A lot of credit for the Oakland Raiders’ success this season should go to the team’s improved pass rush and the creative, blitz-happy schemes employed by defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. Equally important, if not more so, has been the recent play of cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter.
While the Raiders’ overall pass defense has been mediocre—they rank 17th, allowing 241 yards a game—Jenkins and Porter have combined to give Oakland its best cornerback tandem since 2001, when Charles Woodson and Eric Allen roamed the secondary.
Woodson is back for another tour with the Raiders, only now the 37-year-old lines up at safety.
A year after the failed experiment with Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer went sour, Jenkins and Porter, the two veteran cornerbacks who signed with Oakland in the offseason, have filled the void in the edge coverage.
Both had interceptions in the Raiders’ Week 8 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the first in an Oakland uniform for either player.
Their impact has gone much deeper than just a pair of turnovers in one game, however.
The two men have been instrumental in the rapid development of rookie D.J. Hayden. Oakland’s first-round draft pick got off to a sluggish start this season but has come on in recent weeks and has been playing at a much higher level than he previously had been.
Jenkins and Porter have also teamed with Woodson to form the core of the Raiders defense, though Woodson has been the only one of the three to receive proper credit.
It was Jenkins and Porter who almost single-handedly shut down Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith during a Week 6 loss to the unbeaten Chiefs.
Smith is seventh in the AFC with an 82.1 passer rating while quarterbacking the NFL’s only remaining undefeated team. Yet against the Raiders, Smith passed for just 128 yards and was held to season-lows in completions (14), attempts (31), completion percentage (45.2) and passer rating (56.9).
Smith spent most of his afternoon searching in vain for an open receiver. He didn’t have much luck at all, which is why the Raiders were able to knock him around as much as they did.
A big reason was Oakland’s pass defense, specifically Jenkins and Porter. The duo combined to shut down the Chiefs’ receiving tandem of Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery, who had three catches apiece.
Although the Raiders play more zone coverages than they have in the past 30 years, Jenkins and Porter have both thrived in man-to-man situations.
Porter is tied for third on the team in tackles, has knocked down a team-leading eight passes in seven games and has allowed 23 of 36 passes thrown his way to be completed. He’s been extremely strong against the run and grades out as the highest-ranked cornerback in the NFL in that department, according to ProFootballFocus.
“Tracy’s a guy who’s made a lot of big plays in a lot of big games,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said on Monday. “A lot of the guys that we brought in here kind of have a little chip on their shoulders. They want to prove they’re worth of being top-notch players in this league.”
Jenkins got off to a sluggish start but has been at his best in recent weeks.
Like Porter, Jenkins has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 23 of 36 passes thrown his direction. But he’s improved his tackling, particularly on first contact, and had one of his best games against Pittsburgh when he picked up a positive grade by ProFootballFocus for just the second time this season.
Overall, Oakland’s entire defense has improved with each game.
The Raiders have eight sacks in their last two games, five coming against Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who historically has been one of the most difficult quarterbacks to get on the ground. During a three-game stretch from Week 3 to Week 5, Oakland has just four sacks total.
The turnaround in the pass rush has coincided with the improved play on the back end of the defense with Jenkins and Porter.
The duo will continue to get tested in the coming weeks.
Although Oakland catches a break against Philadelphia, which will be without quarterback Mike Vick, the Raiders are beginning a stretch in which they’ll face the likes of Eli Manning of the New York Giants and Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys. Then they close out the season with three games against Smith and the Chiefs, Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers, and Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
At least this year, the Raiders are much better suited to handle it.
Any and all information and quotes used in this and any report by Michael Wagaman were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.