By Steve Corkran
Tuesday, December 20th, 2011 at 7:44 pm in Oakland Raiders.
Raiders coach Hue Jackson said during training camp that he felt as if his defense had the makings of being an elite unit. With two games left, the reality is that the Raiders defense is among the league’s worst.
Jackson said Tuesday that he is surprised by the fact the Raiders defense has allowed 5 yards per carry, 28 touchdown passes and more than 27 points per game.
“Yeah. It does,” Jackson said, when asked if those stats surprise him. “I’m not going to run from that question. Yes, it does. It’s not what I was expecting. The players know that and the coaches know that. We got two games to get it right and play as well as we can play.”
There isn’t enough time for this defense to go from underachieving to elite. Yet, Jackson said, there’s enough time for the defense to make a difference.
He singled out games against the Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos — the regular-season opener — as evidence that this defense has the ability to perform at a high level, if not on a consistent basis.
“Yeah, I do,” Jackson said. “I do. I really do. And I’m not just saying that to say that. We can. Not we can, we have to. If we’re going to win, we have to. Our players understand that. I know the coaches understand that.
“Now, we have to do it. Talking about it and doing it is two different things. The things that have plagued us have been there all year. It’s not like all of a sudden we’ve fixed it.”
Jackson said Jason Campbell threw the ball about 30 yards in a recent session, which Jackson termed “a huge improvement.”
At the same time, he painted a picture of a quarterback who still has a ways to go before he can play in a game again.
Campbell suffered a broken right collarbone Oct. 16. He has missed the past eight games. Best-case, Campbell is able to return at some point and supplant Kyle Boller as the primary backup.
“I’m sure he’s not just whipping it like you need to throw it just yet,” Jackson said. “But he’s getting closer to that.”
Jackson said throwing the ball 30 yards is one thing, getting back into football shape and staring down oncoming rushers is quite another.
In other words, Campbell likely has played his last game as a Raider. He is a free agent after this season and there’s little, if any, chance of his being asked back.
BRANCH MAKES IMPRESSION
Jackson had no idea what to expect from Tyvon Branch, when he lined up to field a kick against the Detroit Lions on Sunday. In fact, Jackson was surprised to see Branch on the field.
“I looked back there because (Bryan) McCann was hurt and I go, ‘What are we doing?’ ”
That’s when punter Shane Lechler and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh informed Jackson about Branch’s history as a potent kick returner in college.
Jackson still wasn’t sold on the idea. Neither was Rock Cartwright, who advised Branch to take a touchback rather than risk bringing out the ball from 5 yards deep in the end zone.
“I didn’t know he had that in him,” Jackson said. “Then, everybody told me, ‘Hey, coach, that’s what he used to do.’ I was shocked.”
That’s not all the players told Jackson.
One of the players said to Jackson: “Coach, watch this, because it might be a touchdown,” Jackson said. “I go, ‘What are you talking about? I’m just worried about the guy getting the ball, catching it and making sure we get to the next down with the ball. You guys are talking about touchdown.’ He comes running down the sideline, I go, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ This guy’s electrifying returning the ball.”
Hence, Jackson said Branch will get another shot at returning kicks, perhaps Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Oh, man. Oh, man. You better believe I will,” Jackson said. “Wow, was that spectacular. … So, if anybody can help us score a touchdown, I’m all for putting him back there. No doubt.”
Branch said he is eager to show what he can do. His return Sunday went for 76 yards, though it got wiped out by a penalty on Jerome Boyd.
“Whatever Hue asks me to do, I’m going to do it,” Branch said. “It’s just one of those things that, if I think it could make the team better, I’m going to do it.”
Running back Darren McFadden got in some light jogging under the guidance of a team trainer Tuesday afternoon. Jackson said it’s just the next step in McFadden’s recovery from a midfoot sprain.
“He was moving around, so that’s a good thing,” Jackson said. “We can’t run from that. I told you, I’m not hiding him, that’s for sure. He’s out here running around a little bit, and we’ll see where we are as we continue to move forward.”
Jackson said there is no firm timetable for McFadden’s return. One thing is for certain: Jackson is not going to bring back McFadden too soon and jeopardize his career.
McFadden has missed most of the past seven games — he suffered his injury two carries into a game against the Chiefs on Oct. 23.
“We just want to make sure he’s totally where he needs to be before we put him out there,” Jackson said. “We have to be very careful with that. This guy is very valuable to the organization and to this football team. We don’t want to do anything that’s going to jeopardize his career or his opportunity to play.”
McFadden was not available to the media after practice. He has not spoken with the media since before the day he got injured.
HEYWARD-BEY MAKING GREAT STRIDES
Jackson also predicted great things for third-year wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey before this season started. At that point, you would have had a much easier time finding someone who believed the Raiders defense was on the verge of being elite.
Yet, it’s tough to argue with the astounding leap made by Heyward-Bey after two subpar seasons that were punctuated by dropped passes, games without any throws his way and a lack of meaningful production.
Through 14 games, Heyward-Bey leads the Raiders with 51 receptions for 775 yards, with three touchdowns. Jackson said he saw this coming last season, when Jackson was the offensive coordinator.
“I’ve seen steady progress,” Jackson said. “I told you guys, at some point in time, it was going to just go this way, because the guy works extremely hard. He’s a talented player. … The numbers speak for themselves.”
At the same time, Jackson added, Heyward-Bey still hasn’t arrived. That won’t happen until he makes what Jackson refers to as the “uncommon plays.”
For his part, Heyward-Bey said there wasn’t any breakthrough moment. He has been building to this point. And he isn’t anywhere near reaching his lofty goal.
“There’s a lot of things that I can get better at,” Heyward-Bey said. “Each and every day, I’m trying to get better. That’s why I come to work every day, to try to reach my goal of being the best player in the league. That’s how high the standards are.”
He might not reach that goal, but it’s impressive how far he has come when you take into account his first two seasons.
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