The Oakland Raiders were in range to make a game-tying field goal when Carson Palmer’s pass to Juron Criner was intercepted by Sheldon Brown. The Raiders had a first down at the Cleveland Browns’ 33-yard line and Palmer made a huge mistake. There was nothing special about the interception; it was just a bad play.
The Raiders still had a chance to keep the game within a score as the Browns had to start a drive from their 6-yard line. What followed was a 14-play, 94-yard touchdown drive from the Browns that gave them a 20-10 lead. The drive took over six minutes off the clock and left the Raiders with just over three minutes to score 10 points.
The Raiders would get a last-second touchdown, but burned too much time off the clock to mount any real comeback attempt. What Palmer started with the interception the defense finished with blown coverage, penalties and missed tackles. The interception was bad, but the defense had an opportunity to give the team a chance and failed.
Oakland’s defense has been disappointing in 2012, but what exactly went wrong on that game-deciding drive?
Who is more to blame for blown coverage assignments?
When you think of all the possible mistakes a defense can make, the most glaring and damaging is a blown coverage assignment. Blown coverage literally leaves a receiver wide open, and most NFL quarterbacks will be able to find a receiver running all alone in the secondary.
The Raiders were victimized by blown coverage several times on the final drive. It’s true that the secondary was injury-depleted, but that doesn’t mean the backups shouldn't at least be in the area.
The Browns faced a 3rd-and-3 from their 13-yard line. If the defense makes a stop, they can give the ball back to Palmer and the offense down only three points with plenty of time left on the clock and likely with good field position. Instead, the Browns convert for a first down, extend the drive and flip the field position.
Joselio Hanson flips at the snap to cover the outside receiver, and Michael Huff is isolated on the opposite side of the field. With Tyvon Branch blitzing from the edge, the tight end becomes the responsibility of Philip Wheeler. That left Ron Bartell as the only guy in the secondary that could be responsible for Josh Gordon in the slot left.
One of two things has to happen for the Raiders to stop this play. Wheeler has to pass the tight end off to Bartell and step up to cover Gordon coming across the field or Bartell has to realize that Gordon is his responsibility and run across the field with him. Burris gives Gordon a little bump, but his responsibility is Trent Richardson.
Only Bartell, Wheeler or Burris had any chance to stop Gordon, but no one is within 15 yards of him when he makes the catch, turns it up field for an 11-yard gain and gets the first down. Burris did his job, and that’s about all you can ask from a rookie. If it was strictly the man coverage that it appeared to be, then it was Bartell’s coverage and it’s his man unless he communicated a switch with Wheeler.
By converting this third down, the Browns extended the drive and also flipped the field position back into their favor. Two plays later, the Raiders blow a coverage assignment again.
From a two-tight end set the Browns run another shallow cross. This time it’s from right to left, and it's tight end Benjamin Watson who makes the catch. Watson turns a short pass into a 22-yard gain because there was no defender covering him.
Andre Carter dropped back into coverage, but his responsibility is to disrupt the passing lane. Meanwhile, Philip Wheeler and Michael Huff are both covering no one since Watson was the only receiving option on that side. If Carter tries to cover Watson, then Weeden just hits a wide-open receiver on the slant for a big gain as Carter would have opened up the passing lane.
Wheeler was likely to blame because he dropped into the coverage area that appeared to be occupied by Huff instead of taking the tight end. This is yet another case of the player not knowing his responsibility. Mistakes like this result in big plays and demonstrates a lack of focus and preparation. The Raiders rarely lose physical battles on defense; they are simply beating themselves mentally.
Another big problem the Raiders have had on defense is missing tackles. Missing a tackle puts the pressure on another player to come in and help—usually after more yardage has been lost. The offense intentionally designs plays that will get big yardage if the defender doesn’t at least hold onto the offensive player long enough to get help.
Burris had quite a few missed tackles against the Browns, and perhaps none were more damaging than a pass play to Jordan Cameron that would have been stopped for three yards and instead turned into 23 yards. The play not only moved the Browns into field-goal range, but it put them in the red zone with a fresh set of downs.
A few plays later, Richardson ran for eight yards on 2nd-and-9 from the Oakland 18-yard line. Omar Gaither bounced off Richardson for what would have been a loss of two yards. Richardson would run into a wall off defenders after five yards, but he pumped his legs forward and gained another three for a total of eight yards.
The Browns then faced a 3rd-and-1, but they didn’t even need to convert it on their own because Desmond Bryant jumped into the neutral zone. The Browns got a free first down at the 5-yard line, and Richardson banged in a touchdown two runs later.
Two missed tackles, two coverage mistakes and a penalty were all the Browns needed to go 94 yards for a touchdown that basically sealed the game.
Why the players are struggling with the most basic mental aspects of playing defense is a mystery. Maybe the defensive scheme is too complex (unlikely) or the players just lack focus. In either case, the coaching staff is at a severe disadvantage when they have so many players making such a wide spectrum of errors. Schemes can be devised to hide player deficiencies, but the Raiders simply have too many flawed players to make that possible.