Offensive Line Woes Stalling Raiders Turnaround

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystOctober 16, 2013

Oct 6, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; General view of the line of scrimmage as Oakland Raiders center Andre Gurode (64) snaps the ball to quarterback Terrelle Pryor (2) during the game against the San Diego Chargers at Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the Chargers 27-17. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland Raiders enter the bye week with a 2-4 record. With rock-bottom expectations coming into the season, the Raiders have been a mild surprise. They have a young, exciting starting quarterback in Terrelle Pryor, and that alone has made a huge difference.

Oakland's defense has also been better than expected considering rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden and rookie linebacker Sio Moore have struggled. The defense has been playing without strong safety Tyvon Branch for several weeks, one of the two starters that remain from 2012's defensive unit.

The biggest problem for the Raiders continues to be the offensive line. With better blocking, the Raiders might be 3-3 or 4-2 right now. It's been the putrid offensive line that is really stalling Oakland's turnaround.

In defense of the team, there's not much they could have done differently considering all the injuries. Teams don't like to make excuses publicly about injuries because they are part of the game, but the Raiders were down to their last five healthy linemen at the end of last week.

Those linemen were Khalif Barnes, Lucas Nix, Mike Brisiel, Lamar Mady and Matt McCants. You know it's rough when your left tackle hadn't started a game on that side since 2008 before this season, your left guard is a first-year starter, your right guard is forced into emergency duty as the team's center and the right side of the line was recently signed from the practice squad. 

If you do the math, Oakland's projected starters at the beginning of training camp have only played 32.9 percent of the team's snaps at their projected positions. That's assuming Brisiel would have won the job at right guard, which was very much in question.

Add Nix at left guard as a projected starter and it bumps up to 12.8 percent. Add Barnes starting at left tackle instead of right tackle and it bumps up 20 percent. At the most, the projected starters have played about 66 percent of the time.

You could easily make a case that Wisniewski was the only projected start at his position to play any snaps at that position, bringing the percentage of snaps played by projected starters down to 12.9 percent, or roughly four games of play from one of the five projected starters. 

To put how banged up the offensive line is into perspective, last year's Philadelphia Eagles had projected starters play 39.8 percent of their snaps. Dan Graziano of ESPN jokingly called that unit "completely toast" by November. The Raiders will have some work to do just to be stale bread.

Pass Protection

Surprisingly, Oakland's offensive line hasn't been the worst at protecting the quarterback. The Raiders rank 20th in ProFootballFocus' pass-blocking efficiency and 19th in their grades, having allowed 11 sacks, six quarterback hits and 53 pressures. 

Nix is one of ProFootballFocus' lowest-graded guards in pass protection, coming in 56th out of 59 players that have played at least 50 percent of the time. Brisiel comes in 20th.

Tony Pashos didn't even spend training camp with the team, but is their best pass-blocker according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required). McCants is actually the team's second-best pass-blocker despite having only played 121 snaps in relief of Pashos

To highlight the pass protection woes, we'll go back to the Raiders' Week 6 game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Pryor was sacked 10 times, but the sacks were only part of the problem for Oakland.

We'll start in the second quarter after Pryor scrambled for 16 yards to get a first down at the Kansas City 40-yard line. Both right guard Brisiel and right tackle McCants are beaten immediately, forcing Pryor to throw to his hot read.

The pass lands incomplete, which is lucky because there were two defenders closing fast on tight end Jeron Mastrud. Had either Brisiel or McCants been able to hold their blocks for even a second, Pryor had a crosser wide open in the middle of the field with plenty of opportunity after the catch.

This wasn't the case of a missed assignment; Oakland's linemen just got whipped. The Chiefs have a quality defensive line, but such quick pressure is inexcusable. Such pressure makes it virtually impossible for Pryor because teams squat on his hot reads. 

When the Oakland's offensive line isn't getting beat physically, they are having other issues. On Pryor's first interception against the Chiefs, the pass protection had no fewer than four breakdowns.

