After struggling, Raiders' defense shows up when it matters most

The Las Vegas Raiders' rebuilt defense was anything but stingy, let alone dominant, in its season opener at the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

"We had a big pass interference penalty," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said ruefully. "We blow a coverage. We lose the lead."

"Today," added safety Johnathan Abram, "was a very sloppy performance on the defense's part ... We can't have that moving forward. We've got to come out fast and finish strong."

And this from defensive end Clelin Ferrell: "At the end of the day, man, when the game was on the line, you've got to block all the out. Just line up and go."

Indeed, the Raiders' defense stepped up when it mattered most. Ferrell and linebacker Raekwon McMillan stuffed Panthers fullback Alex Armah on fourth-and-1 for no gain with 1:23 to play to secure the Raiders' first win of their Las Vegas engagement, 34-30, in a game that saw seven lead changes.

"Fourth-quarter defense, fourth-quarter pass rush is going to be a big part of winning in this league," said Gruden, adding that he was "really proud" of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

"He kept his poise," Gruden said of Guenther. "Carolina took a timeout; they changed personnel groupings. He got us in the right call, and the guys that were one-on-one won, and that's what Raiders football has got to be about. When you're one-on-one, you got to win."

Enter Ferrell, last year's somewhat surprising No. 4 overall draft pick who was at right defensive end on the play, lined up opposite Panthers tight end Chris Manhertz.

Surely, the Panthers, on the Raiders' 46-yard line, would hand off to do-everything back Christian McCaffrey, or throw the ball to him in space and let him create, right? The third player in NFL history to author a 1,000-yard rushing season with a 1,000-yard receiving season had already rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes.

Abram said the Raiders' focus on defense was to be alert for a hard count from Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to draw them offside.

"Watch the ball," said Abram, who finished with a game-high 13 tackles in his first game since injuring a shoulder in last year's opener. "Watch the ball. D-line, stay low get off the ball. Eyes on your man.

"Do your job. You only get one paycheck, so do your job."

McCaffrey, it turns out, was a decoy.

Bridgewater spun and handed off to Armah. Ferrell shook off Manhertz and hit Armah, and then came McMillan. Cory Littleton showed up to prevent Armah from a second surge.


"They had ran that play once before, on the goal line," said Ferrell, who had two tackles and was referencing Armah getting a yard on third-and-1 from the Raiders' 4-yard line early in the fourth quarter.

"They were quick-counting early, trying to surprise us. But, you know, just made the play ... Hats off to myself and my teammates to go out there and make that play, to hold it down for the team."

The Panthers scored on each of their first four possessions before the Raiders' defense settled in. Then it blew a 27-15 lead, with the Panthers going ahead 30-27 on a 75-yard touchdown pass from Bridgewater to Robby Anderson with 8:29 left.

With the Panthers having a new head coach in Matt Rhule, a new offensive coordinator in Joe Brady, a new quarterback in Bridgewater and no preseason game films to study, Gruden had joked that the Raiders were forced to watch tape of Baylor and Temple (where Rhule had most recently coached), LSU (Brady's most recent stop) and the New Orleans Saints (Bridgewater was there last season) to prepare for Carolina.

"This game," Abram said, "was not about the Carolina Panthers; it was simply about the Las Vegas Raiders."

And at least they already have tape of their next opponent, the Saints, ready to roll to prep for their Las Vegas debut next Monday night.