Oakland Raiders Week 5: Raider Grades at the Quarter Pole
Here's a joke you haven't heard 30 times this week: At least the Raiders didn't lose this week! As Oakland continues its bye week, preparing for the now 5-0 Atlanta Falcons next Sunday, I felt it was time to assess the team after the first four weeks of the season.
There have been a few patterns established. One, the front four simply is not generating a pass rush. The absolute must for the 2012 defense to improve was a dominant quarter led by Richard Seymour. Instead, the unit has been patently average so far and a huge reason for the defensive woes thus far.
Having said that, I have noticed that the effort has been much better at home (even as Ben Roethlisberger threw for a career high in Week 3) than it has on the road. Considering the offenses have been pretty similar overall (Denver and Miami on road vs. San Diego and Pittsburgh at home), it hasn't been a disparity in opposition as much as effort and execution.
That leads to the next point. Darren McFadden's second foray into the zone-blocking scheme has been a bust. Greg Knapp would be best served to swallow his pride and insert some power-running packages to play to his offense's strengths. But don't hold your breath on that happening. So the line has to improve the ability to create creases, or a healthy McFadden will be wasted.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I gave out five grades: offense, defense, special teams, coaching and discipline. Let's start with the offense.
For the first couple of months of training camp, I heard a lot of the same thing: Bringing back Greg Knapp is the biggest mistake the Raiders could have made. Fans I've encountered were nervous about bringing back a guy that never seemed to make an offense elite in his four stints as an offensive coordinator.
Naysayers said the Raiders would be better because Carson Palmer and Darren McFadden were in the same backfield, something that did not happen once in 2011. Well, through four games, it has not been a pretty sight. The run game, expected to be the team's strength, has been a nightmare. Oakland's 60.8 yards per game is the worst in the NFL. And if you take away Darren McFadden's 64-yard touchdown, the team has averaged 2.55 yards per rush (70 carries for 179 yards).
In short, a team that is built to run has not been able to run in three of its four games. As a result, Palmer has been thrust into obvious passing situations. Under the circumstances, he has done relatively well with an average 86 quarterback rating.
However, the ultimate goal of any offense is to score points. The Raiders have 67 in four games, an average of 16.2 per game. Take away the 34 scored against Pittsburgh, and you have a total of 33 points in three losses.
There's no way this team is winning against anyone scoring an average of 11 points per game. The biggest bright spot has been tight end Brandon Myers, who has caught 16 passes for 228 yards. But with a shut-down McFadden and inconsistent wide receivers, the recipe has been back for the offense thus far.
Squint your eyes, and it really looks like Chuck Bresnahan's defense of 2011. The Raiders have had their same usual problems on defense.
First and foremost, after an encouraging opening week against San Diego, they have given up 469 yards in the last three games, an average of 156.3 per game. Because Oakland's defense is built off of the production of the front four, the inability to stop the run has a double negative for the team.
The first negative is the obvious: If you can't stop the run, you can't force a team into predictable situations defensively. But secondly, the Raiders have been on the field for big chunks of the second half in every game, and they have wilted. Not surprisingly then, the Raiders have been outscored 81-31 by their opponents after halftime.
The second negative is the pressure that is then forced upon the offense to score. In every game this year, Carson Palmer has been forced to throw, and throw almost exclusively. In one game, he was able to win. But that type of formula is probably going to result in a lot more losses and blowouts than late game wins.
The three leaders of the Raider defense were supposed to be Richard Seymour, Rolando McClain and Tyvon Branch. All three have played sub-par football from where I sit. Seymour has a sack in four games, not much of a surprise (he is not a dominant sack artist). But there have been games when he has simply disappeared.
In fairness, Seymour often commands a double team, which, theoretically, would open up opportunities for the highly-paid Tommy Kelly. Instead, Kelly has as many sacks as I do. Worse, he continues to play undisciplined football, as evidenced by his two offside penalties that resulted in a San Diego score in the opener.
With McClain, it has been a lot simpler in my eyes: He is simply not a 4-3 linebacker. McClain is not quick enough to make up big chunks of ground, and too often, gets beaten by backs and tight ends in space. What he does in organizing the defense is lost because frequently, he is the weak link in the middle of the field. He has 24 total tackles, but has been beaten twice or more in the last three weeks.
Worst of all, when the game starts to get away, you see a visual decrease in effort (i.e. his "jogging" towards ball-carriers). I would not be shocked to see him gone much like JaMarcus Russell after three years.
Tyvon Branch's problems are not so much about effort, but skill set. Branch is a safety that plays best in the box. When he gets matched up against tight ends, he is usually beaten. His deficiencies are part of a much larger problem.
Through the first four games, the Raiders have zero interceptions. Quite simply, there are no playmakers in the secondary, which is an extension of the fact that there are no play makers in the front seven. That, combined with the same porous run defense, adds up to a team that will struggle stopping anyone.
In an earlier article, I said that Sebastian Janikowski was Oakland's most important player in 2012. My rationale was that in most Raider victories, it is usually close and comes down to the kicking game when they have a chance to win.
