HENDERSON, Nev. (AP) — It took some time, but the Las Vegas Raiders have finally become a bona fide threat on the defensive front since trading star linebacker Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears just nine days before the start of the 2018 season.
Defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue spearhead a defensive unit that ranks eighth in the league with 45 quarterback pressures.
This week their worlds collide as the Raiders (3-1) will look to respond from their first loss of the season, Monday’s 28-14 defeat at the Los Angeles Chargers, when they host Mack and the Chicago Bears (2-2) on Sunday.
“We just got to get back on the horse and get ready for the Bears because they are coming off a big win and they need this just like we do,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said.
It not only marks the first time either team will host one another on American soil since the blockbuster trade that sent Mack, a second-round pick and a conditional pick to the Bears in exchange for two first-round picks, a sixth-round pick in 2019 and a third-round pick in 2020. It’s also the first time Chicago rookie quarterback Justin Fields will take the field since officially being made the team’s starter by coach Matt Nagy.
“He’s a young, athletic kid, he’s got a good arm, he was a first-round pick for a reason,” Crosby said. “We’re just getting ready and looking forward to the challenge. It’s all about us no matter who we’re playing, to be honest. It starts with us. It starts with our get-off, getting after the quarterback consistently, stopping the run, and then feasting. That’s what we got to do, no matter who the opponent is. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
In their first three years after dealing Mack, the Raiders ranked last in sacks (66) and 31st in takeaways (47). Meanwhile, Mack’s 30 sacks over the past three seasons are 45% of the Raiders’ tally. In his three seasons with the Bears, Mack has 144 tackles, 30 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, and five forced fumbles.
But this is an entirely different Bears offense and a much-improved Las Vegas defense since the teams traveled to London in 2019, when the Raiders won 24-21.
Crosby has been a relentless pursuit rusher off the edge this season and ranks first with 30 pressures, per Pro Football Focus, while Ngakoue is tied for ninth with 18.
“I know how hard he works, and I know how hard I work myself,” Ngakoue said. “When you put those two things together, you got two guys that have nothing but tremendous respect for each other, success is bound to happen. This is a great scheme, the scheme that we’re running. We have the right guys to fill it up at all levels.”
Ngakoue credited defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli for the unit’s drastic improvement, which is expected to be tested by Chicago’s young gunslinger.
Fields, who replaces veteran Andy Dalton, completed 11 of 17 passes for 209 yards in a 24-14 win over the Detroit Lions, and has completed 25 of 52 for 347 yards this season.
Bradley said the biggest takeaway from Chicago’s roughly 15 explosive plays on the year was that seven came last week with Fields under center, revealing how dangerous he can be in stretching the field.
“He’s a special talent,” Ngakoue said. “It’s any given Sunday. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rookie, fifth-year guy, it doesn’t matter. We gotta have the same approach, same game plan, the same intensity.”
And while the athletic quarterback can make things happen with his legs, moving and throwing downfield on the run, he’s also been sacked 12 times.
“I’ve got to be a great run stopper, I’ve got to be a great pass rusher – that’s what I try to be every day,” Crosby said. “If I know I’m doing that, and Jonathan Hankins is eliminating things in the run game, and Yannick is cross-chopping and getting home, if everyone’s doing their job and trusting each other, we’re going to be fine.”
NOTES: RB Josh Jacobs (ankle) and T Kolton Miller were full participants in practice Thursday after both saw limited action Wednesday. CB Damon Arnette (groin), RB Peyton Barber (toe), TE Derek Carrier (pectoral), and CB Trayvon Mullen (toe) did not participate in practice for a second straight day.
More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL