The honeymoon phase for the Raiders and coach Jon Gruden is ending before it ever started. Three games into the season Raider Nation is on edge and with an energetic Baker Mayfield led Browns team coming to town, fear is setting in.
However, early season turmoil is not foreign for good teams. Example, the Patriots, Steelers, Vikings, and Falcons all have one win. So what changes must the Raiders make to get back on track?
The Raiders are sixth in the NFL in total yards per game but they rank twenty-eighth in points per game. This statistical anomaly defines the most important issue facing the Raider, red zone efficiency. Red zone scoring has been spotty for the Jon Gruden Raiders especially in short yardage situations. Against the Dolphins in Week 3 the Raiders failed to score on fourth and goal in the first half that could have changed the course of the game.
According to Austin Gayle of Pro Football Focus, Marshawn Lynch has gained 90.6 percent of his yards after contact. That ranks third highest in the NFL. Jon Gruden is very myopic when he utilizes 21 personnel (two running backs and one tight end). In this personnel group especially when both backs are lined up in the backfield, the Raiders almost exclusively run the ball. Over the last three games, they have also rarely used play action out of the group as well.
In some respects, this tendency creates its own opportunities. The first long reception for Jordy Nelson against the Dolphins only occurs because the defense was selling out to stop the run. The issue throughout the game was when the Raiders came out with two running backs in the backfield they ran the ball. A couple of times they exploited play action which has been a growing trend over the last two games, but the running game was inefficient. It was not until the Raiders began to flex the tight end away from the offensive line that the backs started finding some space to run through in that grouping.
Another bizarre statistical oddity is the general lack of pass rush. This is not a minor discrepancy. Last season the Raiders struggled to produce a pass rush and for 2018 they have been even worse. To quote our friend Austin Gayle again:
The #Raiders' pass-rush woes are mind-boggling.
Through Week 3, OAK ranks 32nd in pressures (21) and pressure% (7.2) when QBs take 2.1+ seconds to throw the ball.
Through W3 in 2017, OAK had nearly double the pressures (43) and pressure% (13.2) on such dropbacks.
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) September 27, 2018
That being said, the Raiders have already intercepted one pass which means they will not have the “no interceptions cloud” floating over their heads for the remainder of the season.
Statistical oddity No. 3 is the curious case of Amari Cooper. Fans have developed a narrative that Cooper is somehow not a number one receiver. Although, defenses clearly react and give the respect to Cooper being a No. 1 target. The problem with this idea is the stats do not support the argument. “Number 1 receivers” are now judged by statistics and currently the top ten receivers in the NFL in terms of yards are as follows and their total targets are in ( ):
Adam Thielen (56), Brandin Cooks (33), Michael Thomas (40), Mike Evans (30), JuJu Smith-Schuster (38), Cooper Kupp (32), Julio Jones (34), Robert Woods (34), Desean Jackson (14), and Stefon Diggs (44)
Amari Cooper has 18 targets with 142 yards. This ranks him in at No. 60 in targets and No. 63 in receiving yards. Cooper has as many targets as teammates Jared Cook and Jalen Richard. Coop doesn’t have “number one receiver” stats because he doesn’t get “number one receiver” opportunity.
These three issues must be corrected this week against Cleveland. It is up to the Raiders coaching staff to devise ways to overcome these deficiencies. The first problem which is really two problems in one, can be solved be re-imagining how the run game should operate. Since the Raiders struggle to run the ball in heavy sets, switching to 11 personnel (three wide receivers on the field) for the majority of the game is one step. Even operating out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) but moving one of the tight ends into the slot as a flexed player would help create some of the same passing opportunities while having adequate blockers for running plays. This effect can be noticed when watching the success that the offense had late against the Dolphins running the ball with a flexed tight end.
In condensed spaces like the red zone, running the ball is made even more difficult because an offense has less space to operate. With that in mind, the offense should do what it can to stretch out the defense laterally. Consider even going to 12 personnel in the shotgun with the tight ends in the slot and the receivers outside of them. This will take the base defense and force the linebackers to line up over the tight ends creating space. If the safeties come down for the coverage then Carr knows he likely has an all-out blitz and can audible to a hot route like a bubble screen.
Regardless of how it is done, by forcing the defense to have fewer men in the box, you create a more advantageous number game. Rather than trying to beat the defense in a big set vs. big set, by spreading things out it forces them into a more difficult situation schematically.
Presenting solutions for the lack of pass rush is very difficult. One of the central issues is injuries. Because there have been injuries to P.J. Hall and Justin Ellis, the Raiders were forced to sign free agents and rely on them getting many reps. With new bodies along the defensive line, the timing for complex stunts and twists is now gone. That said, in week three Clinton McDonald recorded a sack and Arden Key continued to flash positive signs.
Coming into week four against the Browns, the Raiders are expected to get Hall back. This should be a huge boost in getting interior pressure. Along with this, the Raiders need to start giving Tank Carradine and Fadol Brown snaps at strongside defensive end. Frostee Rucker is a high effort defender that plays the run well, but he simply provides nothing for the pass rush. Going to a more balanced approach with some moderate athletes at that position will help generate more consistent pressure.
Other than that, some more complex blitz packages and disguises will also help confuse the offensive line and if nothing else allow for occasional free rushers. Sadly for the Raiders, this is the hardest issue to correct because it is entirely reliant upon personnel.
Cooper only having 18 targets in three games is a travesty. Cooper had several plays including the first interception where he was triple covered, where he torched three Miami defensive backs, but appeard to quit on the route. On that play there was a clear miscommunication and Amari gave up on the play when Carr did not.
Carr was correct, Amari was open on this Int. Coop didn't see the pass and stopped on his route. pic.twitter.com/nAM3lj3YHS
— Chris Reed (@ChrisReed_NFL) September 24, 2018
Gruden has been extremely good at exploiting specific matchups early in the game. Where he and this offense has failed is late in the game after the opposing defense takes away the matchup he was exploiting. This is exactly when Cooper should be thriving. Gruden should have designed plays with the sole intent to get Cooper the ball. It does not matter if it is screens, pick routes, rubs, dig routes, clearout concepts with Amari underneath, or short crossers, anything designed to get him in space on a simple read should be the call.
It is time Gruden starts giving his playmakers opportunities and when the game is on the line stop trying to go back to the same look when you know the defense has adjusted. This is the game where the Raiders must put the right foot forward and finally slam the door shut.
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