ALAMEDA, Calif. – With their offense still struggling to score, the Oakland Raiders have relied on a defense that has been surprisingly stout against the run this season.
Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who has never been part of a top 10 defense in his nine NFL seasons, expects even more.
The Raiders (3-4) have allowed 55 yards rushing or fewer in three of their past five games and are giving up an average of 102.1 yards rushing.
That's good for 11th in the NFL and is a marked difference from 2011 when opponents rushed for 136.1 yards per game against Oakland.
Two weeks ago, Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew suffered a foot injury on the Jaguars' first play from scrimmage.
The following game against Atlanta, the Falcons didn't run much because quarterback Matt Ryan was having so much success throwing the ball.
For a team trying to get back into contention in the AFC West, it might not be pretty but it has been effective.
"We always have a game or two where we play good run defense, but the key is just to keep it up," Kelly said Friday. "We have to put some games together. I'd rather us be playing better run defense in December. As long as we don't go back to how we looked against Miami, I'm fine."
The Dolphins ran for 263 yards against the Raiders in Week 2, leading to criticism over the defense being run by rookie coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver.
However in the five games since, Oakland has given up 420 yards rushing — an 84.0 yard average.
The critics have gone silent. For now.
"If you play hard and you get 11 guys flying around to the football, it makes up for somebody that might be out of a gap," Allen said. "You've got to have gap discipline, and that comes back to the players, and the players have done a nice job of maintaining their responsibility and doing what they're supposed to do on most every play."
The previous time the Raiders were this good against the run? That was in 2002 — the last year they made the playoffs.
Over the past nine seasons, Oakland has routinely been among the league's worst run defenses. The high-water mark came in 2004 when the Raiders ranked 21st. Twice, in '03 and '08, they finished last.
With a new defensive staff this year, Oakland got off to a slow start but picked up the pace considerably over the past month as the players became more comfortable in the system.
Kelly isn't surprised by the turnaround.
"As the weeks go by you're knowing the calls better," Kelly said. "The thinking (has) kind of gone away. Everybody's weaving themselves into the defense."
Keeping that momentum going could be a challenge for the Raiders against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Bucs running back Doug Martin is coming off a record-setting performance against Minnesota when he became the first NFL rookie in 25 years to rush for at least 135 yards and have another 75 yards in receptions in one game. Overall, Martin is sixth in the NFC with 543 yards and a 4.2 per carry average.
Tampa Bay has also gotten improved play out of quarterback Josh Freeman, who has thrown for three touchdowns in each of his past three games.
But the Bucs will be without Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks, who was placed on injured reserve with a toe injury earlier this week. That bodes well for Oakland, which is trying to get to .500 for the first time this season after getting off to a 1-4 start.
"I guess everybody honed in a little tighter," Kelly said. "Everybody focused a little tighter, everybody crossed their little T's and everything. The defense is coming together. I just hope we keep getting better."
Despite the improvements against the run, Oakland has only 10 sacks this season. Only two players, defensive tackle Richard Seymour and defensive end Matt Shaughnessy, have more than one.
"They're wounded and they're coming into our place ... we need to take advantage of the situation," Kelly said. "They haven't gave up as many sacks but at the same time from what I see on film, (opponents) get pressure on (Freeman)."
Notes: Sunday's game will be televised locally, though some tickets remain available. The Raiders had received a 24-hour extension from the NFL to avoid the blackout. ... Allen said he's not ready to decide whether to add LB Aaron Curry to the 53-man roster. Curry, who was on the physically unable to perform list at the start of the season, has a roster exemption that ends Nov. 7. ... DT Richard Seymour was fined $15,750 by the NFL for roughing Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel last week.
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