ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) -Thomas Howard has his Deion Sanders-style high step to the end zone down pat, going nearly the final 40 yards of a 66-yard return that way last week against San Diego.
``I'm still trying to look to the NFL to see what's the longest high step to the end zone,'' Howard said. ``I think I might have broken it or maybe I'm second to Deion, who knows.''
His celebration once he gets to the end zone still needs a little work to reach Prime Time level as Howard and fellow Oakland Raiders linebacker Kirk Morrison didn't seem to know whether they should chest bump or high-five after Howard's latest touchdown.
That's one of the few aspects of Howard's game that may be lacking in just his second year in the NFL.
Through six games this season, Howard has used his speed to record has 31 tackles, one sack, six passes defensed and is tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions. He has returned two of those interceptions for scores, including the one last week against the Chargers.
``The thing that's so impressive about him to me is his speed,'' San Diego running back LaDanian Tomlinson said. ``At linebacker, the guy just can run and get to the ball. He makes plays. He can get back, he can pick the football, he can cover guys. He's really turning into one of their best playmakers on defense. If he keeps it up like this he's going to be going to the Pro Bowl.''
Howard credits much of his success to the veteran leadership on Oakland's defense of players like Warren Sapp and Derrick Burgess, who make sure that he doesn't get overconfident.
``In the locker room here that I play for here they just keep me humble,'' Howard said. ``I have to go out there and do it again every week.''
Howard is closing in on some historic marks for linebackers. He is already halfway to Stan White's mark of eight interceptions for Baltimore in 1975 for the most by a linebacker since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. He needs one more return for a touchdown to tie Derrick Brooks record set in 2002 when he helped lead Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl.
Coming out of Texas El-Paso, Howard was considered by draft experts to be an outstanding athlete who lacked the instincts necessary to be a star player. But he was able to step in and start 15 games as a rookie, recording 110 tackles and improving each week as the season went on.
Howard said he heard about the criticisms from friends and family members, but kept his focus on preparing for the draft where he was taken in the second round by Oakland.
``I didn't really buy into it too much. They have a job they have to go out there and do their job,'' he said. ``As far as me, I have to go out there after being drafted by the Raiders, I have to come out here and execute my defense and try to get better week in and week out to become a better player.''
Howard learned the game from his father, who played nine seasons in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs and the St. Louis Cardinals. Thomas Howard Sr. will put his Chiefs hat away this week and come to the game dressed in Silver and Black watching the son he groomed from a young age.
``With him being a former player you'd watch the game from his eyes,'' Howard Jr. said. ``When I was young instead of it just being a second down it was a get-back-on-track down. He was saying those type of things. 'Watch out for the screen, watch out for the draw.' Little stuff like that.''
Howard's play has been one of the few bright spots for a Raiders defense that has struggled to stop opponents all season. Oakland (2-3) is allowing 5.6 yards per carry and has only seven sacks in five games.
The interceptions by Howard and three more by Morrison have kept Oakland in games as the rest of the defense has struggled.
``One person always said they come in bunches and they've definitely been coming to me,'' Morrison said. ``I think that we're just taking over the middle right now and try to take away that part of the field for our opposing offenses.''
With star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha often locking down one side of the field, opposing quarterbacks have been trying to take advantage of the middle and the flat against the Raiders. That's where Howard and Morrison have been making their big plays.
``They're ball hawks. They've got great hands,'' Kansas City quarterback Damon Huard said. ``They got a number of picks this year. They fly around and they do such a great job of dropping back and getting into coverage. They're aware of where people are. It's a great group and, certainly, as a quarterback you got to be aware of them.''

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