Third-down defensive woes a microcosm

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Trying to figure out how the Oakland Raiders' defense, which was not only the heart and soul of the team, but also its best unit, has come unglued in the three-game losing streak?

Look no further than its impotence on third down the past three games. Against the Tennessee Titans, Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets, the Raiders allowed a combined third-down conversion rate of 54.6 percent, the worst such figure in the NFL over that time frame.

So is it a matter of scheme or desire?

"I think it’s hand in hand," said defensive end Lamarr Houston. "It’s players executing the scheme. All of it works together. If not, that’s the result."

Against the Jets, the defense on third down was especially bad, the Raiders allowed New York to convert seven of its first 12 third downs into a fresh set of plays.

Not being able to get off the field contributes to the defense getting worn down late in games. The Raiders allowed the Titans to drive 80 yards in six minutes to score a winning touchdown with 10 seconds to play. They let the Cowboys overcome a 21-7 deficit on Thanksgiving Day.

If games are not won and lost in the trenches, then surely they can be decided on down and distance.

Consider: Of the 24 combined third-down conversions the Raiders surrendered to the Titans, Cowboys and Jets in 44 chances, 16 of them come on third-and-5 or longer, 12 on third-and-7 or longer and a mind boggling five on third-and-10 or longer.

"Listen, I think it really boils down to those teams outexecuted us in those particular situations," said Raiders coach Dennis Allen. "That’s an area that we had made [improvements]. We didn’t start out the year playing great third-down defense. We went through a stretch in the middle of the year where we played pretty good and then ... where we haven’t been as good on third down.

"I think that’s the difference between being able to win these games and not and staying on the field a lot longer on defense. It’s been an area of emphasis and it’s going to continue to be an area of emphasis because we need to be able to get off the field on third down. When we do, we’ve played pretty good defense. When we haven’t, we’ve struggled."

Sounds simple enough. And really, the proof is in the stat sheet.

The last time the Raiders won a game, at the Houston Texans on Nov. 17, the Raiders limited the Texans to just 2-of-16 on third-down conversions, meaning, the defense was able to get off the field earlier in the game.

And as such, it was fresher down the stretch, when it kept the Texans out of the end zone in the final minutes to secure the 28-23 victory.

Sensing a pattern?

"Man, you’ve just got to stay focused and know what we’re doing when we’re out there on the field and make sure that we’re getting the calls in and guys understand what their jobs are before the ball is snapped," Houston said. "It’s just basically keying in and focusing in on what they’ve got to do."

Like getting off the field on third down.