss to Falcons

The SportsXchange

To borrow a cliche, what didn't kill the Oakland Raiders' secondary has apparently made the unit stronger.

The Raiders lost both of their starting cornerbacks, Ron Bartell (broken scapula) and Shawntae Spencer (foot sprain) in the first two weeks, and neither is expected to return within the next couple of weeks.

The Raiders took it on the chin through the first four games, against the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers, the Miami Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill and especially the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger and the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning. The situation couldn't look more dire for Oakland is it prepared to face the Atlanta Falcons' red-hot Matt Ryan.

Yes, Ryan guided the Falcons to a 23-20 win over Oakland Sunday with the 19th fourth-quarter comeback of his career.

However, with the help of a more consistent pass rush and a tenacious nickel defense, the Raiders intercepted Ryan three times in the first half and got off the field on a few key sequences in the second half.

Ryan did get the Falcons in position for a game-winning, 55-yard field goal by Matt Bryant, but it was clear the Raiders improved dramatically from the back-to-back games during which Roethlisberger and Manning were a combined 55-for-88 for 720 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions.

With the Jacksonville Jaguars and inexperienced quarterback Blaine Gabbert up next, is it possible the Raiders could relax a bit, knowing how well they played against Ryan?

"I don't think so," cornerback Michael Huff said. "We've been through so much already. We know if we go out there and have a bad performance on Sunday, people will say, 'These are the old Raiders.' That's what we're trying to get away from.

"We're trying to be consistent every week and play to our standards every week."

After the Raiders went through the first four games without an interception, a first-quarter pick by Joselio Hanson on Sunday made it feel as if a huge weight had been lifted off the shoulders of the entire secondary.

Interceptions by Huff and Tyvon Branch followed in the first half.

"Anytime you get the first one out of the way, it's a big deal," Huff said. "Hopefully once you get one out of the way, two, three, four more will come."

Raiders coach Dennis Allen said his team's improved play mostly came from working harder, being aggressive and shadowing receivers during the bye week and the lead-up week to Atlanta.

The Raiders also stressed communication, and they played as if they were more familiar with one another instead of appearing confused as the completions mounted.

"It was big for the confidence of the group," Allen said. "They're learning how to play together. Some of the moving parts are still settling in a little bit. Michael Huff had his best game as a corner. He's getting more comfortable out there.

"That was as good a group of wide receivers as we'll have to play this year, so to go out and play the way we did is really a positive sign."

It helped that while the Raiders had only one sack -- by Matt Shaughnessy -- they hit Ryan 17 times by Allen's count.

"We talked about how pass rush and pass coverage work together," Allen said. "We were able to affect the quarterback a little bit more, and the interceptions came with it."

Huff, who played strong safety for two seasons before moving to free safety, had played some nickel cornerback but had a difficult adjustment period against Roethlisberger and Manning before playing much better against Atlanta.

"It was the best I played at corner, but you still have to go back and watch the film, and there are a couple of more plays I would have made if I would have turned my head or something like that," Huff said. "I'm just trying to get better each week and improve each performance and try to make more plays. That's the main thing."

Hanson, the Raiders' slot corner in the middle of the field, was glad to be the one to get the secondary going.

"Any time you can get the ball back to your offense, that's a big goal for us," Hanson said. "A turnover is almost like scoring a touchdown for the defense. Any time you can do that, it's a big deal."
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