Sitting at 3-3 after a drubbing at the hands of Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Las Vegas Raiders enter the practice week faced with multiple realities about who they are and what they need to be.
The Las Vegas Raiders are a .500 team after six games. How should they and the millions of fans in Raider Nation feel about that? You’ll get different answers from just about anyone who cares.
Coach Jon Gruden said it simply during his Monday press conference when discussing the team’s underperforming defense and their loss to the Buccaneers.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of people talking about are we making changes, are we going to bring in new coaches, new players,” Gruden said. “We are where we are. We’re 3-3. We’re going to stick together, bond together. We’re going to make some changes in the lineup possibly and in the scheme that we use, and we’re hopefully going to change the results we’ve been getting.”
Reading the tea leaves, those calling for the head of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther aren’t going to be happy. Gruden knows the reality of the situation but is reserved – at least for now – to deal with it and move forward.
Still, it’s worth exploring where the Raiders are, and more importantly, who they are. Here are some realities the Raiders, and their fans, need to accept.
Trent Brown is Here to Stay
The Buccaneers No. 1-ranked defense was led by Devin White who sacked Raiders quarterback Derek Carr three times and punished the Raiders all day long. Most of White’s opportunities came from the right side of the line. In fact not, having Trent Brown allowed Tampa to focus on rushing the right side. They took advantage of the big man’s absence and benefited from it greatly.
Sam Young, while a capable veteran backup, has his limitations as a player as well as physically. He’s been injured multiple times in his backup role resulting in missed playing time. Perhaps this explains why, despite some very good football talent, he’s been a journeyman throughout his NFL career. Brandon Parker was then asked to fill in and did a pretty good job considering his past track record. A reach in the third round of the 2019 draft, Parker is a developmental project. Typically one would expect a top-100 draftee to be making full-time contributions, but Parker is not that guy.
It might be painful for fans to accept it, but the Raiders need Brown and are a much better team (see KC win) with him in the game. If he wants to play football, it’s in the Raiders best interest to keep him in their employ. Brown is needed far too much for the Raiders to cut him or part ways this season. When healthy, Brown is simply too good at a position of need to let get away.
The Defense is Just Plain Bad
Let’s not sugarcoat it. The Raiders defense is not good. After investing almost $90 million on defense, Las Vegas isn’t getting much on its investment. Paul Guenther may be feeling the flames when he sits down after giving up 45 points coming out of the bye. Guenther may have bought himself some time to get things right after holding the Kansas City Chiefs offense in check.
When a team burns through as many linebackers as the Raiders have in three years, spent a ton of cap on the likes of Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, and none of them are sticking, there’s a problem. Nicholas Morrow is the only remaining linebacker from when Guenther took over in 2018 and what was thought to be a strength for this team heading into the season now looks lost yet again.
Looking at the much-maligned defensive line, it’s hard to find many positives – If any. Former first-round pick Clelin Ferrell has been having a monster season at everything except getting to the quarterback. He had arguably his best game against the Chiefs, and then struggled against Tampa Bay. As a whole, the pass rush has been terrible since Guenther and Gruden rode back into the Silver and Black. Tom Brady was able to stand tall in the pocket, survey the field, and deliver strike after strike. He wasn’t sacked, rarely pressured, and may have been knocked down once.
Big free agent signings Carl Nassib and Maliek Collins have been flat-out disappointing in every aspect. With the money they’re paying both players, especially Nassib, their production must increase and fast.
On the back end, without safety Johnathan Abram the position lacks punch and has no juice. Jeff Heath and Erik Harris did little if anything to contribute to slowing Brady’s onslaught. Rob Gronkowski looked like he turned back the hands of time thanks to a young and depleted cornerback room. The Raiders defensive backs are young, talented but injured. The lack of a pass rush on this talented group has created an untaneable situation for the group. They should be a solid unit when 100-percent.
Raiders Running Game is Stuck in Neutral
The Raiders are seven weeks and six games into the season and have yet to produce a 100-yard rushing performance from Josh Jacobs.
Jacobs has been nicked up since Week 2 and doesn’t look himself. While his name has been absent from the injury report, he’s no longer producing quite the way he did last season. Jacobs has broken 12 tackles thus far is averaging 1.6 yards before contact and 1.8 yards after. Meanwhile, he’s breaking a tackle every 9.7 attempts. Comparatively speaking, last season he broke 26 tackles, averaged 1.9 yards before contact and 2.8 yards after. Breaking tackles roughly every 9.3 attempts. There may be many factors involved in this, including the revolving door at offensive line, but a few which stick out most are stacked boxes and no push from the offensive line.
In the end, Jacobs may not be a problem at all. But seven weeks into the season, if he’s not hurt, he can’t get a pass either. The 17 yards gained on 10 rushing attempts marked the first time Jacobs was held under two yards per carry in his short career. The Raiders offense hinges on being able to run the ball. They’re putting up points but to make a push for the playoffs in 2020, they have to get the running game right.
Things aren’t all doom and gloom in Raider Nation and the season has yielded some nice surprises.
One of those is wide receiver Nelson Agholor.
Agholor needed a change of scenery from Philadelphia as his career stalled after his stellar Super Bowl performance. He fell out of favor and found his way to Las Vegas to change his luck.
Since coming to the Raiders, Agholor has been a surehanded pass catcher and has caught 75% of his targets. Purely electrifying every time the ball is in his hands, Agholor seems to be the only receiver quarterback Derek Carr can consistently hit in stride. He’s caught a touchdown pass in four of six games and broke the 100 yard mark Sunday for the first time this season.
Agholor has by far been the best receiving option for the Raiders in 2020. If he isn’t being considered for a contract extension already, he should be. Should Agholor continue to produce and increase production at the rate he’s going, re-signing him in the offseason is going to become exponentially more expensive and difficult.
The Reality of the Future
The Raiders, so far, are a .500 team. Unless you’re in the NFC East, an overall .500 record isn’t going to get you in the playoffs. The Raiders can’t fix their defense in 2020 but they can improve incrementally. While their offense clearly leads the way, if the Raiders want to get to 9-7 or even 10-6 and make that push for an AFC Wild Card playoff spot, they need to find a way to get better on defense and find a way to run the ball more effectively.
That’s where the Raiders are. Let’s see where they’re capable of going with a focus on key weaknesses.