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Del Rio wants major improvement in Raiders' defense
One day after Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio dodged a question about staff changes in the wake of the Denver Broncos dumping offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, the axe fell.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., the man Del Rio hired to run his team's defense upon his hiring in 2015, was fired. John Pagano, who came on this past offseason as assistant head coach and whose job was working with the defensive secondary, was promoted.
When Del Rio addressed it for the first time with the local media, he talked of his desire for the defense to play "fast" and trust the process. And while he said he expects Pagano to move ahead as defensive coordinator next year, he hinted more changes could be in store if the poor play continues.
"I know one thing. Nobody should feel comfortable because what I've been watching is not enough," Del Rio said. "No one should feel comfortable."
Norton was a first-time coordinator. Pagano was defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers from 2012 through 2016 until he was allowed to walk following the hiring of Anthony Lynn as head coach.
A little more than a year ago, the Raiders and Chargers were a pair of 6-2 teams fighting for division supremacy. When they play in Oakland on Sunday, they're instead fighting for relevancy in the playoff race.
The Raiders will have Pagano in charge of the defense while the Broncos will have deposed Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave calling plays. Musgrave replaced McCoy after the Broncos lost their sixth straight game.
Free safety Reggie Nelson, one of the Raiders' defensive co-captains, is in his 11th season but has never undergone a coordinator change during the season.
"I have not been a part of anything like this before," Nelson said. "Unfortunately, in this business, with the production on defense, we haven't been playing well. So everybody has their hand in it and we've got to just come out and play because it's going to keep trickling down. We've still got a job to do."
Two things got Norton fired not enough takeaways and an inability to defend against the pass.
The Raiders have gone 10 games without an interception, the longest stretch to open a season in NFL history. They have six fumble recoveries. A season after tying for the NFL lead at plus-16 in turnover margin, the Raiders are tied for 29th at minus-9.
The lack of takeaways has resulted in a lack of short-field drives for the offense. The Raiders started 20 drives at the opponent's 40-yard line or closer last season and have four such drives this year and none since Week 3.
The pass defense has been historically bad. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 72.3 percent of their passes with 17 touchdowns and a passer rating of 113.3 thanks in large part to the zero interceptions.
The all-time record for career passer rating is 104.8 by Aaron Rodgers; the record for completion percentage is Drew Brees at 66.8 percent.
So to suggest the Raiders have had issues defending the pass would be an understatement.
And the man they elevated, Pagano, was hired with the mission of improving the communication and overall play of the defensive secondary.
While Norton took the fall, Nelson said everybody felt the sting.
"The axe came down on everybody," Nelson said. "Everybody felt it in this building. We love Norton, regardless. Unfortunately, the production wasn't to a high standard this year and it's a production league. He's not playing, we are."
Cornerback David Amerson, out for the last three games with a foot injury, is having a hard time wrapping his brain around the Raiders' inability to get interceptions and excel in terms of turnover ratio.
"I can't explain how we haven't been able to create turnovers or do some of the things we did last year," Amerson said. "The one area we needed to keep our high standard or go past was turnovers and we haven't been able to do that so far. We've got to find a way if we want to keep playing in January."
SERIES HISTORY: 115th regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series, 61-51-2. Broncos won 16-10 in Week 4, holding the Raiders to 254 yards in total offense, 2-for-12 on third-down conversions and 24 yards rushing. The Raiders' only offense to speak of was a 64-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr to Johnny Holton. In the last game at the Coliseum, the Raiders won 30-20 against the defending Super Bowl champs to improve to 7-2 in what might have been the signature win under Jack Del Rio. The Raiders rushed for 218 yards on 43 carries and three touchdowns, with Latavius Murray gaining 114 yards on 20 carries.