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Jackson Giving Battered Raiders a Lift : Running Back Provides an Edge Against Saints

Times Staff Writer

A new Bo game?

With spirits soaring, the Raiders arrived. What could have made the Raiders so bubbly, heading into the frenzied Superdome to face a Saint team that was 12-3 last season and is 6-1 now, in a game in which the Raiders are as big an underdog--6 points--as they have been all season?

Try these:

--The 3-4 Raiders are just a game behind the division-leading Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.

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--The Raiders are 3-0 in the AFC West and like their chances if they should tie for the division title.

--The Raider running game has just climbed off a plane from Alabama. It’s Bo Jackson, who ran for 70 yards last week in Kansas City, 4 days after joining the team. Heaven knows what he can do with a week and a half.

Is that enough?

Is that a little thin?

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After all, defensive end Howie Long is still out; quarterback Jay Schroeder is still learning on the job; the latest version of the offensive line has been together 3 games, and half the starting secondary is still missing. Not to mention sidelined tight end Todd Christensen; running back Marcus Allen, who is playing with a broken wrist, and the dented-up receivers: Willie Gault, who hasn’t caught a pass in 2 games, and Tim Brown, who has a sore knee.

It could be argued that any demand that this team fight its way back into contention this season is premature, because it is coming from so far down--5-10 last season--and was assembled so late.

However, Al Davis does not feel that way. He has never had Raider teams endure consecutive sub-.500 seasons, and he is keeping the heat on. His team has come for more than character building.

It has been 3 seasons since these teams met, and the world has turned over. The Raiders (see above) are struggling, the Saints are a bona fide Super Bowl contender.

Or are they?

“I don’t know how good we are or how bad we are,” said Coach Jim Mora, the one-man reason for the turnaround.

“We haven’t dominated anybody. We haven’t played very many teams with winning records. Only two teams, San Francisco and Seattle, and we lost to the 49ers.

“Everybody says we’re not playing up to our ability. I think what you see is what we are.”

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Of course, Mora is known to be a little on the pessimistic side. A year ago, after his team had lost a 26-24 heartbreaker here to the 49ers, Mora swore loudly that the Saints weren’t yet ready to play with the big guys.

Since then, they have won 15 of 16 regular-season games and gone 8-0 on the road, with victories at San Francisco, Anaheim, Cincinnati and Seattle.

Isn’t this what is known as poor-mouthing?

“I’m telling you the truth,” Mora said, laughing. “I’m not saying we’re a bad football team, but look at our scores.”

He is telling the truth, or one side of it.

On one hand, his team is kind of a look-alike for Chuck Knox’s Seahawks. The Saints have rebuilt with a solid, if unspectacular, defense, a conservative, ground-oriented offense and great special teams. They have few superstars but a lot of players.

On the other hand, they are down in a lot of ways from last season: from the league’s top turnover edge to 13th; from the 4th-best overall defense to 12th; from the 3rd-best rushing defense to 13th; from the 3rd-best rushing offense to 8th.

The special teams have had trouble living up to their ’87 miracles. When they blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown last week at Seattle, special teams coach Joe Marciano was so happy that he high-fived quarterback Bobby Hebert--and stabbed him in the throwing hand with the pen he forgot he was holding.

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However . . .

All this hardly qualifies the Saints as a bad team. You might never have heard of most of these guys, but you will.

Take the defense. The front three are as anonymous as that Dodger lineup, and the secondary starts backpedaling when the national anthem is sung, but the linebackers are terrific. One inside linebacker, Vaughan (Meat) Johnson, a United States Football League refugee whom Mora recommended, is considered to be the second coming of Harry Carson. The outside guys, Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, may be the best tandem west of Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks.

The offense?

Well, in 15 games, no Saint has run for 100 yards, but they still have the league’s 8th-best running game. Dalton Hilliard and Rueben Mayes split the halfback position last season and gained 1,425 yards. No. 1 pick Craig (Ironhead) Heyward, the 253-pound blimp from Pitt, has become a monster blocker, which was only a mild surprise, because he certainly had the necessary bulk. Last week at Seattle, he also gained 63 yards in 9 carries.

Hebert, once a USFL mad bomber, has been harnessed to the short-pass attack and has risen from 14th in the quarterback ratings last season to 5th this season.

The Saints are a load, and today it goes on the backs of those ambitious Raiders.

Raider Notes

Saint to watch (out for): Morten Andersen is 52 for 53 in field goal attempts inside 30 yards in his 7-year career, 12 for 24 outside 50, has made 80% overall. . . . Pressure Bobby Hebert? Hardly. The Saints have given up only 9 sacks so far.


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