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Associated Press

Kansas City Chiefs running back Darrel Williams (31) catches a touchdown pass over Las Vegas Raiders safety Johnathan Abram (24) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Credit to Gus Bradley for owning his words.

Going into last week’s game against the Chiefs, the Raiders’ first-year defensive coordinator played up the meeting as a test to show where his defense stood. There was no disputing the resulting grade in a 41-14 loss where Kansas City put up 516 yards of offense.

F.

Bradley didn’t shy away from the red mark in his first time speaking publicly since the defeat that dropped the Raiders to 5-4 on the season.

“We didn’t succeed,” he said Thursday at the team’s headquarters in Henderson. “I think that’s the biggest disappointment. Now it’s back to work and we say, ‘All right, we understand some of the things now, who we are and what we’ve got to make sure of.”

Who are they though?

Bradley may believe he has a good sense of his defense, but externally, the unit is starting to look like more of an enigma.

“Hard to say,” defensive end Maxx Crosby said with his head down when asked about the defense’s problems after the Chiefs’ game on Sunday night. “We’ve just got to tackle better, rush better, be better in every phase.”

For better or for worse, the Raiders’ defense has looked a lot like the veteran Bradley’s defenses tend to look. Not only has he fully implemented his usual Cover 3 scheme, but he’s also gradually brought in a lot of his own players over the course of the season.

It makes it interesting to look back to the widespread reception of his hire in January, which was, in a word, tepid. As teams tend to do with all major hires, the Raiders wanted to lead fans to believe that bringing in Bradley to succeed Paul Guenther, who was fired late last season, was a major victory.

But the wider response was more muted, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. Bradley screamed of a safe choice, a coach highly likely to improve from the lows the Raiders’ defense had fallen into the last several years but also one improbable of elevating them to the top of the league.

He hadn’t guided one of the league’s best defenses in nearly a decade, since his much-celebrated time with the Seahawks from 2009-2012. His units as head coach with the Jaguars and later as defensive coordinator Los Angeles Chargers were overall serviceable but slightly below league average.

That seems to be the same pocket this year’s Raiders have settled into.

Las Vegas’ front office probably wanted to do a victory lap as Bradley’s first Raiders’ defense looked like a fringe top-10 unit in the league during the first month of the season. But it’s gradually slipped down the ranks since then, even before the Chiefs’ debacle.

Las Vegas is the league’s 23rd-ranked defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings and 18th by EPA (expected points added) per play. The Raiders are slightly better by traditional measures, 16th in yards per game allowed (360.1) and ninth in opponent yards per play (5.3), but those numbers must be interpreted through the lens of their schedule.

And their schedule so far has not been very difficult, ranking 27th in the league according to Football Outsiders. The remaining eight games are much tougher, ranking 10th.

“We’ve just got to keep getting better and finding ways to improve,” Crosby said. “It’s tough. We’ve beaten good teams. We’ve lost to teams we feel like we should have beaten.”

Progress must be immediate considering the Raiders are starting a stretch of facing four offenses ranking in the top 10 of yards per play in the next five weeks on Sunday with a home game against the Bengals. But it also seems possible.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom with the Raiders’ defense no matter how poor it looked against the Chiefs. It’s just one game, after all, and defensive performance tends to fluctuate even more wildly than offense does.

Bradley has succeeded with his No. 1 objective in Las Vegas of building a fearsome pass rush without blitzing, as Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue have combined for 11 sacks and nonstop pressure in almost every game. The Chiefs’ loss was the first time this season the duo were held without a sack, but that largely wasn’t the edge rushers’ fault

Kansas City emphasized short routes and quick releases to minimize the impact of Crosby and Ngakoue, something Bradley said he anticipated other opponents like the Bengals using the rest of the season.

That would put more of the onus on the defensive backfield, which has been through more ups and downs. Casey Hayward Jr., who came over with Bradley from the Chargers, has succeeded as the No. 1 cornerback but he’s slipped from lights-out over the first month of the season to merely solid ever since.

That hasn’t been enough with the cornerback spot next to him in flux because of an injury to Trayvon Mullen, and the injury and then release of Damon Arnette — especially not with strong safety Johnathan Abram’s difficulties in pass coverage.

But Mullen could return soon and it’s premature to write off the Raiders’ defense entirely. They’ve shown “complementary football”, as Crosby calls it, on every level in spurts, even if it wasn’t very often against the Chiefs.

Take a wider view and it’s evident Bradley has raised the Raiders’ defensive level of the last few seasons, albeit perhaps not as significantly as it once appeared. One failed test doesn’t make for a whole lost term, particularly not when it’s acknowledged and addressed.

“We’ve got to get better every game – more of that mindset,” Bradley said. “Well, we didn’t get better last game. That was not what get-better looks like in our minds. The players understand that. They hold it to a higher standard as well as the coaches, so I think it’s, ‘let’s get it right.’ More of that mentality than anger or frustration. Let’s make sure Kansas City doesn’t beat us twice.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

Article written by #LasVegasSun

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