The Raiders must show they can stop the run if they expect to win a championship
Minutes after his team's 28-10 win over the Giants on Sunday, subdued Raiders defensive tackle Darrell Russell sat alone in a corner of the visitors' locker room, peeling his soaked uniform from his body. While the monsoonlike conditions in Giants Stadium could have sapped the joy from even the most satisfying of victories—this was Oakland's 10th straight win over an NFC opponent and left the Raiders (8-2) tied with Pittsburgh for the AFC's best record—the weather had little to do with Russell's mood. After New York running back Tiki Barber had rushed for 124 yards on only 19 carries, and two weeks after Seattle's Shaun Alexander had torched Oakland for 266 yards, Russell was loath to discuss the Raiders' chief cause for concern these days: the defense's inability to stop the run.
"There's not much we can do, other than fill the gaps," Russell said with a shrug. "We don't really have time to think about it. We can't be scared out there. We're not perfect, but we're taking baby steps. We're improving."
Not exactly the most inspiring of rallying cries, but no matter. Although Oakland came in with the NFL's 21st-ranked rushing defense and had been surrendering 21.2 points per game, the Raiders raced to a 21-3 half-time lead against the Giants and were never seriously challenged. Still, the game didn't feel like a blowout, due largely to Oakland's defensive lapses. Blown coverages, ineffective early blitzes and shoddy tackling abounded. "Our defense needs to stop playing to the level of the competition," Raiders free safety Anthony Dorsett said before the game. "We do what we need to do to win instead of dominating. Everybody's talked about [playing tougher], but I don't think we've committed to it."
If Sunday's third quarter was any indication, Oakland still has a way to go. Instead of putting the clamps on a defeated opponent, the Raiders allowed New York to retain possession for more than 10 minutes. Running the ball at will, the Giants briefly made a game of it, narrowing the gap to 21-10 with 4:10 left in the quarter. It was the sort of uninspired stretch that has critics questioning the focus and urgency of an Oakland unit that too often in recent weeks has forced its offense to be nearly perfect.
The Raiders especially need more consistent play from the complicated Russell, a nimble, line-plugging force as talented as he is mercurial. After four rocky seasons in which he was twice named to the Pro Bowl while being tagged as a sometimes pouty underachiever, Russell, the second pick in the 1997 draft, was suspended by the NFL for this season's first four games for a second violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. He was not permitted to practice with the team—the Raiders tried to trade him to the Jets in October—and Oakland coach Jon Gruden didn't start him against the Colts upon his Oct. 14 return, which, Russell says, hurt him deeply.
A meeting on Nov. 13, two days after the Seattle debacle, cleared the air. "I asked him what I had to do to start, and he told me I had to practice harder, make fewer mistakes, make my weight," Russell says. "He didn't disrespect me, so I was open to hearing it."
"To do what we want to do," says Gruden, "we need guys like Darrell Russell to step up big."
Injuries and a lack of depth along the line make a focused Russell more important than ever for Oakland. Team leader Trace Armstrong, who had 16� sacks for the Dolphins a year ago, ruptured his Achilles tendon on Sept. 30 and is lost for the season. In addition, All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson, the only bright spot in a suspect secondary, has played in obvious pain with turf toe since early November.
The offense, led by the ageless Rich Gannon, has shown few signs of slippage. If Oakland is to survive into late January, though, it will be because Russell—and the rest of his unit—followed the offense's lead. "I look at it this way," Russell said on Sunday as the locker room emptied into the rain-swept night. "We aren't peaking yet. That's good, because we will. You know we will."