The transitional nature of this Oakland season has been reflected in its leadership on defense.
Before the season, the Raiders named three defensive captains: safety Reggie Nelson, defensive end Bruce Irvin and linebacker Derrick Johnson. Irvin was waived Nov. 3 and Johnson released Oct. 16. Though defensive lineman Frostee Rucker has taken up the designation, Nelson, the 12-year veteran, is the only original remaining.
And his situation, too, has evolved.
No Oakland defender played more snaps over the past two seasons than Nelson, but his percentage of snaps has decreased in each of his past six games, including 12 snaps Sunday against the Chargers. He also was inactive for the Raiders’ Week 8 game against the Colts, snapping a streak of 82 regular-season games played.
On Monday, Nelson was asked if that fluctuation has been difficult.
“It’s not difficult,” Nelson said. “I’m here to win, man. When your number’s called, you go out there and play, regardless. You ain’t got no control of how many snaps you play. We’re trying to win games. Whoever’s out there, you expect them to do their job and make plays.”
Nelson is not the only player who has ceded playing time recently as the Raiders have shuffled players in their secondary. Cornerback Rashaan Melvin was inactive for two games prior to Sunday and played just seven snaps in Week 6 against Seattle, but he was active Sunday and played 31 snaps against the Chargers.
Melvin’s playing time has dwindled as Daryl Worley, 23, and Gareon Conley, 23, have emerged as starters. Leon Hall, 33, the Raiders’ primary nickel cornerback for most of the first half, also has received decreasing snap counts of 37, 23 and 12 in the past three games. Nick Nelson, the Raiders’ fourth-round pick in April, made his debut in Week 8 against the Colts and played a personal-high 24 snaps Sunday.
“I think Conley and Worley, those are the two guys that started, I think you saw (Nick) Nelson emerge a little bit more as the nickel,” head coach Jon Gruden said of the cornerback group Monday. “We’re going to rotate Melvin in there — he’s a good player. And we’ll try to be smart about when we do it. At the same time, only two can play.”
Nelson has been giving way in recent weeks to Erik Harris and, against the Chargers, to 2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph. Nelson said changes are natural with the Raiders at 1-8, the NFL’s lone one-win team.
“The season’s not going the way it’s supposed to go,” Nelson said. “We’ve got a bunch of young guys that they drafted and want to get out there and play. That’s just part of the game, man, when things aren’t going good. You’re underneath the microscope and just got to do your job.”
The Raiders re-signed Nelson, 35, in free agency this spring as a familiar face to new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, with whom he spent six seasons in Cincinnati. The Raiders rank 27th in yards allowed per game, 30th in points allowed and last in yards allowed per play. Nelson indicated those numbers are not a reflection of the coaching staff.
“I think they do a good job of the game plan, to be honest with you,” Nelson said. “I mean, we’ve got to go out there on Sunday and execute the game plan. They work hard all week to put us in the best position to make plays. And we’ve just got to go out there and make them.
“I don’t think anyone in the locker room has lost confidence. I mean, they go out there and play hard each week, and that’s all they ask for. Go out there and play. We know what’s at stake, we ain’t going to make the playoffs. So you’ve got to go out there and play hard. You’re still being evaluated, so you’ve still got to go out there and go to work.”
Ealy let go: The Raiders announced Tuesday they waived defensive end Kony Ealy from the active roster and linebacker James Cowser from the practice squad. Ealy was on the roster for only one game and was inactive against the Chargers.