OAKLAND -- The Raiders opened Sunday's game with a big bang. First scrimmage play. Here came quarterback Terrelle Pryor. There went quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
"Obviously, we got off to a fast start," coach Dennis Allen said of the 93-yard touchdown run.
But then the real work started.
And most of the heavy lifting in the 21-18 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was done by the Raiders defense.
That is no misprint. Pryor, a first-year starter at quarterback, is brilliant but inconsistent. He produced just 35 yards of offense in Sunday's second half. So it is incumbent upon the Raiders defense that was justifiably maligned a year ago to be extremely non-maligned this year.
Against the Steelers, it was non-maligned just enough.
"I think the feeling with us," said safety Charles Woodson, "is that if the offense gets us 21 points, we should win the game."
This mantra, in a slightly different form, has indeed been preached by fiery defensive coordinator Jason Tarver since summer training camp. Tarver set the mission: He wanted the Raiders defense to allow 17 points or less per game. That should be good enough to produce a victory.
Sunday, the Raiders missed their target by one. Yet Tarver's basic concept remains correct. The Raiders now own a 3-4 won-lost record. They've allowed an average of 14.7 points in the victories and 26.5 points in the defeats.
"I think we're a good defense," Woodson said. "We still have a lot of room for improvement."
Quite properly, he didn't want to get too giddy about Sunday's result. But it was no small thing, what the Raiders defense accomplished -- even against a struggling Steelers team.
How about allowing just 35 rushing yards? How about picking off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger twice? And sacking him five times?
"That's a big deal," said Raiders linebacker Sio Moore of the sacks, two of which he accomplished. "And that's a big guy. When you think Ben's down, he's not down. You have to hold on for dear life a little bit."
Exactly. A year ago, the Raiders also defeated the Steelers here at O.co Coliseum. But with Carson Palmer playing quarterback for the home team, it was a 34-31 shootout game in which Roethlisberger completed 36 of 49 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns. He was sacked only once.
For the Raiders to win Sunday, that couldn't happen again. And it didn't. Roethlisberger completed 29 of 45 for 275 yards but threw for only one touchdown -- and had those two interceptions. In a nutshell, that is the true difference between the Raiders of 2012 and 2013. You might want to file that away for future reference.
How are they doing it? Some of it is personnel. Some of it is preparation. Most of it is execution.
The Raiders' decision last offseason to ditch some of the older and more cynical defenders has been well documented. They've been replaced by better-attitude guys. But it still comes down to the details that lead to big plays.
Want examples? It comes down to the way cornerback Michael Jenkins positioned himself perfectly to get his fourth-quarter interception. It comes down to the way Woodson remembered his video study and blew up an attempted Steelers screen pass by reading his keys and tackling Le'Veon Bell for a 2-yard loss. All of it mattered in a game where the Steelers made a late push but couldn't get over the hump.
"We are better in the secondary," Allen said after Sunday's game. "We do a better job of covering. We do a better job of keeping the ball in front of us. Those guys are doing a nice job of understanding what we're trying to ask them to do. It's allowed us to do some different things from a defensive standpoint. We can get a little more aggressive."
Allen also is not totally shocked that this is happening. As an NFL defensive assistant coach for 10 years, it was profoundly disappointing to him when the 2012 Raiders defense did such a good imitation of Jell-O pudding, at one point giving up 135 total points in three consecutive games.
In 2013, Allen wasn't certain that the younger and less heralded players the Raiders signed would be awesome every week. But he was certain they would try to be.
"I knew we had pros that wanted to come to work every day, that were going to be unselfish," Allen said. "I knew we didn't have a lot of big names. We probably wouldn't do very good in Hollywood. But I knew they were football players."
Sunday's performance definitely raised hopes for better things to come, especially with four losing teams as the next four games on the schedule. But fair warning: The Raiders were also 3-4 after seven games a year ago and proceeded to lose their next six games on the way to a 4-12 finish.
"We've still got to learn to finish better," Allen said. "When you get that type of lead, you've got to have that killer instinct."
Still, there was joy in the Raiders locker room late Sunday afternoon, always a welcome noise. There was also a defense that can do some heavy lifting, a welcome new feature.