Taking Stock of Oakland Raiders Ahead of Week 6 Bye
On Monday, Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio used the term self-scouting to describe the process of reflection for the coaching staff during the bye week. He told reporters that a 2-3 record falls short of the team’s goals, but he acknowledged the strides and improvements made over the course of five weeks.
Del Rio’s Raiders have faults, every team does, but Oakland has taken plenty of steps in the right direction.
The Raiders played competitively in four consecutive games and emerged victorious in half of them. The team snapped an 11-game losing streak on the road, won consecutive games for the first time since 2012 and went toe-to-toe with the undefeated division-leading Denver Broncos.
Oakland shed the image as a pushover and pushed back on teams that normally had their way with an uninspired team.
Ultimately, the Raiders' culture shift attributes to changes from the top down. The new regime defined a new direction for the franchise by infusing the locker room with leaders and rolling the dice on midseason acquisitions to improve the roster.
For the most part, the results have yielded a promising outlook. However, the Raiders must continue to reinvent the wheel to build upon the improvements.
This inclusive stock report doesn’t indicate stock up or stock down, but it highlights some of the major themes within the five layers of the Raiders organization—from the front office to the roster.
Stale Offense Enters Period of Uncertainty
The Raiders scored a combined 64 points in their two wins and 30 points in the last two losses. The inability to refresh the offense contributes to the drop-off in scoring. Teams watch film and game-plan to take away strengths, which makes counter-planning an important factor in winning games week to week.
How did the Raiders respond when opposing defenses neutralized wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree in the passing attack? Not so good. Thus far, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave hasn’t put together a counterpunch to combat the lack of production from his primary weapons.
The Raiders need another viable receiving option to help carry the load when the starting wide receivers struggle to produce. The uncertainty in the ground attack makes the challenge of defining a third offensive weapon difficult.
Del Rio hasn’t provided much context to running back Latavius Murray’s situation concerning his inactivity in the second half of the Week 5 matchup with the Broncos. He told local reporters that Murray was available to play, but the coaching staff decided to use backup Roy Helu in the clutch.
Murray gets 12 days to recuperate before another divisional matchup against the San Diego Chargers. He’ll likely play after much-needed rest, but will he redeem his role in the fourth quarter?
Charles Woodson Is the Unquestioned Heart of New Defense
Safety Charles Woodson projected as an on-field mentor heading into the 2015 season. He’s fulfilled that role in a much larger capacity as a playmaker and heart of the defense.
According to TeamRankings.com, Woodson and Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman lead the league in interceptions with four apiece. The 39-year-old safety isn’t just mentoring the young defensive backs with a dedicated approach. He’s physically showing them how to make plays despite dislocating his shoulder in Week 1.
Del Rio said he never upgraded a player from listing as out to questionable on the injury report, but defensive back T.J. Carrie bucked that trend leading up to the Broncos game.
The Raiders head coach attributes Carrie’s willingness to gut out Sunday's performance as a potential byproduct of watching Woodson suit up to play four consecutive weeks with a significant shoulder injury.
Woodson bailed the Raiders defense out of trouble in Cleveland, placed the team in position to close out a game against the Chicago Bears and intercepted Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning twice in a stellar performance.
Initially, it seemed as though the defensive front would continuously save the secondary from strife, but Woodson’s play has flipped that narrative. Oftentimes, the opposing quarterback evades the pass rush, but the 18-year veteran finds a way to make a leaping grab on the back end.
Raiders Cannot Overlook Special Teams Issues
Sebastian Janikowski’s next outing will determine a poor singular performance or a confidence issue for the 16-year kicker.
In Week 5, Janikowski broke a record for most games as a Raider with 241 appearances in silver and black. Unfortunately, two missed field goals marred a special day. Although his recent struggle came as a rare surprise, Oakland hopes those failed attempts aren't the beginning of a decline.
The lack of kick and punt returners poses a larger issue. Taiwan Jones missed the last two games with a foot injury. Carrie suffered a chest injury on a punt return in Week 4.
In the Raiders' last outing, Marcel Reece and Helu returned kicks, and Cooper fielded a punt. Oakland hopes to see Jones recover over the next two weeks. Carrie’s value to the secondary may keep him away from special teams duties going forward.
