ALAMEDA — Ken Norton Jr. repeated it multiple times, seemingly as a vice to inject optimism into a defense that had little.
Asked over and over what it would take for Oakland’s defense to secure its first interception, the former Raiders’ defensive coordinator – and his players – stressed that interceptions come in bunches. They didn’t know when the first would arrive, but they stuck firm with the belief that when it did, more would follow in quick pursuit.
Now is the chance to speak their motto into existence, after a deflected ball nestled kindly on NaVorro Bowman’s chest while he lay flat on his back in the end zone last Sunday. Facing the 2-9 Giants, and Geno Smith at quarterback instead of Eli Manning, the Raiders (5-6) may get a couple chances to show that interceptions truly do come in bunches.
“Bow broke the curse for us, didn’t he?” veteran safety Reggie Nelson said. “We definitely would like more to come and that just comes with us preparing this week and doing the little things right like we did last week and just continue to get better each week, each day.”
As the Raiders’ historic interception drought carried on, to a NFL-record seven games, then eight, then nine, then 10, you had a feeling the first wouldn’t be just a routine pick. Sure enough, when Broncos’ quarterback Paxton Lynch rolled left and fired into traffic for tight end Virgil Green, the unconventional interception came.
Bowman broke up the pass, which ricocheted off Nelson while Bowman fell to his back. The ball fluttered down to the turf, but right into the linebacker’s grasp. He held onto the ball ever so tightly, assuring this one didn’t get away like a litany of others through the first 615 minutes and 51 seconds of game time this season.
As No. 53 jogged back to the sideline, ball still in hand, John Pagano made sure to get a piece in his first game as Oakland’s defensive play-caller.
“Oh, God. We celebrated. It was like the Holy Grail they brought walking over. It was outstanding,” Pagano said. “I wanted to put that ball on a pedestal. That’s a great effort play by No. 53. You can’t say enough of him filling in an A-gap, turning, running. The tight end was covered by Reggie. All of the sudden, he loops back inside, the quarterback throws it, but just the effort of 53, getting over there, hitting it, tipping it, Reggie keeping it alive and that ball being able to fall.
“That was a great ball. I touched it. I made sure I touched it. That thing was awesome."
Though Manning played anything but lights-out football through New York’s first 11 games, Smith hasn’t exactly played interception-free football in his career. In 868 career pass attempts, Smith has 36 interceptions and 28 touchdowns. Among the 50 active quarterbacks with the most career interceptions, only five have thrown more picks than touchdowns. That short list includes Chad Henne, Drew Stanton, Kellen Clemens, Matt Barkley and…Geno Smith.
In each of Smith’s three career games against the Raiders, he has thrown an interception. If anything, Oakland’s chances will more than likely be there on Sunday. But as the Raiders have shown this season (see: Karl Joseph’s routine interception-turned-Denver first-down catch), just because a ball should be picked by them doesn’t mean it will be.
“Geno, in particular, we saw him back in ’15 here when he came in and I think he had 40-plus throws in that game and completed a good number of them,” Raiders’ head coach Jack Del Rio said. “We know he’s very capable."
While Smith is capable of throwing for 265 yards and two touchdowns on 27-of-42 passing like that Week 8 tilt two seasons ago, he’s thrown multiple interceptions nine times in 34 career games.
The Raiders are hoping Sunday makes 10.