NAPA, Calif. (AP) -Terdell Sands was supposed to be the anchor of the Oakland Raiders run defense a year ago, a gigantic tackle expected to stuff holes in the middle of the field and disrupt the opposition.
Instead, Sands was one of the biggest problems on a defense that was unable to stop the run all season. Sands was out of shape and too often out of position leading to countless big plays that helped doom the Raiders all season.
After reviewing his play last season, Sands acknowledges that he must do much better this season in order to validate the $17 million, four-year contract the Raiders gave him a year ago and reverse five years of losing in Oakland.
``I take it all, because they look for me to be a big part of it,'' Sands said. ``I wasn't mentally in it, so I did lose some gap responsibility and all my true effort wasn't out there. I thought I was. But when I watch film, it really wasn't like I was the year before. So I take responsibility and put it on myself.''
Sands has an explanation for his poor play even if he's not making excuses. His mother died in February 2007 and he spent more time mourning than he did preparing for the season.
He was not a regular participant in offseason workouts, missing lots of time in the spring and then arrived at training camp out of shape. He never was able to catch up and struggled all season long.
``It put me behind a big rock, because I wasn't doing cardio like I should and conditioning, so I kind of got behind in my workouts and stuff,'' he said. ``So it was a big part of last year.''
Sands, who is listed at 6-foot-7, 335 pounds but appears even heavier, has lost weight this season but wouldn't say how much or what he weighs currently.
Coach Lane Kiffin has seen improvement but is still concerned about Sands' conditioning, especially after a left knee injury that has limited Sands' practice time.
``Terdell two years ago, before I was here, had a good year and did some really good things and his weight was down and he was going the right direction and he was rewarded with a big contract,'' Kiffin said. ``Last year he went through some family issues and didn't deal with them very well and his weight went as high as it has ever been and he did not have a very good year at all.''
Sands began his offseason training much earlier this year and was a regular participant in sessions at the team's training facility with new strength and conditioning coach Brad Roll this spring.
Sands has altered his diet and says he has noticed the difference on the field as he can get to the ball quicker than he did a year ago. Kiffin has also noticed a marked difference in Sands' play.
``His weight is down as low as it's been since I've been here, not as low as it was two years ago,'' Kiffin said. ``But he has a good bounce to his step and he's practicing harder and I just think he feels healthier. He has some issues in his family behind him, and he's moving forward and he's focused on football. We need him to help because he's a dominant run player at times. If we could get him to ever do that at a consistent level it would be an exciting thing.''
The Raiders allowed a league-worst 4.8 yards per carry last season, as teams easily ran through big holes all year long. Oakland allowed 18 runs of 20 or more yards last season, tied with Denver for most in the NFL.
Kiffin is counting on better tackling at safety with the addition of free agent Gibril Wilson to improve that this season. But it all starts with improved play from defensive tackles Sands and Tommy Kelly on the inside.
With no tackling at training camp, it's too early to tell how much improvement there has been. The first test comes Friday night in the exhibition opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
``We've got to be real sound inside and we've got a ways to go,'' Kiffin said.

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