Nonetheless, Cooper shouldn’t fill in as the answer at punt returner. The potential loss of Cooper to a bang-bang play on special teams would hurt the offense tremendously, especially without the consistent presence of a third receiving weapon.
Coordinators Showing Flexibility with Some Upside
Musgrave bears the brunt of major criticism after consecutive poor performances from the offense and conservative play-calling in the red zone. However, he’s played a vital role in quarterback Derek Carr’s development.
The Raiders' passing attack ranks 11th in the league on the arm of a second-year quarterback who’s learning a new offense with three new targets at wide receiver. It’s impossible to give Carr credit for his development without acknowledging Musgrave’s role in his growth.
Carr has 21 starts on his resume and marches to the beat of his coaches at this stage in his career, until he learns how to fully read various coverages.
In a press conference with local reporters, he admitted to leaning on Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing in his decision-making on the field.
“They tell me where to go with the ball versus certain looks,” Carr said. "My job is the easy part, those guys are the ones doing all the hard work trying to pick all that stuff up.”
For all the criticism Musgrave receives for his play-calling in critical moments, he also engineered an unlikely game-winning drive in Week 2 against the Baltimore Ravens. He's made good use of Reece as a receiver and continues to steer Carr down a road of steady improvement.
Ken Norton Jr.
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. shows flexibility in configuring an effective defense.
He transitioned from a 4-3 to 3-4 base alignment, which yielded five sacks in its debut against the Cleveland Browns in Week 3. In the same game, Carrie lined up at safety instead of cornerback.
Both concept adjustments worked successfully in a 27-20 victory over the Browns.
In Week 5, Norton expanded linebacker Neiron Ball’s role in passing situations to solve tight end coverage issues. Ball played 36 snaps compared to Curtis Lofton’s 22 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
The tendency to make adjustments and use good judgment speaks to effective coaching. Lineup changes become hit-or-miss and open to criticism, but Norton isn’t reluctant to tinker with the defense for better results.
The Front Office Made Solid Short-Term and Long-Term Moves
General manager Reggie McKenzie takes a lot of heat for his decisions over the past three years. His 2013 draft class hasn’t panned out as planned, but his last two drafts brought in the core of this year’s team.
McKenzie detractors argue that Carr, Cooper and Khalil Mack were obvious picks, but plenty of safe picks flop after successful college careers. It's impossible to predict the future of an NFL prospect—even the most polished individuals may disappoint. Every year, general managers miss on draft picks from the first to seventh round.
Let’s not forget McKenzie's mid- to late-round hits like defensive tackle Justin Ellis, offensive guard Gabe Jackson, Carrie and Murray, who has the tools to bounce back from a rough stretch. Ball could become the latest unassuming pick to flourish as a solid coverage linebacker.
McKenzie also made in-season decisions to better the roster in the short term when signing edge-rusher Aldon Smith to bolster the pass rush and cornerback David Amerson to help the pass defense.
Offseason free-agent signings have strengthened personnel on both sides of the ball. Crabtree serves as a complementary threat to Cooper on the outside. Nose tackle Dan Williams and linebacker Malcolm Smith provide leadership in the locker room and toughness to the run defense, which is ranked fourth in the league, allowing 83.2 yards per game.
Finally, the hiring of Del Rio helps the Raiders’ growth in the long term. Woodson provided testimony that speaks to the culture change in a short timespan, via NFL.com:
As a total team I think the last couple of years that I've been here I don't know if everybody felt like we were going to go into the games and win the games. So this year is definitely a different atmosphere, a different team, different coaching staff, everything is different this year and I really believe that everybody on this team feels like when we go into the game on we're going to come out victorious.
Unlike previous seasons, the Raiders approach games with confidence expecting to win. They’re putting together competitive performances through 60 minutes.
We cannot expect them to win all their close games with such a young and inexperienced core, but these shortcomings should eventually lead to better results as the team learns from heartbreaking losses and critical errors. This year’s team will likely fall short of the playoffs, but foundational pieces are in place for the Raiders' resurgence.
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Week 5 statistics and play-by-play analysis provided by NFL.com.