Week 14 of the 2018 NFL season pits the Oakland Raiders against the Pittsburgh Steelers. With only two wins, the Raiders look like a team who have little chance to beat the seven win Steelers. However, week 13 saw the Raiders put up an admirable fight at home against the division leading Chiefs. As of late the Raiders have seemingly begun to be more consistent and more effective which will help establish an identity long term.
This Offense Will NEVER Be 2016
Perception is everything in regards to how modern NFL players are judged. For most of this season and all of the last season, the narrative around Derek Carr was that he needed a great offensive line and his great 2016 season was a fluke. This line of reasoning makes sense if Carr never learns to make his new offense work in any substantial way.
What the Raiders are doing now on offense is fundamentally at odds with how the Raiders approached offense in 2016. In that season the Raiders used a tight end to block or a sixth offensive lineman on most aggressive passing concepts. By doing this they were able to allow Carr to do what he did best and that is win with his brain. Pre snap Carr would be able to read the defense and determine where he wanted to go. With the added blockers, he was able to take strategic deep throws and remain efficient. When the ball had to come out quickly, it did because the work was done before the play started.
Jon Gruden’s offense is fundamentally different. When the Raiders are looking to pass, they are usually looking deep with slow developing route combinations. For a quarterback like Carr who does so much work pre snap, it is hard to slow down the progressions and give the play time. Combine that with the fact the Raiders rarely use extra blockers and we saw this offense struggle mightily. It was only made worse by Tom Cable’s more complex pass protection concepts.
A change had to happen to make this offense work and three important changes have been made. First, Derek Carr is beginning to extend plays by scrambling and keeping his eyes downfield. Second,Gruden is using short passes to the flat as an extension of the run game to give the offense balance. Third and most important change, the Raiders are changing their personnel group mix and they are beginning to hide a personnel group by making it look like another.
The New Identity
Surprisingly enough the Raider offense this season has been quite decent. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Raiders have an offensive success rate of 49%. The best team in the NFL is the Saints at 57%. More importantly, only 8 teams have a rate 50% or higher and only four more teams have a rate 49% or higher. In the first nine weeks the Raider offensive success rat was 47%. Weeks ten through thirteen the success rate was 50%.
Another significant change that has happened has been with the personnel groupings the Raiders are using. Since Week 10 the Raiders have used 11 personnel 74% of snaps, 12 personnel 8% of snaps, 21 personnel 9% of snaps, and 22 personnel 5% of snaps. Before week 10, the Raiders 11 personnel 67% of snaps, 12 personnel 12% of snaps, 21 personnel 8% of snaps, 13 personnel 5% of snaps, and 22 personnel 6% of snaps.
This is a significant shift. Prior to Week 10 the Raiders were only one of four teams using five personnel groups at least 5% of snaps. In the last four games we have not only seen the offense focus itself on fewer personnel groups, but they are also hiding the use of a personnel group by lining up in a way that suggests they are using another.
A great example of this is the play where the Raiders used 12 personnel, one running back with two tight ends, but lined up in a 22 personnel look. They proceeded to throw a swing pass to Nelson in the flat and Nelson was lined up as a tailback.
On offense the joker player has been Jared Cook. The way Gruden has moved him around to take advantage of mismatches has been extremely effective. There are times where he is lined up outside against a cornerback or force a linebacker out of position. Other times he is lined up in the slot and runs a double move. His deployment is tactical and it gives Carr several keys to focus on in order to decipher the defense. Most importantly, he has been a weapon on all levels. The tight end position will be an important one for Gruden based on the identity he has built.
Defensive Pieces to Build With
Rising out of the ashes of a terrible season for the defense, are some significant pieces that can be a part of the rebuild for the long term. Gareon Conley has been the best and most consistent defender this season. Karl Joseph is proving that despite his size he is a quality safety. Marquel Lee has begun to flourish at the strong side linebacker spot while Tahir Whitehead has finally seemed to understand his role at the weakside linebacker. Arden Key has struggled to put up numbers, but he flashes a tremendous first step and has bettered his gap discipline. PJ Hall has been a decent nose tackle, while Maurice Hurst is looking like a potential top end pass rushing defensive tackle.
This leaves a safety spot, a cornerback spot, and another defensive end spot needing a long term solution. There is a possibility that Morrow or Cabinda can solidify the middle linebacker spot, but the chances are minimal.
Pressure, or lack thereof has been the issue for this defense all season. Even without consistent pressure or sacks, the defense has been able to force turnovers. Forcing interceptions, and stripping the ball out at opportune times has been a radical change from last season when the defense was incapable of creating any turnovers.
Inspire Some Hope
Four games is all that remains in the 2018 NFL schedule. After the Steelers, the Raiders play the Bengals, the Broncos, and the Chiefs. If somehow the Raiders could win at least two of these final four games, they will end the season on a relative high note and will change the perception of the status of the franchise. If nothing else, they have to beat the Bengals without Andy Dalton and AJ Green.
For what has become essentially a twenty week preseason audition for the 2019 NFL regular season, the Raiders have been able to begin to develop their identity. These final four weeks are when they can solidify the type of team they want to be. The defense likely will not have a dominant game to end the season on, but even producing inspiring efforts with impact plays does enough to make people believe there is something that can be built.