Janikowski's field goal at the gun gave the Raiders their only win, but unfortunately, the team has not been competitive enough to make him relevant thus far. However, Seabass is perfect thus far in 2012, going 8-for-8 on field goals and making all five extra points.
His 13-year counterpart, Shane Lechler, is once again playing up to an All-Pro level, averaging 49.4 yards per punt gross and 40.4 net. But I would be remiss if I didn't bring up the meltdown on Monday Night Football, as two bad snaps by backup long snapper Travis Goethel and a third snap blocked led to nine second-half points.
Even Pro Bowler Jon Condo had a snap blocked in Denver, though it was technically ruled a two-yard punt for Lechler. Those calamities are like salt in the wounds of this rough 2012 start.
However, the positive has been the job done by Oakland's coverage teams. Often gashed last year, the Raiders kick coverage has held opponents to a nice 19.4 yards per return. While the punt coverage has allowed 11.1 yards a return, that has been offset by the good job Phillip Adams has done, averaging 11.1 yards per punt return in his own right.
The kick return unit has been all or nothing. Mike Goodson had a 51-yard return to spark the comeback against Pittsburgh, and Marcel Reece had a nice 36-yard return as well. But the other four returns averaged a paltry 15 yards, putting an already scuffling offense at a greater disadvantage. So you take the good with the bad and hope there is more improvement from the bad while the good stays that way moving forward.
The hiring of Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver as defensive coordinators were supposed to be indicative of a new, aggressive style of defense. But instead, the Raiders have largely looked like the vanilla unit that was gashed to the tune of 29th in the NFL and 31st in first downs allowed.
To be fair, there has been an overall decline in talent with Kam Wimbley and Stanford Routt lost and Aaron Curry injured. However, with a defensive-minded coach and modern schemes, you could at least mitigate losses with better alignment and executive, right?
Well, wrong. At least so far. The Raiders have been a team that seems as easy to scheme for as they have been in the last nine years. With zero interceptions, three sacks and a 53 percent third-down conversion allowance, it is easy to understand how this is the 28th-ranked unit in the NFL.
Beyond that, though, it has been frustrating to see the lack of adjustments for talent (or lack thereof). Against Miami, the Raiders allowed Brian Hartline to catch nine passes, seven of them the same out cut against the combination of Pat Lee and Joselio Hanson. Each time, the corners played well off the ball conceding a pass in front of them. That would be understandable against Andre Johnson or Mike Wallace, but Hartline is not a deep threat.
Those little things, the lack of diversity with blitzes and the seeming confusion this team still has at times defensively leads me to believe that it hasn't been coached up well enough to this point. Players make plays, but great coaches ensure their plans are seen through on the field.
Offensively, what more needs to be said? Greg Knapp has been a bust. Plain and simple. He has shown himself to be just as conservative and inflexible as he was in 2007 and 2008 before being demoted.
Fans have been clamoring for Al Saunders, but truthfully, there is only so much Saunders could do. The scheme has been completely changed. Installation of new plays and formations is difficult midseason, so ultimately, the Raiders have to roll with what they've got, which will only lead to more discontent from Raider Nation if the first four games are any indication.
Here's the simple reason why I didn't give the coaching staff an F thus far in 2012: 19 penalties for 143 yards. The Raiders of old may have gotten that in one game. For these Raiders, those are the numbers through four games. Incredibly, the Raiders are on pace to set record lows for penalties and penalty yards after setting record highs in both categories.
What that means is, one element of the new regime has worked. Naysayers have said that is because this team plays so passively, they give up plays instead of committing penalties. I'm not buying that. There is a discipline that comes from having more football players in house along with accountability.
However, not all discipline is simply about penalties. There is gap discipline, which is one of the most important components to run defense. It still lacks with the Raiders. But if you can improve one, that means there is a chance for the other. Oakland also manages to have a even turnover margin despite not having any interceptions.
What that means is, while the defense isn't generating turnovers, the offense isn't giving them away much either. It ultimately comes down to the team needing to improve in its run game and defensively.
Kudos should be given to Allen's staff for making the Raiders a more disciplined unit. That is an important foundation to lay, even if wins aren't immediately accompanied by it.
So there you go. The Raiders have been a bad football team. You can't sugarcoat that. But there are still 12 games to go. Even if the team is not a playoff team or even a .500 team, it is important to see who continues to play and where improvement comes from. Because whether some of you want to acknowledge it or not, the Raiders are rebuilding.
With that dreaded word comes the lightening of expectation, but not effort. The Raiders have talent in a few places, but lack the overall talent to really do much more than be competitive at best this year. But for the first time, a head coach does not have to look over his shoulder.
So, I want to see what exactly Allen does to change the look of this team, starting with a tough challenge in Atlanta next Sunday.
First and foremost, we shall see if this team adjusts to address its gaping deficiencies. That means playing to the strength of its best player and playing more smash-mouth football on the ground. That means becoming more aggressive and turning the blitz loose more often to make up for a putrid pass rush.
In short, it means coaching all the way through. The new NFL is a game of perpetual adjustments. The longer the Raiders stay static, the more other teams will continue to pass them by.