Draft weekend is in the books. The draft analysts have turned their draft grades in and the rage is still top of mind for most of Raider Nation. Now organized team activities have started up and we are seeing glimpses of what we hope will be a successful upcoming campaign. Although there are no games and not even real padded practices, there are many dynamic storylines to keep an eye on this off-season.
Between this article and the next, I will be touching on a variety of the storylines that have been tossed around Raider Nation. This week based on the Twitter poll, I will be touching on the five storylines I buy. VEGAS style of course.
Writer and contributor for Sports Illustrated and The Monday Morning Quarterback Albert Breer wrote in a recent story that the current coaching staff believes Carr’s decline in play occurred due to his back injury and his relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Downing. Although I buy both aspects of this report and believe that a Carr repaired with that extended warranty will bounce back in a big way, there are some distinct question marks that still exist.
Firstly, the broken back occurred in Week 4 against the Broncos, but the sudden screeching halt in the Raiders offense began in Week 3 against the Redskins. It was there that after two inspiring offensive performances that the Raiders left the field following a disgusting performance with an auspicious cloud hovering over the team. Following the game, reports abounded that the locker room split due to politics effectively killing the season.
Much of the decline last season was certainly due to Carr being rushed back. He has admitted as much. That does not explain the bizarre change in approach from the first two weeks. The team looked extremely shell-shocked after Week 3 after having their game plan turned inside out and thoroughly dissected. To accompany what seemed a dramatic shift in play calling was the odd times when multiple Raider receivers would be in the same area for a pass.
This was made obvious for everyone to see when the Raiders beat Kansas City in prime-time, but it always seemed peculiar to me that it would occur so frequently. It has been my working theory that the Raiders installed tons of option type routes into their playbook last season and that would explain the bunching up of receivers.
The current staff believes that Carr’s close relationship with Downing prevented the offense from self-scouting and changing. From the outside, there definitely may be some truth to that statement. I buy the idea that an inexperienced play caller definitely set Carr back. My question remains, was it the combination of Carr and Downing that created an atmosphere of being above the team and change or did Tice or Del Rio tamper with the offense?
We will likely never get a real answer to that question. What I can say for certain, is that an old school mentality around Carr will help keep him grounded. Carr is an extremely intelligent football player and by having an offensive mind that can push him in any direction he will not be able to be complacent.
Equally Scary Defense
Going into the draft it seemed every Raider fan was convinced the team was taking a top-tier defensive talent in round one. It was a certainty. Early on I agreed with that sentiment, but when it came time for me to do my mock, I had the Raiders taking an offensive tackle. The Raiders not only took one offensive tackle, they selected two in the first three rounds. On the other side of the ball, the Raiders finally added inside penetrators, depth at slot defender, and developmental depth at linebacker.
Although I disagreed on some of the players and where they were selected, the Raiders clearly had a plan going into the draft and they attacked it. Now when you look at this defensive depth chart you can see the immediate talent who will start, and the young developmental backups who will take over in the near future. Not only that, we see the clear young talent on the inside of the defensive line that will finally get Khalil Mack the interior push he has needed. Lastly, we also see the long-term sidekick that can develop on the opposite side of Mack.
PJ Hall was a bit of a surprise in round two, but I completely understand why the Raiders took him. His value as a starting three tech with a skill set very similar to Geno Atkins although bigger, absolutely justifies a second-round selection. He also has the physical parameters to be a pass rushing nose tackle or a second three technique if the Raiders incorporate some wide nine looks in clear pass rush situations.
Three of my favorite players in this draft were Maurice Hurst, Arden Key, and Nick Nelson. Nelson will have the least immediate impact, but now the Raiders can attack the passer in waves both inside and out, while also having depth in the defensive backfield. It should not be expected that this defense be something akin to the 2000 Ravens defense, but they are more than capable of being a swarming defense that thrives on impact plays.
I use the term “complementary football” as my handle title on Twitter. It largely stems from long debates I had about the Raiders that the real issue was the offense was not getting leads in order to force opposing offenses into passing where the defense could be aggressive. What the Raiders did this off-season was duplicate that exact concept, but with absolute precision. In previous years the Raiders did not seem to have consistency between the scouting of players to the implementation of their skill sets on the field, but with this coaching staff, everyone seems to finally be on the same page. That will produce big plays and make this defense feared again.
Giant Men Fix Giant Problems… Mostly
Coming into this off-season there was a significant concern regarding the right side of the offensive line and protecting Carr. The Raiders did have second-year tackle David Sharpe, they also added a veteran in Breno Giacomini, and added multiple blocking tight ends, but with the Lisfranc injury to Penn, questions remained. Doubling down on an offensive tackle in this draft was a bold and important choice, but the offensive line questions will also be answered schematically as well.
