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Raiders' focus on turnovers pays off early

NAPA, Calif. (Aug. 16, 2006) -- Linebackers practice stripping the ball away from offensive players. Defensive backs tip passes to each other trying for interceptions. Backup quarterbacks even have purposely dropped snaps from center to give linemen the chance to practice recovering fumbles.

Turnovers -- both preventing and causing them -- have been a strong point of emphasis for Oakland Raiders coach Art Shell this preseason.

"I never had to work on turnovers so much during practice," defensive lineman Lance Johnstone said. "The first game showed you. I've never been on a team where we actually had a special part of practice where offense and defense is just working on turnovers. It's definitely going to help us out."

The results have been evident so far this preseason. The Raiders forced five turnovers in the preseason opener against Philadelphia and followed that with two more Monday against Minnesota, including recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff.

That's a far cry from last season, when Oakland forced only 19 turnovers in 16 games. The Raiders' five interceptions were the fewest by any team in a 16-game season.

"I hope we continue to do that," Shell said. "We just need to make sure we get them during the regular season when we open up in San Diego. They're working on it. It's a point of emphasis for us coming into training camp and those guys are really working hard on it. They love the turnover drill now. They get a kick out of it because they see results."

One reason for the lack of interceptions last year was inexperience in the secondary. When Charles Woodson went down with a season-ending injury in October, the secondary was left without an experienced leader and some of the young players admitted they were too tentative.

The inability to cause turnovers made it difficult for the defense to get off the field, but that could change this season.

Cornerback Fabian Washington, last year's first-round draft pick, already has one interception this preseason after getting none as a rookie, and plans to take more chances this season.

"That's how I played in college," Washington said. "I don't think it's gambling. I think it's taking an educated guess. You watch enough film to know what the offense is pretty much going to do, so now you have to take your shots.

"That was something that I definitely wasn't doing last year. ... If you look at Deion (Sanders), Champ (Bailey), Charles (Woodson), they take their shots. If they get beat, they get beat. But you have to take your shots."

Along with practicing creating turnovers each day, the Raiders have also put a greater emphasis on speed on defense.

Rookie Thomas Howard is starting at outside linebacker because of his speed, and Kirk Morrison has moved from the outside to the middle, where he should be able to roam from sideline to sideline.

First-round pick Michael Huff is expected to start at safety and use his speed and big hitting all over the field.

"You guys can see the speed out there on defense," Morrison said. "As a linebacker, it's a race for the tackles, because if you slip, there's going to be another guy on that play. That's the kind of competition that we have. That's not just for us as linebackers, it's for the whole defense. We've got speed all around, the D-line all the way up to the secondary. We just want to be able to get there, and make big plays, make interceptions, turnovers."

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