ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver has a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Santa Clara and a master’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from UCLA.
So go ahead, call him a mad professor, of sorts, as you imagine the second-year coordinator in a lab within the walls of 1220 Harbor Bay Parkway with a beaker in each hand and electricity flashing about as he concocts a scheme to confuse the next quarterback.
“Yeah, a lab coat, glasses, pens in his pocket,” laughed veteran free safety Charles Woodson. “I can see the whole thing.
“It’s been fun for me playing under him, and I know we can get better with him.”
Tarver has remade the Raiders’ defense -- after the broken leg suffered by strong safety Tyvon Branch in Week 2, Oakland has just one returning starter on defense in defensive end Lamarr Houston, and he switched from the left to the right side -- in his own image.
The defense is as quick and excitable as it is unpredictable and successful. Indeed, it is the strength of the team as it enters the bye week with a 2-4 record that could just as easily be 4-2 … or better with a break here or there.
“You turn bad into good, good into great,” Tarver said this week. “You guys have heard that from me before and that’s what we’re trying to do. The last three weeks it’s turned closer to good, but we’ve got to turn it into great.”
Two weeks ago, the Raiders flummoxed San Diego’s Philip Rivers in a game the Raiders led 17-0 at halftime and won 27-17.
Last week, Alex Smith, considered one of the smartest signal-callers in the league, admitted the Raiders confused him at times in Kansas City’s eventual 24-7 victory.
“They did a great job mixing it up,” said Smith, who was sacked three times in the first quarter.
“I felt like we never could get a read on it, on what they were doing … they just kept rolling through the calls and mixing it. They did a great job. They caught us off guard a few times. They caught me off guard.”
Yet Raiders players say the defense has not been overhauled to the liking of a biochemist. Rather, it’s been simplified.
“He’s able to take something that might seem complicated, break it down and make it as simple as you can for the players,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said of Tarver. “I think us as coaches, sometimes we over-coach. When you over-coach, you tend to slow your players down. You want to try to make it as simple as possible so that your players can play fast.”
Six games in, the Raiders have the No. 13-ranked defense in the NFL, No. 10 against the run. They are also on pace for 43 sacks this season after having 25 in 2012.
“I’m not surprised at how well we’ve played defensively,” Woodson said. “I thought, seeing this team in minicamp and then in training camp, the way that we prepared, I thought we’d be a good defense, I really did. And I think we’re playing well but again, there’s those moments in games where we can get out of situations, and help our team out.
“That’s the difference between being a good defense and being a great defense.”
The mad scientist in Tarver is not afraid to dial up an exotic blitz in any situation, so long as it’s, well, smart.
Then how is Oakland able to confuse a scholarly quarterback like Smith when there’s so much subterfuge that is just that? Window dressing?
“It’s categories,” Tarver said. “We can make the look look totally different by only switching two or three guys and what they do. ‘Hey guys, you all know this call, right? Well, you two guys are going to switch.’ So now, to an offense, it looks totally different because somebody is blitzing and somebody is dropping when it’s the same call to everybody else.
“That’s how we function -- we put things in categories and that’s how we can learn them. That’s where we want to go. We’re scratching the surface of where this thing can go, and that’s being multiple but still simple for us, but it looks like a lot more than it is to them.”
Of course, there is still the rogue quarterback who cares little for what smoke and mirrors the Raiders bring. Guy by the name of Peyton Manning, who torched the Raiders for 374 yards on 32-of-37 passing with three touchdowns in Denver’s 37-21 victory on Sept. 23.
No surprise then that that was the only game the Raiders were not in position to win.
Going forward, though, the Raiders’ next seven opponents have a combined record of 15-26, and none of them has a winning record.
Until the offense finds consistency and special teams brings explosive results, the Raiders’ lot will fall on the defense, and the guy who could be working in a lab will keep working on his concoctions.
Beakers -- not to be confused with former linebacker Greg Biekert -- or no beakers, it’s about that fine line between teaching and over-coaching.
“You don’t want to take the feel away from a football player,” Tarver said. “It’s different for every player. It’s different at every level and we really try to go in the room and figure out what the guys need to help them make plays because that’s why we’re here -- to help these guys make plays.”