Michael Huff earned the most national recognition he’s had since being one of the most decorated defensive backs in college football because of a late-game sequence when he helped blitz quarterback Philip Rivers into submission.
It wasn’t just that Huff’s sack caused the fumble that Tyvon Branch (with help from Chris Johnson) ran back 64 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. Huff had come hard on previous plays as the Raiders disregarded convention and sent both safeties in attempt to force Rivers into the mistake that he eventually made.
“I was tired,” the reigning AFC defensive player of the week said Friday. “I blitzed like five times in a row. I wasn’t used to it. I need to go out there and run a little bit more.”
Given that his usual role as a single deep free safety calls for Huff to be the last and most visable line of defense, Huff says the constant blitzing “definitely” came as a surprise.
“(To blitz) that many times in a row, especially when we hadn’t blitzed much and to call it four or give times in a row was different,” Huff said.
So here come the San Francisco 49ers and Alex Smith, a quarterback, who in the words of defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, “has had a little trouble throwing it to the other team this year” with nine interceptions, the most in the NFL. Surely he can be forced to throw it before he wants, adding to his pick total.
Huff conceded the San Diego finish gives defenders more ammunition in lobbying for more blitzing with defensive coordinator John Marshall, but didn’t sound as if he expected a big change in philosophy.
“When you put it on film and it works, it’s easy to go up there and show him we can do it more,” Huff said. “But we know we’ve got a great front four and they can get to the passer, so we don’t have to blitz every time. But that’s good when kind of sprinkle it in every now and then.”
When I said to Tom Cable Monday that people would look at the last five plays and wonder why the Raiders don’t blitz more often, his answer was interesting.
“We talk about that a lot, we really do,” Cable said. “Some of it is kind of a theory or belief in the system and what has to go on and what must be done and those kinds of things. Some of it is when it’s time to do it. You have to do what you believe is right. John did at the end and it was exactly right.”
The Raiders’ theory defensively has always been, “our players are better than yours and we will win more individual battles.” As Huff suggested, the best case scenario is is probably that the 49ers will sprinkle in a few more blitzes because it’s not in the DNA as formulated by Al Davis to be a team that relies heavily on the blitz.
The 49ers first responsibility will be to keep running back Frank Gore under control, and they realize that if you commit too many people in the box to create pressure and Gore slips through, he’s adept at taking it the distance. Gore’s presence can make the 49ers a tricky team to blitz.
And if Gore gets untracked and gets steady yards, like the Houston Texans did two weeks ago, the whole blitzing issue is moot because Smith will have a steady diet of plays with optimum down and distance instead of the second-and-long and third-and-long plays that feed a blitz.
Chances are Huff will be back in his familiar role, seeing things from afar, realizing that if he makes a mistake it not only means six points, but is out there for all too see on the evening highlights. The way the Raiders deploy their safeties, Huff’s job is one of the toughest in the NFL, and he’s had as many bad days as good ones.
“You know I’ve got to make the tackle, (and) if I don’t make it, he’s going 70 or going 80,” Huff said. “I’ve got to get him on the ground. I know it’s my responsibility because it’s my role on the defense.”
The Chargers win was unusual in that Huff, Branch and second-year man Mike Mitchell all had good games. Safety play was spotty at best through the first four games. The difference was that the cornerbacks, Stanford Routt, Chris Johnson, and yes, Nnamdi Asomugha, were either beaten or out of position on many of Rivers’ throws.
“We felt as a staff that our safeties played real well,” Cable said. “The corners need to be a little more aggressive and firmer, tighter in our coverage.”