The Oakland Raiders have a top-eleven defense.

Yeah, you read that correctly. Despite losing Kamerion Wimbley and Stanford Routt in the offseason, as well as three starters to injury this season, the Oakland Raiders defense is formidable. When you add in the fact that the unit’s head coach and coordinator are both rookies themselves, that the Raiders’ defense has not completely imploded is shocking.

So, go ahead, Raiders’ fans, soak it in. You’re one win and one Broncos loss away from sharing the lead in the AFC West. That’s probably not something you’d thought you’d be for a few years. But things are different, and one of the biggest reasons has been the play of Michael Huff–and Philip Wheeler, but I’ve talked about him already.

Huff has been something of an underachiever, though he did have an All-Pro season in 2010. As is the custom of Bay Area Huffs, Michael cashed in on his All-Pro 2010 by signing a rather lucrative four-year, $32 million contract extension just before the start of the 2011 season, which would turn out to be his worst season as professional. It wouldn’t be until week 6 of this season that Huff would effectively redeem himself.

2012 Rankings

Huff’s worst performance of the season, according to Pro Football Focus, occurred in week 3’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Coincidentally, this would also be Huff’s first game at cornerback since his rookie season. Huff’s move to cornerback was one of desperation, as the Raiders had lost both starters Shawntae Spencer and Ronald Bartell to injury. And so, optimism among the Raider Nation was understandably low.

Huff’s performance against the Steelers did nothing to dispel the creeping pessimism. As you can see below, Huff was overmatched and trepid, and the Steelers knew it.

Raiders vs Steelers

Play: Ben Roethlisberger pass incomplete deep right intended for Antonio Brown

Pre-snap Alignment

Huff caught looking into the backfield

 

Huff, as most safeties do, peeks into the backfield, instead of keeping with Antonio Brown. The result would have been an easy catch for Brown on the sideline had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger not bad a poor throw.

Play: Ben Roethlisberger pass complete short right to Antonio Brown for 12 yards (tackle by Philip Wheeler)

Pre-snap Alignment

Notice how much room Huff gives Brown on this play. You could fit every head coach since Jon Gruden in between him and Brown.

So roomy

The result of Huff’s lack of aggressiveness is an easy pitch and catch for Roethlisberger and Brown.

Though the Raiders came away victorious against the Steelers, Huff’s game was anything but a victory. In all, the Steelers targeted Huff 11 times, eight which went for completions totaling 80 yards and a touchdown. Not the auspicious start the Raiders had envisioned, I’m sure.

Since that game, however, Huff has been much improved. He has been targeted a total of 25 times and has allowed only 10 completions for 120 yards and a touchdown. He’s allowed a total of two yards over the past two games. Impressive.

Though not his best, the Atlanta game is indicative of his improvement in both man and zone coverage.

Raiders vs Atlanta

Play: Matt Ryan pass incomplete deep middle intended for Julio Jones is intercepted by Michael Huff atOAK-2.

Pre-snap Alignment

As you can see, Huff is playing zone coverage. Well, it’s that, or he’s covering a ghost receiver. Could be either, but we’ll pretend it’s zone. One the snap, Huff will drop roughly 10-yards.

Bad video quality, great play quality

Huff is likely noticing two things here: his zone is empty and quarterback Matt Ryan is oggling Julio Jones down field. In response to this, Huff retreats to the endzone where he is able to cut off Ryan’s pass.

What impressed me most about this play was how quickly Huff analyzed the situation and responded to it. If he were half a second slower, Jones walks into the endzone untouched. But, Huff’s reflexes, choice of angle, and ball skills proved superior.

Play: Matt Ryan pass complete deep right to Roddy White for 31 yards (tackle by Michael Huff).

Pre-snap Alignment

Huff lines up one-on-one with Roddy White. Notice that despite White’s speed, Huff doesn’t give him the same cushion that he had given Brown.

Again: bad quality, great coverage

Huff stays stride-for-stride with White on the flag route.  Ultimately, however, White ends up with a catch because Ryan makes a great throw, and Huff can’t turnaround quick enough to make a play.

 

Huff and the Raiders face a skilled passing offense this week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It is likely that we’ll see Huff shadow Vincent Jackson, who ESPN’s KC Joyner, also known as the Football Scientist, believes is one of the best receivers in the league. It’ll be a true test of how much Huff has progressed at cornerback.