Jeff Heath started at free safety for the first time this season on Sunday against the Chiefs. Many Raiders’ fans are left wishing he would have taken over at his more natural position of strong safety after the 35-31 loss.
Maybe then Kansas City’s game-winning touchdown pass from Patrick Mahomes to Travis Kelce could have been prevented. Strong safety Johnathan Abram, playing next to Heath, has emerged as the scapegoat for the loss after he retreated from his zone to leave Kelce wide open on the play — at least among the fanbase and media.
Not the team.
“I’m not going to single out any player in any press conference,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said Monday when asked about Abram. “We lost that game yesterday because we didn’t get it done. We all have to focus better. We all have to play better. Certainly, we all have to coach better. That’s about all I’ll say about that.”
Regardless of whether Abram deserves all the criticism that has come his way in wake of the loss, there’s no getting around the fact that he erred in what ended up the deciding play of the game. Abram appeared to be drawn away from his assignment when Mahomes scrambled out of the pocket, presumably seeking to hit the quarterback in the open field.
It was the latest, and biggest, example of the season-long battle between Abram and his own aggressive instincts. The Raiders drafted the 6-foot, 205-pound hard-hitter to be “an alpha dog on the back end who was going to make the middle of the field a scary place,” and in that aim, he’s mostly excelled.
The problems have come when he’s been asked to play more disciplined football. He’s shown strides in the right direction at times, particularly after a troublesome performance against the Patriots when coaches emphasized slowing down, but old habits die hard — especially for a virtual rookie.
Largely because of his visibility as a first-round draft pick in 2019 and outsized personality, it’s sometimes hard to remember that this is Abram’s first full professional season after he tore his labrum in Week 1 of last year. The inexperience is part of the reason for the Raiders’ patience with him, which doesn’t seem to be wearing thin going into Sunday's Week 12 game at Atlanta.
No defensive players or coaches have spoken to the media since the Chiefs’ loss. Abram did post on Twitter on Monday, however, with the hash tag “on to the next one.”
“Not all storms come to disrupt your life,” he wrote. “Some come to clear your path.”
Giving up the touchdown to Kelce wasn’t Abram’s only mistake on Sunday. He also forced the Raiders to burn a timeout early when he scooped a loose ball and jogged it nearly 100 yards down to the opposing end zone despite the play being whistled dead.
Then, with Las Vegas leading 24-21 early in the fourth quarter, he picked up an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty to give Kansas City 15 extra yards at the end of a Tyreek Hill catch. Abram leads Raiders’ players with 53 penalty yards on five flags.
Las Vegas ranks ninth in the NFL in committing 5.4 penalties per game, something Gruden more openly condemns.
“We’ve got to do a better job eliminating the defensive penalties and we’ve got to improve our down-to-down discipline, and that will be a big assessment we make with our players,” he said.
Abram did some positive things against the Chiefs, too. He led the team in tackles with 10, and though such totals can be misleading, it was largely because of the way he fulfilled his duty to patrol the middle of the field and punish opponents who dare come across it.
His biggest tackle came right before his biggest gaffe when he sped in to stop Darrel Williams right after a catch in-bounds, forcing Kansas City to use a timeout. Abram also had no missed tackles, according to Pro Football Reference.
That's been another area that has ailed him throughout the year. Abram has the second-highest missed tackle percentage (12.3%) in the Las Vegas secondary.
Heath had been behind him on the depth chart all year before switching positions on Sunday despite having been the more efficient player. Heath’s Pro Football Focus grade (77.5) is more than double Abram’s mark (37.6) on the season.
Unfortunately for those who see numbers like that and call for a reduced role from Abram, the playing time is unlikely to change. The Raiders are committed to their young player and willing to endure the ups and downs, the big hits and blown coverages, that come with it.
They’re not pinning the Chiefs' loss on Abram; they’re pinning it on the whole team.
“We didn’t play well enough on defense,” Gruden said. “We can make a lot of excuses, and legitimate excuses for that. We were missing some key players. We have a young secondary. We have guys that didn’t practice. We’re playing the world champions off a bye week. We can make all kind of excuses. We, me included, gave up 36 first downs and we didn’t get it done.”