ALAMEDA — Defensive coordinator Jason Tarver’s contributions to the Oakland Raiders this season are much bigger than that obscene gesture at the officials that got him into so much hot water.
Tarver has overseen a remarkable improvement on the defense while incorporating 10 new starters who mostly came in with little fanfare.
The Raiders went browsing through the bargain basement to bring in many of the newcomers, signing five free agents to one-year deals. Only the addition of Charles Woodson generated much interest while players like cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter, linebackers Nick Roach and Kevin Burnett and defensive linemen Pat Sims, Vance Walker and Jason Hunter were under-the-radar additions.
“Probably a lot of people outside of this area, outside of this building probably don’t know a lot about who these no-name guys are on defense but we have a lot of guys who are pretty good football players,” coach Dennis Allen said. “I think a lot of these guys that we brought in here kind of have a little bit of a chip on their shoulders. They want to prove that they’re worthy of being top-notch players in this league.”
The man putting all those parts together is Tarver, who has a master’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology and boundless energy that comes through on the sideline and in the meeting rooms.
That gave him some unwanted notoriety last week against Pittsburgh. In the third quarter, an official threw a flag on Jenkins for an illegal hit to the head of a defenseless receiver.
The call set Tarver off and he was caught by television cameras screaming an obscenity at the officials and twice making the one-fingered gesture. He was forced to apologize the following day and was disciplined by the team.
“Everybody around here, we love it,” Jenkins said. “It shows that he has a lot of passion for the game. He’s just into the game. We feed off that, knowing he has our back.”
Tarver has nothing to apologize for when it comes to how well his defense is playing. The performance is quite a surprise considering how overmatched that unit looked in the preseason when the Raiders allowed the opposition to score on 16 of 18 first-half drives, excluding one kneel-down possession.
It looked like it would be more of the same when Indianapolis scored touchdowns on the first two drives of the season opener, but Oakland’s defense has been extremely stout since then, with the exception of one game against Peyton Manning and the high-powered Broncos.
The Raiders are allowing 21.4 points per game — down more than six points from last year’s average of 27.7 that was the worst for the franchise since 1961.
“We’ve been good at times, but we’ve got to be good all the time,” Tarver said. “You turn bad into good, good into great. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
The strength of the defense has been stopping the run and rushing the passer. A leaky run defense had been a constant in Oakland during a 10-year run without a playoff berth as no other defense allowed more yards rushing or more touchdowns on the ground during that span.
This year Oakland ranks sixth in the league in rushing defense at 89.9 yards per game, fourth with 3.6 yards per carry and is the only team not to allow a run of at least 20 yards so far this season. They have held three opponents under 40 yards rushing after doing that just four times the past 10 seasons.
The focus on stopping the run has complemented a pass rush that has 21 sacks through seven games — matching the team’s total through 14 games a year ago. With an improved secondary that allows for more man coverage, the Raiders are blitzing 35 percent more this year than they did in Tarver’s first year as coordinator, according to STATS LLC.
That has led to 14 players getting credit for sacks so far, making it especially difficult for opposing teams to know where exactly to focus their protection.
Quarterbacks have talked about being confused at times by Oakland’s defense even though the players contend Tarver’s schemes are very simple.
“He’s a very smart guy,” Woodson said. “He game plans as well as anybody I’ve been around, as far as knowing what teams are trying to do to attack you, and putting guys in position to take advantage of certain situations. So, it’s been fun for me playing under him and I know we can get better with him.”