ALAMEDA — Jason Tarver is as passionate and animated as any coach in the NFL. The Oakland Raiders’ defensive coordinator is usually quick with a statistic or two to back up whatever point he’s trying to make.
The fact that Oakland’s defense is third in the NFL in three-and-outs, for example. Tarver’s eyes grew wide and he talked proudly about that Thursday, saying few people around the league expected that out of the young Raiders.
All of that energy grinds to a screeching halt, however, when discussing Oakland’s struggles on third down.
The Raiders have had issues finishing drives and games for much of the season. It’s become a particularly troubling trend over the past three games, all of which ended in losses for a team headed for its 11th consecutive non-winning record.
“We have to understand in those situations how to get ourselves off the field,” Tarver said. “It’s that refocus on the ninth play of the drive, that’s where we need to improve. We’ve got some things we do really well but we have to focus when it doesn’t go as well early in the drive.”
Oakland (4-9) is 25th in third-down efficiency this season, allowing opponents to convert nearly 41 percent of the time.
In the past three games alone, the Raiders have allowed teams to convert a league-high 54.5 percent (24 of 44) of third-down plays. Of those, five have been on third-and-10 or longer.
“I think it really boils down to those teams out-executed us in those particular situations,” Oakland coach Dennis Allen said. “We went through a stretch in the middle of the year where we played pretty good, and then we’ve gone through a stretch … where we haven’t been as good on third down. That’s the difference between being able to win these games and not.”
Tarver insists that correcting the problem has been a focus of the team for a while. The Raiders spent part of Thursday’s practice going over their third-down defense and will probably emphasize it more as Sunday’s game against Kansas City draws nearer.
It’s more than a bit perplexing, however, that a team that has forced 45 three-and-outs this season could have so many problems on third down.
The issues have come from a decline in the Raiders’ pass rush, coverage breakdowns in the secondary and overall sloppiness when it comes to tackling.
Oakland recorded 21 sacks through the first seven games while opponents converted only 38 percent on third down. Over the past six games, though, the Raiders have only 11 sacks while teams are converting third downs at a 44 percent clip.
“There’s a few of them where we had two guys there to make a tackle, and those are the ones you have to have,” Tarver said. “That’s all on us. It’s multiple reasons but we have a good mix of things that we do. We need to do a better job of getting those guys on the ground.
“Can’t let the communication go, whether it’s the first play of the drive or the ninth. It doesn’t matter. Stop ‘em.”
Fixing the pass rush problems and the issues on third down might be a bit more difficult this week for Oakland’s defense.
Defensive tackle Vance Walker, who is fourth on the team with three sacks, has not practiced after suffering a concussion during the Raiders 37-27 loss to the New York Jets this past Sunday.
Rookie linebacker Sio Moore was also limited for the second straight day because of a neck injury.
That, coupled with an overall tired feeling on defense, convinced Allen to alter Oakland’s practice schedule this week and go with more walkthrough sessions than full-contact drills.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games, a lot of battles, and what happens sometimes is it’s not just a physical thing,” Allen said. “It’s also a mental thing. So we’ve done some things this week to try to freshen them up.”
Notes: WR Denarius Moore (shoulder) had another encouraging day at practice and could rejoin the lineup after missing the past three games. … RB Darren McFadden (ankle) did not practice and is likely to sit out his sixth game this season.