The Las Vegas Raiders are 6-3 after ten weeks of NFL football. In this span, they took down some contenders like the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints. Although there have been some down spots, including games against the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team has shown drastic improvements in coaching. In his third season, Jon Gruden seems to be melding his old-school, smash-mouth football style with contemporary schemes.
2018: Gruden’s Return to the Raiders
Gruden’s first season back with the team featured a lot of blowouts and a dearth of second-half adjustments. In 2018, the Raiders scored 13 first-half touchdowns and 15 in the second half. On the surface, this doesn’t seem bad, but a closer look shows these were mostly in garbage time. 12 of those touchdowns were through the air and three of them were on the ground. Moreover, seven of those 12 were in the fourth quarter. These were basically free points against prevent defenses.
The Raiders’ defense wasn’t much better in 2018. The unit gave up 22 first-half touchdowns and a ridiculous 30 in the second half. Opposing coaches were able to figure out and really bully a mostly undermanned defense in the second half. Las Vegas gave up five rushing touchdowns all year in the first half, but 11 in the second half – opposing teams had no trouble running out the clock.
2020: Drastic Improvements
2019 saw some slight improvements to these numbers, but they weren’t enough to net the team a winning season. However, a huge Reason Las Vegas is sitting with the record they have, despite playing a strong schedule is their improvements in the second half. Before getting there though, it is worth noting that their offense has improved. Through nine games, the team has already matched their 2018 numbers of 13 first-half and 15 second-half touchdowns.
The numbers in the second half are also much more balanced: eight rushing touchdowns to seven passing touchdowns. But the most drastic improvement is on the defensive end of the ball. Gruden has consistently come out on top in terms of making second-half adjustments to stop opposing offenses from finding the end zone. The Raiders allowed 14 touchdowns in the first half, compared to just 13 in the second half. Making adjustments is a sign of good coaching, and it is refreshing to see Gruden and company make progress in this area.
The third quarter is really where the team has improved, which was their weakness as recently as last year. The Tweet below really sums up how the coaching staff has improved:
The @Raiders have now outscored their opponents 51-19 in third quarters this year. Perspective: They were outscored 111-27 in third quarters last year.
— Vincent Bonsignore (@VinnyBonsignore) November 15, 2020
Fourth Down Efficiency
In 2019, the Baltimore Ravens were first with a 70 percent conversion rate on fourth downs. They led the lead in fourth-down conversions, with 17. However, they were tied for sixth in fourth-down conversions attempted. The top three teams in fourth-down conversion attempts were the New York Giants, the Miami Dolphins, and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Something they all had in common was that they were not good teams. They often found themselves having to go for it on fourth down to stay alive in games. None of them had higher than 50 percent conversion rates.
On the Ravens end, they were one of the top-scoring teams in the NFL last year. They didn’t have to go for it to stay in games. Instead, John Harbaugh often went for it on fourth down to establish their dominance and put teams away. He knew the right times to keep their offense on the field, something elite coaches do often.
Gruden wasn’t terrible last season in terms of fourth-down attempts. The Raiders were actually eighth, converting almost 58 percent of their attempts. This was an improvement on his first year back with the Silver and Black when the Raiders only converted 43.8 percent of their fourth-down attempts.
Once again, Gruden has shown growth as a coach. This season, Las Vegas is tied for third in the league, converting on eight of their ten fourth-down attempts. He goes for it at the right times and calls the plays to make it happen.
Fourth Down Case Study for 2020
One key example of this was against the New Orleans Saints, where the team converted on both of their fourth-down attempts. With the game tied at 17 and the team at the one-yard line, Gruden opted to have Carr stay on the field instead of kicking a field goal.
The Raiders converted, going up seven, and never surrendering the lead after that point. After having the Saints punt the ball back, Gruden again kept his foot on the gas pedal, going for it again on fourth down to keep the Saints off the field. This kept the Saints on the sideline for almost the entirety of the third quarter.
Keep in mind it isn’t just about converting on fourth down. A huge decision in the game was Gruden’s decision to kick a 54-yard field goal with just over one minute left in the game. The Saints were down seven, so if kicker Daniel Carlson missed, it would make it easy for Brees to go down the field for a game-tying touchdown. However, a punt would be playing “not to lose.” Instead, Gruden opted to make it a two-possession game, effectively stomping a comeback attempt.
The Raiders still have plenty of work to do
While Gruden has made strides and is beginning to gain respect again as a coach in the league, he still needs to make more progress if he is going to live up to that huge contract and take the team to the promised land.
For one, there are still questions about ‘Chucky’s’ personnel decisions. This is evident on the defensive side. Paul Guenther has fielded statistically terrible defenses for each of his three seasons with the team. Check out his rankings in his first two full seasons with the team:
#Raiders defensive rankings in 2 years under Paul Guenther:
Points per game allowed: 28.7, 31st in league
Yards per play allowed: 6.21, 32nd in league
Passer rating against: 103.3, 31st in league
— Josh Dubow (@JoshDubowAP) December 9, 2019
Prior to the game against the Denver Broncos, the team was 25th in total yards allowed and 24th point surrendered. This will improve after the team mostly shut down Drew Lock and the Denver Broncos, but it doesn’t mean Guenther should be forgiven. The pitchforks have been out all year for Guenther to get packing. However, that’s not the only questionable staff decision. The defensive line was one of the few bright spots last year when they had 32 sacks.
Instead of keeping Brentson Buckner, the coach that made it happen, Gruden decided to bring in his old buddy, Rod Marinelli. Admittedly, the move made sense at the moment. Marinelli would be groomed to take over for Guenther should he struggle for the third straight year.
Nevertheless, Marinelli’s addition isn’t looking as smart in retrospect. The Raiders defense only has a paltry 11 sacks through nine games. That is some terrible regression. Moving forward, Gruden needs to get outside his circle and bring in more contemporary minds.
Regardless, the Silver and Black are looking good coming into the second half of the year. Gruden must keep adapting and evolving on both offense and defense. And while the Raiders aren’t catching the Chiefs for a division title, a Wild Card spot is well within reach.
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