There is a decent chance that the Raiders will be starting two rookie offensive tackles. With that in mind, the Raiders could also still have a significantly better offensive line this season than they did in 2016. The biggest change between 2016 and last year was not talent as much as play calling. In the last three seasons, only eight quarterbacks with at least 1000 passing attempts have less than Derek Carr’s 273 non-play action attempts. That list includes Roethlisberger, Rogers, Mariota, Rivers, Taylor, Bradford, Palmer, and Fitzpatrick. Of those, only Roethlisberger and Rogers are similar to Carr in the sense that all three have a better passer rating when not using play action.
All that being said, we as a league saw what proper use of play action can yield for quarterbacks with both Blake Bortles and Jared Goff. What the Raiders lacked last year was a proper fluidity to their play calling to slow down the opposing pass rush. Many teams use play action and screens to slow down a pass rush, but the Raiders went the air raid direction similar to the Steelers or Packers. The Raiders, Packers, and Steelers in the last three years are all bottom ten in rushing attempts in those three years.
By bringing balance to the play calling and incorporating play action that looks identical to the previous run plays the Raiders can keep defenses on the back foot. This will also alleviate the jobs of the offensive tackles who will face quality pass rush duos all season. Play action when it is sold correctly and incorporated properly forces the edge rushers to slow down or stop to read the run thus giving the tackles a second to dictate the play to the edge defenders. I guess you can say that Jon Gruden will bring balance to the force.
Amari Stops the Drops
The first time I really watched Amari Cooper in the run-up to the 2015 draft he reminded me of Tim Brown. Between his frame, speed, route precision, and versatility he looked just like the Raiders’ Hall of Famer. Starting in the 1992 season the NFL began to track targets as an official stat and in his first three seasons with the stat, Tim Brown’s catch percentage was 51.6, 63.0, and 62.7% respectively. Those were seasons 5, 6, and 7 of his career. Amari in his first three seasons has had catch percentages of 55.4, 62.9, and 50.0% respectively.
We have seen Amari have a season where he produced a quality catch percentage and that occurred when he was used similarly to Brown. What ended up making Brown the weapon he became was his usage in the slot. By running his routes from the slot he could avoid the press and have open field in every direction which prevented the defense from cheating to one part of the field. This also means the Raiders could get Amari away from crowded spaces and into more open fields where he can catch the ball on the run without a linebacker or safety lurking for the hit.
The biggest key for Amari to fix his drops is to stop putting him in heavy traffic and asking him to make catches near big hitters. The Raiders need to be creative with how they use their number one receiver. Any defense will be committed to stopping Amari regardless of where he is lined up on the field, which means an offensive coordinator should be putting Cooper into the spots where he can pose the greatest number of potential issues. As fans there needs to be a collective realization that being a number one receiver no longer means you have to line up on the boundary every play. The title of “number one receiver” belongs to the guy who keeps defensive coordinators up all night in a cold sweat.
Cooper has been that player from day one and the Raiders need to finally do with him what makes the most sense. Put him in the slot and allow him to attack open areas of the field where you can get him away from traffic. This will also be most effective when paired with play action and intermediate routes.
Start From the Ground Up
A significant portion of this article is devoted to the idea that fixing the offense means bringing balance to the play calling. In order to achieve that end, a team must first run the ball efficiently and more frequently. That does not mean the Raiders need to be the Jacksonville Jaguars, but rather as a team the goal should be to establish early leads with aggressive passing and then use the run coupled with play action to exploit a reactionary defense when you have the lead.
Last season the Raiders ranked 27th in total carries although they ranked tenth in adjusted line yards which is the primary run statistic for Football Outsiders. The combination of these two data points tells me that the offensive line was generally blocking well enough to create a quality run game, but the team never committed to making the run a larger part of the game plan.
What is even more frustrating was the general lack of play action by the Raiders in 2017. The team recorded approximately 400 total play-action yards in the entire season while Goff had over 1,400 pass yards through play action. Based on the run direction charts, the Raiders made a concerted effort to run behind their interior trio even though outside zone was a considerable part of the run game.
The basics of what the Raiders could and should be have been there since 2016. Sadly for Raider fans, 2017 was simply an epic misuse of the obvious. Getting back to the drawing board and recommitting to the concepts that made this offense work in 2016 is not difficult. The tendencies and skill sets are already there. A vigorous re-commitment to inside zone and power runs that can be easily replicated for play action should be the backbone to the 2018 offense. That could, in theory, mean we see run-pass options as the basis for the offense, but regardless how the offensive staff chooses to commit, they need to bring some balance to the approach.
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