Tamba Hali gets quickly around Barnes, Justin Houston gets quickly around McCants, the defensive back gets quickly around running back Darren McFadden and Nix just totally loses track of the linebacker giving him a free run at Pryor. With four breakdowns, Pryor needs to find his hot read, but it's a tough play to make because the pressure is coming from all sides and there isn't really a throwing lane.

To their credit, the Chiefs did their homework and exploited Oakland's biggest weaknesses in pass protection. To exploit Oakland's offensive line, the Chiefs overloaded the weak side of the formation with two blitzing defensive backs on 3rd-and-3.

The blitz forces Barnes to block one of the defensive backs and McFadden to block the other, leaving Hali to attack Nix. Andre Gurode tries to get over to help Nix, but he's too late, and Hali leaves Nix in his dust, takes a direct line to Pryor and gets the sack. McFadden is forced in desperation to block low on the outside because Barnes isn't quick enough to stay with the defensive back around the edge.

You could blame the poor pass protection on injuries, but Barnes, Nix and Brisiel are likely part of the starting lineup regardless, and they are being victimized just as badly as guys like Mady and McCants

Pryor certainly left some plays on the field against the Chiefs, but the pass protection was such a problem that he started to imagine pressure. That's highly concerning, and the Raiders need to get the pass protection figured out to help Pryor.

What's concerning is that the pressure the Raiders are allowing is not easily correctable. The Raiders are getting the right protections called; they just can't make the blocks. The offensive linemen can work on their technique, but that takes time.

Run Blocking

The power-run game and McFadden were supposed to carry Oakland's offense in 2013, but you can pretty much throw that idea in the garbage. McFadden himself is a problem, but the blocking hasn't really helped.

The only regular starter ProFootballFocus has given a positive run-blocking grade to this point is Wisniewski. Nix, Barnes, Brisiel, Gurode and Pashos all have negative run-blocking grades. 

Oakland's first run of the game against the Chiefs was a major head-scratcher. The first series is usually scripted, and the team runs those plays a few extra times in practice.

Here we have three offensive linemen blocking defensive end Mike DeVito. This isn't even the big nose tackle Dontari Poe, but the Raiders put three blockers on him anyway. McFadden runs right into the back of his three blockers, and that was that.

Since Akeem Jordan and Derrick Johnson are unblocked, they don't have any problem knifing through and making the tackle. I'm pretty sure this isn't how Oakland's offensive coordinator Greg Olson designed this running play. 

Without Pryor's running ability, the Raiders are averaging just 4.0 yards per carry after averaging 3.8 yards per carry last season. That's not much of a jump consider the Raiders have been able to use the read-option to open things up.

McFadden and Rashad Jennings are both averaging 3.9 yards per carry, so the two lead backs have been below average. In a man-blocking scheme, the offensive line has to physically win at the line of scrimmage, but they aren't doing that. 

Making Corrections

The Raiders might not face another defense as good as Kansas City's until they play them again, so there is hope that the offensive line will be a little better going forward. Unfortunately, the Chiefs provided a blueprint to stopping Pryor, and other teams are also going to try to exploit Oakland's weak offensive line to get pressure on him. 

If the Raiders want to turn things around, they are going to need improved play from the offensive line. It's imperative that the Raiders get Wisniewski, Menelik Watson and Jared Veldheer back as soon as possible if they are going to make some kind of run at a respectable record. 

At the bye week, teams self-scout, and the Raiders are no different. If Wisniewski, Gurode or Watson are healthy, it's time for Nix to be benched for poor play. Perhaps it's also time to give McCants more opportunities as he's done a decent job in limited duty.  

Offensive line play may not be sexy, but it's very important. Even Pryor can't totally hide all of Oakland's offensive line woes, and opponents are learning to defend the read-option. If the Raiders don't start to figure things out on the offensive line, they may be headed for a rocky second half. 

Unless otherwise noted, all snap data and grades via ProFootballFocus (subscription is required to view premium content). 


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