Adjustments the Raiders Must Make to Reach Postseason

Nicholas Cothrel
Las Vegas Raiders playoffs

The Raiders’ quest to obtain a wild card spot in the AFC will be a difficult road down the stretch. However, it still remains an achievable feat if they make the proper adjustments over the next five weeks.

Just when it seemed the Las Vegas Raiders were making progress to get over their playoff dry spell, they took a considerable step backward in their Week 12 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

The Raiders’ 43-6 defeat in Atlanta is arguably the team’s worst loss since Jon Gruden arrived back on the sideline for his second go-around with the team. Not only did the Raiders fall short by 37 points, but Gruden’s offense couldn’t manufacture much of anything as they left Mercedes-Benz Stadium without scoring a touchdown.

For several weeks, the Raiders have positioned themselves to be in the playoff hunt down the stretch and as a result, their production on offense has been the focal point leading the team. Now, coming off consecutive losses in weeks 11 and 12, it’s gut-check time for the Raiders.

Here are the adjustments the Raiders need to make down the stretch to get back into the thick of things:

Priority No. 1: Ball Security

Las Vegas Raiders Derek Carr fumble
Derek Carr’s NFL-leading 11 fumbles must come to an end. It’s the only spot on what has been an impeccable year for the Raiders starting quarterback.

Quarterback Derek Carr fumbled three times on Sunday, moving his season total to a league-high 11 on the year. Carr has notoriously had a fumbling problem throughout his seven-year career, and while he’s elevated several areas of his game this season, this old problem is back — haunting him once again.

“We practice it all the time, too, that’s the frustrating part,” Carr said after the Week 12 loss. “On the first one, we always talk about two hands on the ball. I had two hands on the ball and he literally just hit right on my forearm and the ball slipped out of my hands. And then really the other two were as I was throwing. I never saw the last two guys. Those things, you don’t want them to happen, but they happen.”

To win games in the NFL, and win them consistently, you have to protect the football at all costs. Whether that’s bracing for the sack to ensure the football won’t come loose or throw the ball away if the play doesn’t develop — Carr can’t continue to give opposing teams extra possessions. As the Falcons game showed, giving your opposition extra opportunities to score just further narrows the margin of coming back, and that’s how games can get out of hand rather quickly.

Carr’s passing this season has been very detail-originated. He’s thrown only four interceptions, but collectively when you factor in his fumbling miscues, Carr is responsible for 12 turnovers this season. His offensive line also has a helping hand in preventing giveaways, but ultimately if the ball security doesn’t improve this season, the Raiders could lose out once more in a nearing-playoff run during the final five weeks of play.

Priority No. 2: Reduce Penalties

Las Vegas Raiders Jon Gruden
Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden’s team must not allow penalties to give their opponents more opportunities down the stretch. Photo: Matt Aguirre/Raiders

The Raiders committed 11 penalties on Sunday, which netted the Falcons 141 yards. Giving any team that kind of free yardage will set them back, but doing it against the NFL’s second-ranked offense severely put the Raiders at a disadvantage that they could not climb out of.

The Raiders got off on good footing to start the season with minimal penalties. However, their discipline appears to be running thin as they’ve now been penalized 27 times for 295 yards over their last three games against the Broncos, Chiefs and Falcons.

“We’ve been pretty good to this point,” Gruden said after Sunday’s game. “We’ve had a couple games where we have been penalized. Roughing the passer, roughing the kicker, we had some holding calls, illegal hands to the face. You fall behind in the down and distance. You give teams free shots. It’s a recipe for disaster, and that was what you saw today.”

Penalties are often a reflection of the coaching staff. Gruden has mentioned that several times himself this season. While the recent penalties raise a concern, not much of the player personnel has changed for the Raiders from where they started early in the year when penalities weren’t an issue. Penalties are fixable. It doesn’t require a player’s speed or athletic ability. It’s strictly about discipline, and Gruden needs to get the Raiders back to playing fundamentally sound while eliminating the careless errors that set them back in the down and distance.

Priority No. 3: Kickstart WR Henry Ruggs III

Las Vegas Raiders Henry Ruggs III
Henry Ruggs III catches a pass at Las Vegas Raiders practice in Henderson, Nev. on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2020. Photo: Matt Aguirre/Raiders

Henry Ruggs III has just nine games under his belt. As a rookie, there’s a lot of wisdom to be learned in the NFL. But on another note, he was taken with the 12th overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, and with that comes lofty expectations.

Carr looked Ruggs’ direction five times, connecting on three of his passes with the rookie in Week 12. The chemistry looks to be a slow process but one that is showing signs of growth.

The Raiders rank 32nd in receptions by wide receivers. It’s not solely on Ruggs as play-calling has a lot to do with it. But as the weather starts to get colder and teams are forced to run the football with more regularity, inserting play-action passes with the intent of targeting the speedster would help open things up.

Ruggs’ up and down production hasn’t held back the Raiders at any point this season. But it hasn’t taken them over the top either. And that’s what the Raiders need most right now. It’s crunch time for their playoff hopes. They need certain players to step up with the season coming to a close, and Ruggs is that guy who has a game-changing skill set. It’s just a matter of the Raiders’ coaching staff tapping into what they believe Ruggs can eventually be.

Priority No. 4: Continue Getting Better on Defense

Las Vegas Raiders Clelin Ferrell
The Raiders are hopeful Clelin Ferrell will return to face the New York Jets on Sunday. Photo: Matt Aguirre/Raiders

The Raiders have yet to get things figured out on defense this season. Although, they have shown mild progress in recent weeks.

“I thought the defense played pretty well, especially early,” receiver Hunter Renfrow said on Sunday. “They gave us a chance, but offensively we just have to play better.”

The defense allowed 43 points last week, but a chunk of that has to do with the turnovers from the team’s offense, which turned into points. Defensively, they forced the Falcons to kick five field goals and held quarterback Matt Ryan to 185 passing yards.

Over the last five weeks, the Raiders have allowed 24.4 points per game. To put in perspective the progress that’s been made, the Raiders allowed 32.8 points per game in the season’s first six weeks. There’s still room for additional growth, but if the Raiders can get their defense to maintain the same level of play that they’ve shown in the last five weeks, they should have no issue staying in games once their offense presumably clicks things back into gear.