ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The Raiders have been a bad team since last winning their division and AFC championship in 2002 for a number of reasons, but the most persistent problem has been run defense.
Oakland was third against the run in 2002 and not coincidentally finished 11-5 and won two playoff games. A decade later, Dennis Allen's Raiders were No. 18 against the run -- and it happened to be the team's best showing in that area since winning the last division title.
Having shed itself of high-priced starters Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour at defensive tackle, and also losing tackle Desmond Bryant to a big free-agent contract, the Raiders went bargain shopping and came up with unrestricted free agents Pat Sims (Cincinnati) and Vance Walker (Atlanta).
With Sims getting a reported $1.5 million and Walker $2 million, they cost a fraction of what Kelly and Seymour cost. They also provide youth, come with solid reputations as run-stoppers and have complementary skills.
Sims, at 6 feet 2 and 310 pounds, does his best work swallowing up double teams in a phone booth. Walker can do the dirty work but excels against one-on-one blocks.
"They play the run square, they come off and attack blocks like they're supposed to," Allen said. "They've been gap-sound and fundamental in that regard."
Sims listened to the litany of deficient statistics in terms of run defense and said with confidence, "Then I'm your man ... I don't know what the problem has been, but I really don't see it being a problem this year."
Organized team activities and minicamps aren't necessarily the best way to judge how well a team plays the run because of the lack of contact, but Sims insists there's plenty of evidence already on film for proof the Raiders will be stout against the run.
"When you go back in and watch film, you see how you're coming off the ball, how you're fitting, how you're shedding blocks, that your linebackers are coming downhill," Sims said. "When we put on pads, it's going to be even better, because we're coming off the ball, we're fitting up and we're plugging those holes. We're doing our job and I know our linebackers are going to do theirs.
"We're doing a good job. If we weren't, I'm quite sure the coaches would be saying something about it."
A big problem for the Raiders in past years has been filling gaps and players either freelancing and doing too much or simply not doing enough to be in the right place at the right time.
The Raiders gave up 100 yards rushing to five different running backs last season (losing all five games), with Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin running for 251 yards on 20 carries. He had four touchdown runs -- all in the second half with runs of 1, 45, 67 and 70 yards -- the long runs coming because of unfilled gaps.
Walker believes that will be a thing of the past.
"Pat and I, we're very disciplined," Walker said. "The biggest thing is to listen to your coach and do what the system asks you to do and you'll make plays. Pat's from a system and I'm from a system where we've been taught discipline.
"We're knocking those guys back and we may not make the tackle, but we know a linebacker will be right up for us."
Sims and Walker have consistently been running with the first team, along with Lamarr Houston at right end and Jason Hunter at left end. Second-year defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi figures into the three-man interior rotation, and Houston can also move inside in some alignments.
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