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MIKE DOWNEY

A Single Hit Propels Raiders' Biekert to Top of the Charts

October 16, 1994|MIKE DOWNEY

On an autumn day in Massachusetts, an entire football season was on the line last weekend for the Raiders, and by on the line, what we mean is inches from it. There stood the Raiders, a length of a football away from becoming the biggest busts in the league, from being a 1-4 team that had actually fancied itself a Super Bowl contender, har-har-hardy-har-har.

Stacked together in a human pyramid, they barricaded the middle of the field as best they could. The New England Patriots had bulled the ball to within centimeters of the goal. It was getting late in the afternoon, the Raiders were leading by only four points and they kept giving the Patriots extra chances, committing penalties about as foolish as football players can commit.

On third down, New England needed only to budge the ball three feet. Then two feet, after an encroachment rap against Anthony Smith. Then one foot, after a false start by Nolan Harrison. There seemed to be no way that the Raiders would be able to prevent some Patriot from falling face forward into pay dirt, particularly if lanky Drew Bledsoe called a quarterback sneak.

Luckily, Greg Biekert found a way.

Sometimes, a single thing can wake up a football team. One big smack. Somebody pops somebody. That was the kind of tackle made by Biekert, the second-year player from Colorado who has taken over as the Raiders' middle linebacker, in the 21-17 triumph last Sunday that kept this team from total collapse as it headed into today's game at Miami.

Biekert claims, "All I did was guess where the guy was going and get there before he did."

No, he did more. With the sort of alert play that made him the leading tackler three years running for the 1991 national champion Colorado Buffaloes--once against Illinois, he personally accounted for 20 tackles and a safety--Biekert spared the Raiders from a wasted 3,000-mile trip. He did exactly what Coach Art Shell had been begging each of his players to do: "Stop waiting for somebody else to make a big play! You make one!"

The Patriots, for reasons maybe Bill Parcells can explain, handed off the football rather than having Bledsoe plunge forward. After twice trying Marion Butts and twice being butted backward, this time the quarterback gave the ball to Kevin Turner, who propelled himself like a man on a trampoline. Turner was picking up altitude when he bumped into Biekert.

Repelled once, Turner made a second lunge toward the end zone. It could have been decisive, since the so-called "invisible plane" that represents the goal line had already been broken once in this contest, by a New England receiver who was given a touchdown. (If "breaking the plane" is not the No. 1 most maddening rule in sports, it is no worse than second most.)

When Turner stretched forward, he came down atop his own blocker, Butts. The ball grazed Butts' helmet, squirting from Turner's grasp. Patrick Bates retrieved it and the game was L.A.'s.

It was about time somebody from the Raiders had put a smack on somebody. Once famed for their prowess, the Raider defenders had done nothing noteworthy all season. They had been unusually subdued and humiliated at San Francisco, doubly humiliated by Seattle and careless against San Diego. Worst of all, their supposedly strong defensive line had been unimpressive, continually making mistakes of the sort Smith and Harrison made last week.

Generally speaking, the Raiders' biggest weakness has been at linebacker. Time and again, they have heard it said that their linebacking was among the worst in the NFL.

At camp the other day, owner Al Davis was speculating about a couple of young linebackers who hadn't yet made an impact, but soon might. Rob Holmberg. James Folston. Kids with a lot of speed and desire.

The subject had come up because the Raiders, who had better get to Dan Marino today in Miami if they intend to win again, already have turned to a couple of fresh linebackers in an attempt to pump up their defense. Not only is Biekert occupying the middle, making use of things he learned from Joe Kelly last season, but starting beside him now is Rob Fredrickson, the rookie from Michigan State.

"What did Rob make--14 tackles last week?" Biekert asked. "He's coming on strong."

Maybe so, but it is Biekert whose presence seems to be strengthening the Raider defense by taking pressure off the down linemen. He did the same thing for Colorado, making more solo tackles than any Buffalo player before. But when the Raiders drafted the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder from Longmont, Colo., in the seventh round in 1993, they hardly expected him to become their starting middle linebacker.

Biekert enjoys his new status. Upon returning home a few weeks ago for the Denver game, he said, "I did a radio interview with a guy who kept talking about my college years. I told him, 'I guess you've only got two subjects to talk about these days--Buffs and ex-Buffs.' Because nobody's talking about the Broncos there right now."

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