⏩ K.C. at Raiders, 1 p.m.: Conley on ‘mission to be great.’
A little more than a minute remained before halftime last Sunday when the Ravens, poised at the Raiders’ 28-yard line, opted to take a shot at the end zone.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson lofted a throw down the sideline for Michael Crabtree in a one-on-one matchup with second-year cornerback Gareon Conley. Conley, running in step with Crabtree, turned his head near the 10-yard line, found the ball and tipped it toward safety Marcus Gilchrist for an interception.
It was the kind of play the Raiders might have envisioned when they used the 24th overall pick in the 2017 draft on Conley, but that has only begun to materialize more than a year later.
A persistent shin injury limited Conley to two games last season, against out-of-division teams. That has led this year’s coaching staff, including head coach Jon Gruden, to repeatedly refer to Conley as a rookie — a designation with which Conley himself doesn’t necessarily disagree.
“I mean, I only played two games last year,” Conley said. “I got the feel a little bit. But I’m getting more of a feel of how the league goes, how every offense works, how teams work.”
Conley has yet to line up against the Chiefs, who bring the league’s third-ranked passing offense to Oakland on Sunday, or dynamic receiver Tyreek Hill, one of the fastest players in the NFL.
Conley figures to be a key to the Raiders’ chances of stemming that attack. Through the first 12 weeks of his first full season, Conley, according to Pro Football Focus, ranks sixth out of 119 qualifying cornerbacks with a 66.1 passer rating when targeted in coverage.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said on a conference call during the week that Conley is “having a heck of a year.” Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Conley’s strides have largely come in his “technique and understanding of leverage and coverage.”
“Just understanding where the ball’s supposed to go based upon the coverage and kind of how the quarterback’s taught to look at it,” Guenther said. “He’s come a long way that way.”
Conley’s season hasn’t all gone smoothly. He injured his groin in spring workouts, then suffered a hip strain early in training camp. Conley returned to start Week 1 but Guenther said the injury continued to hamper Conley in one area: tackling.
“He struggled some in the beginning of the season,” Guenther said. “I think a lot of it had to do with his lower body strength just coming off the recovery. … Just coming into balance and being in a good football position when he tackles. He’s gotten better at that.”
In Week 2, Conley, playing off in coverage, couldn’t tackle Broncos receiver Tim Patrick on what became a 26-yard catch-and-run with 18 seconds left to set up the decisive field goal in a 20-19 Raiders loss. In Week 4, Conley was beaten and then stiff-armed by Browns receiver Antonio Callaway, who rumbled to the Raiders’ 1 on a 59-yard catch-and-run.
Perhaps in response, Conley was taken out late in the Browns game and played just 12 snaps the following weekend against the Chargers. Then, in Week 6 against Seattle, Conley dressed but did not play a single defensive snap. Asked during the week if he’d been given an explanation for the fluctuation, Conley said: “No. I just control what I can control.”
After the bye, though, Conley started in Week 8 and has remained atop the cornerback rotation with Daryl Worley. Conley cited tackling as one area he is focused on improving.
“Just making instinct plays, relying on my technique,” Conley said. “But tackling, I missed a couple big tackles this year. I can always get better in that. Get better at press coverage in general, just jamming guys. I can always get better, I feel like.”
The Raiders overhauled the cornerback position last offseason with the exception of Conley and have relied increasingly on a young group including Conley, Worley and rookie Nick Nelson. While the Raiders rank 15th in pass defense (they were 26th last season), Conley said he believes the cornerback group is a budding strength.
“I feel like we’ve all got the same mission to be great,” Conley said. “It’s just a common theme, so it brings us together more.”
Slowing the Chiefs’ potent offense, and a speedster like Hill, would be a start.
“It’ll test me and test how much our technique can prepare for it,” Conley said. “It’s going to be a great challenge. And I’m ready for it.”
Cornerback Gareon Conley has improved, but he still needs to work on tackling.