ALAMEDA . (AP) — When he hit the free agent market in the offseason, Philip Wheeler didn't garner anywhere near the attention his former quarterback with the Indianapolis Colts did.
While the pursuit of Peyton Manning turned into a national soap opera, Wheeler flew under the radar and quietly signed with Oakland (tied for No. 23 in the AP Pro32). So far it's been one of the best moves made by first-year general manager Reggie McKenzie.
Wheeler had five tackles last week against Detroit and has been the Raiders' most productive linebacker in the preseason in a defense similar to the one he played in college.
"He's actually provided a little bit more than what I would have anticipated after studying him in Indianapolis," Oakland coach Dennis Allen said. "But we're asking him to do a lot of things they didn't ask him to do there."
Allen, the Raiders' first defensive-minded coach since John Madden, and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver scrapped the schemes favored by late owner Al Davis and replaced them with a blitz-heavy concept featuring a variety of coverages in the secondary.
It's a dramatic but welcomed change from what Wheeler did in Indianapolis, where the defense's main job was to protect leads built by the Manning-led offense.
There wasn't much need to blitz, so the Colts kept the concepts basically vanilla.
"I'm doing more than what I was doing with the Colts," Wheeler said Monday. "We were just trying to hold the lead with Peyton at quarterback. This defense is an attacking, aggressive defense. It's made for everybody to be able to hang loose and make plays."
Oakland is trying to improve a unit that was among the NFL's worst in numerous categories in 2011. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Wheeler is a key part of that process.
His showing in the preseason not only solidified Wheeler's status as a starter, it's also provided a bright spot on a unit facing some serious questions heading into the regular season.
Middle linebacker Rolando McClain is awaiting a jury trial in Alabama after appealing his conviction on assault and gun charges. Aaron Curry, penciled in to be the Raiders other outside linebacker opposite Wheeler, has been sidelined all training camp after undergoing stem cell treatment on his knees in the offseason.
That's made Wheeler's work in training camp and the preseason that much more critical.
"As we got him in OTAs and minicamps, you kind of get a feel for what guys can do, and as you go throughout training camp you get a better feel for the things that they do well," Allen said. "He's had a good camp for us and we expect him to produce when the regular season starts."
Wheeler, a third-round draft pick in 2008, compares the Raiders' defense to the one he played at Georgia Tech.
That, and the chance to play full-time after being a spot starter with the Colts, was one of the main reasons he signed with Oakland in April after meeting with McKenzie.
"It's a lot of the same responsibilities, same techniques, same coverages," Wheeler said. "In college I blitzed all the time. I feel like this is the same way. The coaches have shown confidence in us by allowing us to do some of these packages they have. I was itching to play behind some guys like this."
NOTES: QB Matt Leinart practiced without restrictions for the first time since injuring the index finger on his right (non-throwing) hand in the preseason loss to Arizona on Aug. 17. ... WR Jacoby Ford is no longer wearing a walking boot but remains questionable with a sprained ankle. ... DT Richard Seymour (knees) was held out of practice, along with Curry, WR Denarius Moore (hamstring), center Stefen Wisniewski (calf) and tight end Richard Gordon (ribs).