The first quarter of the season came to a close in Denver Sunday for the Oakland Raiders. There have been some enjoyable highs but also some concerning lows through four games.
The Raiders did quite a bit of traveling playing three games on the road with only their lone home opener. Three of their opponents were AFC teams, with one divisional matchup going 2-1 in those contests. The broad consensus did not have Oakland going 2-2, but let’s focus on four takes from the first quarter of the season that need attention.
#1 The Rushing Offense Needs to Show up
Many things come to mind when you think Marshawn Lynch, such as the jersey sales, dancing display, local icon and of course, season headlining story. The run-game blame does not start or end with Lynch, but it is indeed shocking to see the lack of production at the position. The Raiders have a very capable trio of running backs, a great fullback, elite offensive line, and yet, the group has been dismal.
First-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing is where the finger-pointing starts. In the first game at Tennessee, Downing abandoned the run on the goal line by passing three straight downs, a puzzling decision in hindsight considering Lynch’s availability.
I feel fullback Jamize Olawale is an excellent remedy to fix some of the issues. Power football is something the Raiders need to feature early in games, a lead blocker like Olawale can bring back confidence to the attack by allowing Lynch to make a more decisive read of his running lanes. The opposing team’s linebackers have seen Lynch alone in the backfield and track the play with ease. A fullback would benefit to feature split-back alignments as well, intermixing the whole group giving the defense more to focus on.
Olawale would be another backfield piece the defense must read pre-snap as they take their eyes off Lynch after the snap. Olawale would be absorbing attention from linebackers to shed him as a blocker and read him in the gap pursuit battle; this could interrupt the defense’s scheme while offering the ability to introduce an effective counter-run game, something Lynch is very efficient at doing.
I do not buy into Lynch’s age or any retirement deterioration talk, he is still every bit of “Beast Mode, ” and the Raiders need to get back to the basics running the football efficiently. The run game is crucial with EJ Manuel taking over for what looks to be a significant amount of time while Derek Carr rehabilitates his back injury.
#2 Amari Cooper’s Decline
Amari Cooper hasn’t taken to the coined phrase “Year 3 jump” at the NFL level. It’s been quite the opposite, he’s been a disaster through four games. At this point the routine drops are expected, his production is startling per the numbers of targets he gets in the passing game. Cooper’s statistical output thru four games is more of what you’d expect weekly from a top tier wide receiver: 12 catches, 110 yards, 1 TD. That’s an average of 27 yards per game with a catch percentage of 52.2%.
Cooper does have a very stoic demeanor about him; therefore, I am not going to associate his flat personality with carelessness on the field to produce, but it is hard not to. The strategic engagement from quarterback to wide receiver is something you earn through repetition & communication. It is just different watching Carr throw to Crabtree. I could see some “fire” from Cooper when a “complimentary” receiver was outproducing him in Week 4 as Crabtree was unable to play.
The stage has been there for Cooper, and he just needs to perform and put aside the first four games. Now that quarterback EJ Manuel is taking over, he needs to show some urgency in the passing game when targeted.
#3 Is “Black Jack Del Rio” Losing his Poker Face?
The 2016 Raiders season was full of thrilling close games and comebacks. Jack Del Rio made a name for himself with the absolute confidence in his team by taking huge risks that were hugely successful. When gambling pays off, it feels great. It takes an enormous toll on a teams mindset.
The Raiders have not had the same offensive success on 4th down conversions in games. The value of each possession in the NFL is something that must be respected. Last season the defense performed poorly, and this season it is fair to say they have been a surprise work-in-progress improving in many areas. It is ironic that now the calculated risks Del Rio is taking are because of a lack of confidence in the offense to produce enough points to win.
The Raiders are dealing with a wide-range of adversity amidst injuries and having young players developing on the field. Del Rio is also working in a new offensive coordinator; taking risks can ruin the locker room if they continue to fail. In the 2nd quarter vs. Denver it was 4th and 1 in field goal range. Del Rio passed on the reliable field goal kicker and decided to go for it. Looking back, it was a critical mistake at that point in the game in my opinion. The whole stadium knew Lynch was getting the ball and he was stopped short with ease. Del Rio has to work on some play-calling innovation in those situations with Todd Downing.
The fake punt called versus the Broncos actually showed Del Rio’s continued desperation. The game was still winnable at that point, down only one score. A conservative approach might have changed the outcome of the game between the two questionable 4th down decisions. The clock management has been a bit off as well this season, namely the ill-advised use of timeouts early in games. When you waste timeouts early in games, you are stuck making quick decisions against the play clock as well as the down and distance situation that you might regret. This is not crisis mode yet for the head coach, but his risk-taking needs to mirror the ability of his team right now with EJ Manuel stepping in under center.
#4 Defending The Tight End
The tight end dilemma has been an ongoing problem for quite some time now. One of the biggest off-season areas of need was advancing the linebacker personnel to defend opposing tight ends. That did not happen, nor was it deemed a priority by the staff. Right now, the Raiders have a linebacker-by-committee group that isn’t serving them too well versus tight ends. The Raiders like the group, but they are constantly rotating players on and off the field due to their individual and situational strengths.
Opposing offenses have noticed the linebackers’ weaknesses and have taken advantage of rookie middle linebacker Marquel Lee on early run downs in coverage. Nicholas Morrow and Corey James are slightly better options but still not sufficient. Sean Smith was even used on an aging Vernon Davis in Week 3 and was benched shortly after that for his trailing coverage.
The team is missing rookie second-rounder Obi Melifonwu. Melifonwu would not be an immediate answer on every down, but indeed his athleticism and length would serve well in tight end coverage concepts. Melifonwu’s return on the back-end of the season is possible, but until then Ken Norton Jr. and Jon Pagano must fix this issue. There are some talented opposing tight ends left on the Raiders’ schedule in Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski, Charles Clay, Antonio Gates, Zach Ertz and Jason Witten. That’s an impressive list of pass-catching tight ends; unfortunately, it might get worse before it gets better.
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