As if all the other problems the Oakland Raiders have weren’t enough, one of their strengths became an issue against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Raiders gave up four sacks, and one was stripped from Carson Palmer’s hand. The Raiders allowed countless other pressures that resulted in overthrows and incomplete passes.
When the Raiders needed to protect Palmer they failed miserably. Why can’t the Raiders protect Palmer? Short answer: they don’t have the players.
The four sacks the Raiders allowed were actually a representative sample of the protection issues. Like many of the Raiders issues this season, there isn’t just one problem that must be fixed. The Raiders gave up pressure and sacks from the inside, outside and due to coverage.
According to ProFootballFocus, the Raiders allowed three quarterback hits, 14 quarterback hurries and four sacks. Three out of the five starting offensive linemen allowed at least four total pressures. It was the usual suspects—Mike Brisiel, Cooper Carlisle and Khalif Barnes—who all had their issues.
Sack No. 1: Interior Pass Protection
The worst kind of pass rush is the kind that gets right in the face of the quarterback and forces him to move laterally. Pass rush up the middle probably forced more bad throws, and a quarterback as immobile as Palmer has little chance to escape it.
First down is also typically a running down, but Oakland’s rush offense has been stagnant for weeks and only recently has shown life with Marcel Reece carrying the rushing load. Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp dials up a play-action pass with double wide receiver screens.
Geno Atkins—ProFootballFocus’ most productive interior pass rusher—blows past Brisiel so quickly that Palmer hardly has any time to even make the play fake. Reece slips past Atkins instead of giving Brisiel help, and Atkins makes the sack. This was a quick-hitting pass play, and Brisiel doesn’t have to stay in front of Atkins for long for the play to be a success.
Left tackle Jared Veldheer even gave the defensive end a free release so he could block for Denarius Moore. Brisiel wasn’t asked to do much, and all he had to do was get in Atkins’ way and he still failed.
Sack No. 3: Double Team on Atkins
Atkins is pretty good and Brisiel couldn’t handle him on his own, so the Raiders reverted to the double team. Either Stefen Wisniewski or Khalif Barnes would have to help Brisiel slow down Atkins. A double team puts the pressure on the other three offensive linemen, tight end and running back to execute their blocks with no help.
An Atkins spin move left Brisiel and Barnes falling over each other on the ground and with a free lane to Palmer for the sack.
Tight end Brandon Myers sees Atkins break free and is left with a no-win decision; Myers can block Atkins or Wallace Gilberry on the outside.
Generally speaking you want to block the interior player, and that’s what Myers does, but he left Gilberry free to take down Palmer. Atkins basically occupied three blockers, which freed up his teammate to get the sack—and Atkins himself wasn’t far behind.
Sack No. 2: Coverage
There are also sacks that are not the fault of the offensive line. The generic term is "coverage sacks," but that implies the secondary is completely responsible. It could be a good secondary, poor receivers or a quarterback that isn’t seeing things develop quickly enough.
Atkins draws the double team from Brisiel and Wisniewski and the Raiders have six blockers against five rushers. An extra blocker also means there is an extra defender in coverage, making it a little more difficult to get open. On 3rd-and-long the Bengals are expecting a pass.
Carlisle uses poor technique and is lucky he doesn’t get called for a holding penalty. Moore is covered tightly on the short slant and stumbles out of the gate. None of the outside receivers were open and Palmer had to move to his left to try and find a check down.
Reece doesn’t break free of the linebacker quickly enough and Palmer has to pull it down and attempt to run, but it’s too late and Palmer is sacked. The offensive line could have blocked better, but the real problem was the inability of the receivers to gain separation and get open for Palmer.
Sack (Fumble) No. 4: Outside Pass Rush
The kind of pass rushers that we all seem to know and love are the fast guys who come off the edge, force fumbles and otherwise make big plays. The Raiders haven’t been averse to allowing outside pressure be it due to Barnes, his backup Willis Smith or Myers.
In an attempt to get extra blocking on the field, the Raiders used rookie offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom as an extra tackle. Again, Atkins was doubled by Wisniewski and Brisiel.
Manny Lawson just runs right around Bergstrom, and since he’s coming from Palmer’s blind side the QB doesn’t even see him coming. The double team also gives Vontaze Burfict a great blitzing lane right in Palmer’s face.
The play probably still ends in a sack, but Lawson swiped at Palmer’s hand as Bergstrom attempted to push him clear and the fumble bounces a couple yards before eventually being recovered by Ray Maualuga.
Bergstrom was on the field for exactly one play as a pass blocker, according to ProFootballFocus, and this was it. Apparently the Raiders had good reason to start Smith over Bergstrom at right tackle when Barnes missed significant time with a groin injury. Bergstrom looks like an interior player only in the future.
The Raiders signed Barnes and Carlisle to one-year deals in the offseason, and if there are better options out there the Raiders will have to seriously consider bringing them in as replacements in the offseason. Carlisle and Barnes are both veterans, but their play no longer merits them being starters.
Brisiel’s contract is a stickier issue because he signed a five-year deal in the offseason worth $20 million. He’s certainly not played like a lineman worth $4 million per season. As that was one of only two contracts that Reggie McKenzie gave out to free agents this offseason that spanned more than one season, the Raiders might be reluctant to cut their losses.
McKenzie should apply a principle from the business and economics world. Brisiel was paid in 2012 that money is gone; it’s a sunk cost. The Raiders should not continue paying Brisiel $4 million per season with little hope of that the investment is going to pay off.
“To continue to invest in a hopeless project is irrational. Such behavior may be a pathetic attempt to delay having to face the consequences of one's poor judgment. The irrationality is a way to save face, to appear to be knowledgeable, when in fact one is acting like an idiot.” - The Skeptic’s Dictionary
There will be those out there that point to last season as evidence that these linemen can get the job done and indeed pass protection has not being their biggest issue, but as veterans any hope for significant improvement in technique or ability is a pipe dream. Oakland’s run blocking has been even worse, and that’s using a scheme designed to mask obvious the obvious talent weaknesses of the offensive line.