Through seven games, the Oakland Raiders are surprising a lot of people around the league, and it has been the play of their defense leading the way.
It wasn't too long ago that the silver and black had a defense that struggled in slowing down even the weakest of opponents and really didn't give the team much of a chance from the outset of many games.
In fact, the argument could be made that for the better part of the 2012 season, at least until the last four or five games, that's exactly what this unit was.
Just one year later, and in an all-important second season of Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver's defensive schemes and philosophies taking shape, Raiders fans are starting to get glimpses of a group that could really turn into something special as the team continues to build.
Heading into this season, much was made about the quality of talent on this team or the supposed lack thereof at the time.
Looking back, it's certainly understandable how worried many were about the Raiders' defense in particular, as departing from the team in just one offseason were players like that of Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Desmond Bryant, Philip Wheeler, Rolando McClain and Michael Huff.
At the same time, as much potential as the defense had with these kinds of names, the results never showed. This was especially true in having such a talented defensive line, yet still having issues with run defense year after year.
Evidently, big names or not, changes had to be made. And they were.
With salary cap constraints like few, if any, teams have ever experienced before in the NFL, Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie had the task of completely flipping this starting defensive unit, with very little spending money to work with.
With the Raiders either releasing or letting so many players leave through free agency, and of course signing and drafting their replacements, the team ended up returning just two defensive starters in Lamarr Houston and Tyvon Branch.
Still, the unit has and continues to make incredible improvements on a weekly basis.
Of course, the work Allen and Tarver have done to put their players in the right position deserves plenty of credit, but the strides this defense has made in such a short period of time proves just how underrated the majority of the new players were.
Bringing in some savvy veteran leaders like Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett, Vance Walker and Charles Woodson, as well as some others with plenty to prove like Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins, has undoubtedly been key in putting together a solid defense.
A unit that plays hard, yet smart, and is more often than not in the right position to make a play, is a welcomed change over so many of the Raiders' recent seasons.
Add in other veteran additions playing key roles like Usama Young, Pat Sims and Jason Hunter, as well as some quickly developing rookies in Sio Moore and D.J. Hayden, and the look of the defense really starts to take shape.
Unfortunately, one of the two returning starters, Tyvon Branch, has missed the majority of the season due to injury so far, but his eventual return will provide a big boost.
The other, Lamarr Houston, is playing at a level that easily makes him the Raiders' best player on defense, and should even have him up for Pro Bowl consideration.
Overall, the biggest fundamental change for the Raiders' defense, with credit to both the coaching staff and players, is the new-found discipline.
Of course, discipline was a common term with Raiders teams of years past, but more so in regards to their penchant for costly penalties.
Under the new regime, the penalty problem has been addressed quite effectively, but the discipline for this defense comes down to everyone being on the same page, and especially so in the running game.
The Raiders currently sit sixth in the NFL in total rush defense, giving up an average of 89.9 yards per game, while sitting fourth in yards per carry, holding opponents to just 3.6 yards per attempt.
This consistent success on early downs puts opponents in substantially more obvious passing situations with rather unfavorable down and distances.
As a result, the one-dimensional attack the Raiders force their opponents to employ then allows them to dial up some creative pressure packages, thus establishing more pass rush success than they otherwise would.
The upgrades made in the secondary allow for these pressure packages to be utilized, as the coaching staff can be confident that the back end will indeed hold up in coverage.
Overall, the additions the Raiders have made to their defensive player personnel have allowed this defensive scheme to continue its development and challenge opposing offenses in as many ways possible.
While Allen and Tarver's system was in place last year as well, as is the case with any system, the right players are needed to maximize its potential.
As we can see now, Reggie McKenzie was able to consistently find some very capable, yet extremely overlooked players on the open market and bring them aboard at very affordable prices as a result.
For some perspective on the value established by the Raiders' spending this offseason: the total 2013 salary cap hits of key free agent additions Vance Walker, Pat Sims, Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett, Kaluka Maiava, Tracy Porter, Mike Jenkins, Charles Woodson and Usama Young still do not exceed the $13,714,000 cap charge the team is incurring for the now-departed Richard Seymour.
Undoubtedly, these additions have driven the success enjoyed by the defense so far in 2013, and the group should be interesting to watch as they grow more comfortable playing with one another as the season goes on.
Currently a top 10 unit, the Raiders defense is getting key stops, forcing timely turnovers and, most importantly, keeping the team in games when the offense starts to struggle.
If the defense can keep up the current level of play and the offense can start to smooth out its issues as the offensive line starts to get healthy, the Raiders could very well continue their surprise season by establishing themselves as Wild Card contenders in the season's stretch run.
The old saying is that "defense wins championships." While the Raiders are a ways away from thinking about a championship, they're building the right way, and should have plenty of means by which to add to this defense in the upcoming offseason.
For the first time in what seems like far too long, there's a good defense in Oakland, and the rest of the NFL should be taking notice.
All contract and salary cap information courtesy of Spotrac.com.