While many in Raider Nation think about the big moves the Las Vegas Raiders have made, it’s the small things that sometimes go overlooked that have a the biggest impact.
Since taking over in his second stint as the Raiders head coach, Jon Gruden has seen his team take subtle steps towards improvement despite a meager 11-21 record after two seasons.
In 2019, the team got off to an unexpected 6-4 start and were in the thick of things in the AFC playoff hunt. Fans who had hopes of a playoff run were quickly brought back to reality when the Raiders suffered a collapse as their battered and overmatched roster lost five of their last six plagued by injuries, second-half scoring droughts, and a porous defense prone to giving up the big play.
In the offseason, general manager Mike Mayock made it a point of emphasis to upgrade the roster by signing high end free agents on defense and added a trio of offensive weapons through the draft.
With training camp now underway, hope springs eternal with the added talent on both sides of the ball. Many believe the Raiders are in a position to not only flirt with the playoffs but to punch their ticket in 2020.
If the Raiders want to take the next step forward in this latest rebuild, then here are four little things that will have a big impact on their quest for the playoffs.
Winning in the AFC West
The Raiders can ensure their chances of making the playoffs by winning their division – the AFC West. That goal could prove to be unattainable with the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs sharing the AFC West.
Luckily for the Raiders, and other NFL teams, this year’s playoffs are expanded by one team in each conference. That means seven teams will earn their way into the league’s postseason tournament.
While the goal is to win the division, Las Vegas’ best chance may be as one of the three wildcard teams. In order to get that wildcard spot, it’s imperative to be more competitive within the division.
Dating back to 2017, the Raiders are 6-12 against AFC West opponents (1-5, 3-3 under Gruden). A realistic second-place finish is plausible and almost probable to give the talent upgrades on both sides of the ball.
Outside of Patrick Mahomes, the Raiders will not face an elite quarterback within their division.
In Denver, Drew Lock is the guy with only five career starts under his belt heading into year two. Lock is surrounded by an extremely young group of offensive weapons and an aging defense.
The quarterback battle in Los Angeles is between veteran Tyrod Taylor and rookie Justin Herbert. Taylor, with his fourth team in eight seasons, started for the Browns in Cleveland but was unable to hold off rookie Baker Mayfield and eventually lost the job.
If it’s not Taylor the Chargers will rely on the rookie, Herbert who lost the entire offseason of preparation do to the COVID pandemic.
One other thing the Raiders have going for them is with the possibility of no fans in stadiums their trip to Arrowhead in week five might not give the Chiefs a true home field advantage.
Arrowhead has been a house of horrors for Derek Carr with an 0-5 record.
The Raiders would be well on their way to clinching a playoff berth if they can take advantage of crowd-less Arrowhead stadium and inexperienced quarterbacks in Los Angeles and Denver.
Improve Turnover Differential
When you look back to the 2016 season, which was the last time the Raiders made the playoffs, one thing they did very well was force turnovers.
In fact, they finished the season with a differential of +16, tied for the league lead. During that magical 12-4 season, the defense generated 16 interceptions and 14 fumbles.
In three seasons since, the Raiders have had differentials of -14, -7, and -2. Just for some reference, the 2016 defense wasn’t any better than what we’ve seen in recent years. They allowed 6,001 total yards and 24 points per game.
In contrast the 2019 defense allowed 5,667 total yards and 26 points a game.
The point here is that the defense is still a work in progress. They don’t have to be ranked among the top ten in points allowed, simply being opportunistic and creating turnovers will suffice.
Cut Down on Penalties
The Las Vegas Raiders have been one of the most heavily penalized teams in the league dating back to 2010. Three times in the past nine seasons they ranked tops in most penalties per game. 2019 was no different, ranking third with an average of eight fouls per contest.
When on offense, penalties can be drive killers and for the defense, laundry on the field can help opposing teams extend drives and give them second opportunities. To make matters worse, the Raiders ranked second in penalty yards per game with 71.
A large number of penalties are a sign of a team that lacks focus and discipline. The Raiders have to do better – and do a lot better – to have a fighting chance at the postseason.
Defensive Efficiency on Third Down
When Jon Gruden met with members of the media last week, we asked if he had identified areas of improvement for the offense.
“We need more opportunities with the ball,” said Gruden. “I think we were last in the NFL in possessions. We need more three and outs. We need our defense to get us the ball back more often. We are not getting enough possessions, that would help.”
And Gruden is right. In 2019 the Raiders defense allowed opposing teams to convert 43% of the time on third down and forced only 15 total turnovers, which ranked them next to last in the NFL.
The recipe is simple: the more times you get off the field on third down, the more chances you give your offense to control the clock and put points on the board.
With the additions of Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkowski, Maliek Collins, Demaryius Randall, and a healthy Johnathan Abram, this is an area the defense should improve on in 2020.