Raiders at the bye: What have we learned?
Oct. 12, 2019
Jon Gruden was careful not to draw any grand conclusions from the Raiders’ 3-2 start, which has them within one win of their 2018 total.
“We’re building our team, that’s all I’m going to say,” Gruden said Tuesday, two days after a win over the Bears in London. “We’re not making any other statements other than that. We like the progress.”
The Raiders have had early success despite some stunning roster developments. But the next month is daunting and should illustrate just how much progress has been made.
Antonio Brown — a wide receiver projected to be the centerpiece of their offense — never played in a game for the Raiders. Middle linebacker and defensive captain Vontaze Burfict was suspended for the season after Week 4. Three of their first five games came against teams that reached the playoffs last season, and they are in the midst of a 48-day stretch between games in Oakland.
On the flipside, their last two wins came against Jacoby Brissett of the Colts and Chase Daniel of the Bears, quarterbacks who were not expected to start this season. And their next four games are against accomplished quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, DeShaun Watson, Matthew Stafford and Philip Rivers.
For now, though, there are several takeaways to be gleaned from their 3-2 start.
These Raiders have some resiliency: Brown’s release, at his request, marked the second straight year the Raiders lost arguably their most talented player days before the season. But while the trade of Khalil Mack last season seemed to leave the Raiders reeling, they reacted strongly without Brown, winning in Week 1 over the Broncos.
After decisive losses to the Chiefs and Vikings, the Raiders responded by winning on the road at Indianapolis then flying directly to London and defeating the favored Bears.
After losing Burfict, their defensive signal-caller and field general, early in Week 4, the Raiders’ defense forced four turnovers in their last two wins.
After losing a 17-point lead against Chicago, the Raiders’ offense mounted a 97-yard go-ahead touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter to salvage a dramatic win.
They are better up front: The Raiders’ defense last year ranked 30th against the run and had an NFL-worst 13 sacks. Their offense ranked 25th in rushing yardage and allowed 52 sacks, tied for fifth-most in the league.
Through five weeks this season, their offense is ninth in rushing and has allowed just eight sacks. And the defense has allowed 92 rushing yards per game (11th) while approaching last year’s sack total with nine.
The addition of right tackle Trent Brown, the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lineman, has played a big role in the offense’s improvement. But left guard Richie Incognito, since returning from a two-game suspension, and right guards Jordan Devey and Denzelle Good have also helped the Raiders average 4.9 yards per rushing attempt without injured starting right guard Gabe Jackson.
Derek Carr, meanwhile, was not sacked in wins over the Broncos and Bears, teams that ranked third and eighth in sacks last season, respectively.
After giving up 4.7 yards per rush in 2018, the Raiders’ defense has allowed 3.7 yards per carry while facing three of the NFL’s top 15 rushers - Dalvin Cook (2nd), Marlon Mack (5th) and Phillip Lindsay (15th) - through the first five weeks.
New defensive end Benson Mayowa already has more sacks (4.5) than any Raider in 2018, though the team total is still tied for 24th. Rookie Maxx Crosby has made a quick impact, helping cover a quiet start by No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell.
Gruden is getting creative: The Raiders’ offense was often criticized last season for being overly conservative. That hasn’t quieted completely - Carr is averaging the fewest downfield yards per pass attempt in the NFL - but there have been instances of Gruden thinking outside the box.
In Week 3 at Minnesota, the Raiders scored their first touchdown on a flea-flicker to receiver J.J. Nelson, who has since been released. In Week 4 at Indianapolis, receiver Trevor Davis scored on a 60-yard fly sweep that Gruden had identified on film as a potential big play against the Colts.
Against the Bears, Gruden called a fake punt on 4th-and-1 that kept alive a fourth-quarter drive. Later, on 3rd-and-1, he schemed a play-action pass out of heavy offensive set to rookie tight end Foster Moreau for a 23-yard gain.
The Raiders rank 20th in total offense but have a 48 percent success rate on third down that’s tied for third best in the league, indicating they will try to be methodical in moving the ball. Gruden, though, has shown he isn’t averse to opening up the playbook on occasion.
Road tests remain: Travel was not kind last season to the Raiders, who were 1-8 in games away from Oakland and lost six of those games by 14 or more points.
Gruden said the Raiders tried to prepare for this year’s early road gauntlet - five straight games in the Eastern time zone or beyond - by moving practices to the mornings and structuring things differently on Wednesday, the most intensive practice day.
It didn’t appear to make a difference in the Week 3 drubbing at Minnesota. But the Raiders have looked better prepared in their last two wins, jumping out to early leads.
The Raiders return from their bye to games at Green Bay and Houston, but then play only once more in the east in Week 12 against the Jets.
They have mostly managed to avoid long-term injuries in this stretch, though top receiver Tyrell Williams (foot) and Ferrell (concussion) were held out against the Bears, and edge rusher Arden Key sustained a knee injury that could keep him out for two weeks.
Josh Jacobs looks as advertised: The big question about Jacobs was whether the No. 24 overall pick could handle being an every-down back in the NFL. And it was noted when his snaps dropped in the first three weeks from 40 to 30 to 25, as he battled a hip ailment and illness.
Against the Bears, though, Jacobs produced the best game of his early career with 26 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns, including a highlight-reel goal-line leap from the 2-yard line.
Through five weeks, Jacobs ranks sixth among NFL backs and first among rookies with 430 yards on 88 carries, an average of 4.9 yards per rush. He has proven to be a determined and patient runner who isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder at the end of carries to try to gain extra yards. He said after icing the Colts game with a first-down run that he relishes the role of closing out wins.
The Raiders offense is predicated on balance. Against the Colts, they rushed 32 times for 188 yards and passed 31 times for 189 yards. Against a Bears defense that had not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, they ran 39 times and passed 32 times. That formula could mean lots more carries for Jacobs going forward.