Football! We had real actual football being played on a professional field with actual players and points were counted! Of course, the score and outcome did not matter, but it was actual football! To that end, this game was very enlightening in regards to where the Raiders are schematically and from a preparedness perspective.
This Team Was Prepared
A theme throughout the last few preseasons for the Raiders has been a general feeling that the team was still searching for its sea legs and was not prepared. From the first snap in this game, the Raiders in all aspects looked prepared and schematically sound. When watching this game, back it was clear what the basic principles of the offense and defense were. There have been entire preseasons where fans were left scratching their heads as the defense would fail to react to a presnap change or have drastic confusion on a route.
In this game against the Lions there were times where certain players struggled, but overall the team seemed to have a mutual understanding of what was expected of them play in and payout. A very simple way to see this is by watching the communication between the linebackers. In past years there has been significant criticism of the lack of talking between the linebackers and defensive backs presnap. Under Guenther, there was significant chatter on every level of the defense and there were no significant coverage breakdowns throughout the game.
In a surprising turn, we also saw a large number of blitzes coming from Guenther. He dialed up several safety and nickel defender blitzes, one of which got home in fashionable style with Karl Joseph flying through the air. The success with the blitz was fairly consistent other than the late zone blitz where Shilique Calhoun was asked to drop into coverage from his defensive end spot. This was an impressive debut for the defense and unlike past seasons, there was a definitive lack of preseason tomfoolery.
Connor Cook Might Be A Decent Backup?
Of all the draft picks that for a variety of reasons have not fared well for Reggie McKenzie, Connor Cook was at the top of the list for disdain from Raiders’ fans. He spent considerable time under center for the Raiders and even engineered their only touchdown drive with a throw to Ryan Switzer off of the scramble drill. Cook showed poise and a surprising amount of athleticism.
On the day Cook was 11 for 19 for 141 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. It was a solid performance in a preseason game for Cook who connected passes on multiple levels with some decent arm strength. The Raiders desperately need a quality backup quarterback that could at least win a game or two in a short stint in case Carr gets hurt. This was a quality first step for Cook to finally provide at least some justification for his draft status.
Kolton Miller Held His Own
After the selection of Kolton Miller in the 2018 draft, many Raider fans went completely apoplectic. In his first outing, Miller showed the upside that made him the 15th overall pick. Yes, there was a holding call that brought back a 60 yard Marshawn Lynch touchdown run, but he also had multiple instances where he put his athleticism to the test.
His best individual play occurred when he had a planned fake blitz directed to his outside shoulder. The defender to his outside came firing in fast then immediately pulled back before Miller engaged. Just as that happened, a linebacker fired on a delay blitz to his inside shoulder. Not only did Miller recognize the concept, but he had the ability to get back to the inside and protect his quarterback.
Miller is going to have an uphill battle convincing many fans in Raider Nation that he was worth the 15th overall pick, but this was a good start. A couple days after this game the Raiders activated Donald Penn from the PUP list and he has started multiple practices at right tackle. Penn also accepted a contract restructure. In the long run, it benefits the Raiders to keep Miller at one spot and to allow Penn to have as much time as possible to get acquainted with a new position. This is the best five offensive lineman to start at any given time since the last Gruden tenure.
New Nelson In Town
Fourth round selection Nick Nelson had one of the most impressive debuts for the Raiders. He played both as an inside slot cornerback and as an outside cornerback. Going forward he will most likely be developed into a slot defender, but he flashed serious coverage chops in both spots. His two best plays were not in coverage though.
In the second half the Lions through a short wide receiver screen to Nelson’s side. He immediately read the play and blew past the blocker making the immediate tackle. This play highlighted Nelson’s physical nature that was one of the keys to his draft evaluation. Later in the game, Nelson was allowed to blitz out of the slot and got immediate pressure forcing a quick pass. Going forward Nelson has a chance to earn a starting spot, but most likely he will back up Gilchrist as the primary slot defender. Going forward the Raiders could have a long-term trio at cornerback.
Watch The Safeties
One of the most compelling and worrisome tidbits from the game was the combinations of safeties used. Overall the play of the safety pairings in this game was fine in the end, but the amount of time that Nelson and Harris spent playing together was scary. To say that Nelson has lost a step in recent years is to be kind. When pairing him with Karl Joseph a defense can mitigate that lack of speed by playing him underneath and allowing Joseph to cover ground. When Nelson played with Harris it was like watching two pregnant hippos meander through a muddy watering hole.
To be fair the Raiders could have gone into this game deciding they wanted to use multiple pairings to see how guys worked with each other. Overall the safety positions were highly interchangeable as expected. Both positions were seen doing similar concepts in both coverage and blitz. It would be very fair to argue that fans should not read too much into this, but this is a position group that has to be watched.
Erik Harris has had a very good preseason and is definitely developing into a potential starter at strong safety. The issue is not that he is not explosive, it is pairing him with another safety that also lacks explosive playmaking ability. Karl Joseph flashed several times in this game and he also was very vocal with players who made even the smallest mistakes. Hopefully when it is all said and done, one of these guys is pairing with Joseph and not with each other.
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