Raiders ready to show off improved run defense |

Raiders ready to show off improved run defense

Josh Dubow, The Associated Press

NAPA – The Oakland Raiders have spent plenty of time in training camp preaching the importance of being in the right spot to stop the run.

With the team doing almost no tackling in practice, the focus has been entirely filling the right gaps, making the correct calls and communicating as a defense. In the exhibition opener on Thursday night against Dallas, coach Tom Cable will get to see if the improvement he has seen in practice will carry over into games.

“I’ve certainly seen it get better,” Cable said. “We’re starting to squeeze things, have people overlapping gaps where we’re supposed to be. But we’ll find out starting Thursday. Dallas is a big, physical team, likes to run in it, too. So we’ll find out pretty quick.”

With Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice in the backfield, the Cowboys figure to have one of the best running games in the league. Then again, it hasn’t mattered much of late who was running the ball against the Raiders. Almost everybody has had success on the ground.

Since going to the Super Bowl following the 2002 season, Oakland has had the worst run defense in the NFL, allowing 141.7 yards per game on the ground and 122 rushing touchdowns. The Raiders have allowed a 100-yard rusher in more than half of their games the past three years, with journeymen backs such as Ron Dayne, Maurice Morris, Kolby Smith reaching the mark.

That led to a change at defensive coordinator this season, with John Marshall taking over for Rob Ryan. Marshall has said it wasn’t an issue of talent but of being in the right place at the right time.

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“I think a lot of times last year, sometimes you get frustrated when you see guys in their gaps and a run hits us here and a run hits us there and everyone’s trying to make the play instead of saying, ‘Hey, let’s trust what we’re doing and we can’t make every play, let’s make sure we’re in our gaps and the guy who is supposed to make that play needs to be there,”‘ middle linebacker Kirk Morrison said. “That’s why it’s a trust factor and why we trust and believe in what we’re doing.”

While the players believe in the new system, they know the true test comes when they can tackle in games.

“The biggest thing in practice right now is running to the ball,” linebacker Thomas Howard said. “I try to tell everyone, ‘Run to the ball, run to the ball.’ Thursday is going to be live so you will be running to the ball and making a tackle. So it will be good for us, for both teams.”

Most of the defense is back from last season, although there could be one big change. Morrison, who has led the team in tackles the past three seasons, is being pushed for the starting job at middle linebacker by Ricky Brown.

Cable did not say who would start there Thursday, although there’s a chance Brown could slide outside because of a foot injury to strongside linebacker Jon Alston.

Morrison, a staple on the defense since entering the league in 2005, has the second most tackles in the NFL since entering the league as a third-round draft pick out of San Diego State. He is using the challenge from Brown as motivation this season.

“The opportunity for me right now is still earning a linebacker position,” he said. “It’s keeping me hungry, keeping my focused, regardless of what they’re doing, it’s helping me right now so far focus on my position and take this training camp and elevate me as a football player. … I think that now I have to elevate this team, and elevate this run defense and make sure we’re stopping the run. I think more notice will come with that.”

NOTES: Second-round pick Mike Mitchell had his hamstring worked on late in practice. … Along with Alston, other Raiders who missed practice with injuries were QB Jeff Garcia (calf), DB Jason Horton (toe), S Michael Huff (ribs).