The Raiders offense looked downright awful against the Rams – sans Chris Warren III. But there are plenty of highlights when you look below the surface.
Oakland came up short in its Week 2 contest, losing to the Los Angeles Rams, 19-15. These same Rams will face the Raiders in Week 1 of the regular season, so the coaching staff opted to keep most of the top-line starters and its playbook on the sidelines. Despite the stripped-down game plan, there are some revelations to scrutinize as depth on the roster comes into focus.
No. 1: Backup Quarterback
This is a tough competition for all the wrong reasons. After looking comfortable and in control last week, Conner Cook was inaccurate and appeared unsure of himself. He only completed 50 percent (6 of 12) of his passes for 49 yards. Hopefully, the condensed game plan was the source of his struggles and he regains his form next week.
Fellow quarterback EJ Manuel didn’t fare any better. His 62 percent completion rate, 89 passing yards and one touchdown misrepresented his performance. Both quarterbacks lost a fumble, making this EJ’s second straight game losing a fumble. His passing was erratic and consistently off the mark. His lone touchdown was more the result of a great catch by wide receiver Griff Whalen than anything.
Former Raiders coach John Madden famously stated: “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.” In this case, the Raiders have two guys at the most critical roster spot doing their best to give the job away. It’s very late in the process to bring in another quarterback and expect them to learn a playbook as extensive as Jon Gruden’s. One of the two is going to have to step up or the Raiders will struggle if starter Derek Carr sustains another injury.
No. 2: Chris Warren III Owns the Preseason
With the veterans sitting this one out, running back Chris Warren III had a chance to take ownership of a roster spot and did not disappoint. Once again, the undrafted free agent looked quick and powerful on his way to 110 rushing yards on 18 carries, an average of 6.1 yards. His contribution surpassed the 107 yards passing both backups combined for while matching their single touchdown.
Most surprising is the way the bruising 250-pound Warren can consistently get to the edge. It doesn’t matter if it is an outside zone or a toss sweep like this one, he beats the defense to the corner. A guy his size typically doesn’t have the athletic ability to make runs like this, but No. 34 finds a way. The only question he has left to answer is whether or not he can continue to produce in the regular season because he looks to have secured a roster spot.
No. 3: Gareon Conley Makes His Return
Former first-round pick Gareon Conley saw game action for the first time in almost a year. He didn’t show any obvious signs his latest injury has slowed him down. He helped stop an outside run by maintaining containment and forcing the runner back inside. His coverage ability doesn’t seem to have waned either. The only official stat he produced this week may have been the most important one — a game started. The defense is counting on him to be their No. 1 cornerback.
Here he plays a “heads-up” technique. The receiver attempts to run at Conley’s feet in an attempt to get him to open his hips. Instead, Conley maintains his inside leverage and is in perfect position to react to the comeback route. For a guy dealing with lower body injuries, it is great to see his start-and-stop ability looks unaffected. Being a first-round pick ensures he will get most of the attention, but Conley was not the only defensive back to impress in this game.
No. 4: Nick Nelson Secures a Roster Spot
The Raiders selected cornerback Nick Nelson in the fourth round of this year’s draft despite the knee injury he suffered during private workouts with the Detroit Lions. Like many of the team’s other selections, this one is looking like a very good decision. He has seemingly been everywhere.
It was also interesting to see the similarities between Nelson and Conley’s technique when faced with the same route. There is little physical difference between them, which is incredible considering how much praise Conley gets for his coverage ability. He was credited with two tackles, one solo, and a pass defense this week, but the quality of his play can be seen with a simple eye test. Nelson is going to be a great addition to the team.
No. 5: Young Linebackers Making Plays
A few of the Raiders recent draft picks have been showing up as well. Whenever a new coaching staff comes in there is never any guarantee returning players are going to fit into the new system or even be given a shot to make the roster. It seems this staff is not only giving recent picks an opportunity but is doing much more for their development. Linebackers Marquel Lee, Nicholas Morrow, and the biggest surprise of all, EDGE Shilique Calhoun, are giving themselves opportunities to make the team.
Calhoun has been moved to his natural position of defensive end and it has helped his production. He looks increasingly “sudden” and has been unblockable at times. It must be pointed out that most of his playing time has come late in games and is against the opposing second- and third-string offense. Hopefully, plays like this one will get him opportunities to face stiffer competition.
Calhoun did not get a sack in this game, but his pressure forced the quarterback up in the pocket, where defensive tackle Mo Hurst finished off the play. Two of his three tackles were for a loss, and Shilique added two hits on the quarterback. The EDGE position is stacked with big names like Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin, Fadol Brown, and rookie standout Arden Key, so roster spots are at a premium. He needs to keep showing up like this if he wants to play.
Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow are opening eyes at the linebacker spot. With free-agent signings Derek Johnson and Tahir Whitehead seemingly slotted to be starters, the young duo may be forcing the staff into a tougher decision than they anticipated.
Lee had five tackles, four solo, a sack, a tackle for a loss, and another hit on the quarterback. Morrow accounted for four tackle, two solo. Both players have continually been around the ball carrier, and, most importantly, have maintained their gap responsibilities. Nothing will hurt their chances to start in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s system than giving up big runs because they are out of position. This completion should pick up in the next game as the first team will see significant playing time.
Facing a team it will open the season against forced the coaching staff to minimize what plays and coverages it used. Most of the best players were not in uniform and the attention given to the passing game held the offense back. Outside of some individual performances, the loss shouldn’t be judged too harshly.
There were some young players who played well and a couple quarterbacks who struggled. There are still two weeks and a couple of games left to evaluate before every roster decision will be made, but there are a few players who are already cementing their spots on the roster.