How much of a contender is Oakland now that Derek Carr won’t be donning the Silver and Black this postseason?
The Oakland Raiders may have been the league’s most surprising team this year, turning their 14-year playoff drought into history by narrowly missing out on the AFC West title and a bye to the Divisional round. Third year Pro Bowl QB Derek Carr ascended into the limelight with a string of brilliant fourth quarters that allowed the Raiders to build a 10-2 record. Oakland’s stellar offensive play and late game abilities started to solidify their status as a Super Bowl contender, rising as high as second on ESPN’s power rankings.
But just when it appeared the Silver and Black were back to being the bully on the block, disaster struck in the form of a broken fibula, promptly ending young Carr’s MVP campaign in Week 16. That was less than two weeks ago, and Jack Del Rio’s club is still reeling from losing their leader. After turning to veteran backup Matt McGloin to start the season finale, the Raiders were forced to bring in rookie Connor Cook when McGloin went down with a shoulder injury. Heading into their first playoff appearance since the Rich Gannon era, Oakland will reportedly go with Cook, who will be making his first NFL start on Saturday.
Offense: WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, Entire Offensive Line
The Raiders built their team on the strength of their passing game, finishing fourth in the league in passing DVOA. Some of that was due to Carr’s ascension, but much can be attributed to the play of the offensive line and two leading wide outs, as both playmakers went for 1,000 receiving yards.
Michael Crabtree has long been a solid NFL receiver dating back to his years on the other side of the San Fransisco Bay. He went over a 1,000 yards back in 2012 and did so for the second time in his career this past season. Crabtree doesn’t blow anyone away with amazing speed or precise route running, but he does use his body well and can adjust to balls in the air.
As a bigger receiver, Crabtree’s niche in Oakland has been in the red zone, scoring at least eight TDs each of the last two seasons. However, he has added more of a possession tactic to his game this year by hauling in a career high 89 passes for the Raiders’ robust aerial attack. It isn’t a coincidence that Crabtree has found his most sustained success while playing for Mark Davis’ squad, as he has developed an instant report with Carr, but also has benefitted from playing alongside another of the league’s most talented pass catchers.
Pro Bowler Amari Cooper broke onto the scene last year as a rookie, eclipsing the 1,000 yard barrier on 72 catches. He had an even better showing in his sophomore season, catching more balls for more yards on only two more targets. He was a stronger route runner this year, which improved his catch rate, leading him into the top 15 in DYAR for 2016.
Playing with Crabtree has allowed Cooper to take advantage of his home run ability. He ranked fourth in the NFL in 20+ yard receptions, with 25% of his catches going over that mark. Cooper is the rare deep threat who can also work intermediate and short routes with success. Watch him break a screen pass for a long TD.
That play would have never been possible if not for the excellent downfield blocking of Center Rodney Hudson and LT Donald Penn. It really encapsulates the underlying reason for the success of Oakland’s offense. Three of their lineman, Hudson, Penn and Guard Kelechi Osemele were selected to the Pro Bowl, most of any AFC team and tied for the most in the NFL with Dallas.
It then comes as no surprise that Oakland has one of the top rated lines in the league this year, coming in first in adjusted sack percentage. They were ranked in the top three by Pro Football Focus heading into Week 11, and most likely have done enough over the final month or so to remain in the top five.
With Derek Carr out and the state of the passing game in jeopardy, the line becomes even more pivotal in Houston this weekend. If the Raiders can craft a conservative game-plan centered around rushing and possessing the ball, with pass plays to their dynamic receiving duo sprinkled in, they might handle the Texans’ defense in stride. If the Raiders can’t protect Cook in his first NFL start, however, they will be asking more of the rookie than he can likely handle.
Defense: LB/DE Khalil Mack
Arguably the best defensive player in the league, Mack can dominate a game like few others. He was the first player ever selected to the All Pro team in two different positions last year. He followed up that season with another double digit sack tally in 2016 and a nod to PFF’s All-Pro team.
Talking about what Mack can do on the football field doesn’t do him justice; he really needs to be seen to be understood.
His five-sack day speaks to the damage he can do in a multitude of ways. He has the quick first step to beat slower tackles off the edge, but still has the power to bullrush guys who are weak or off balance. His agility allows him to use superior footwork to get opponents off balance and his relentless hand fighting gets him free from blocks even after lineman have engaged. Once he reaches the ball carrier, he uses great foot drive and shoulder placement coupled with consistent arm wrapping to routinely complete tackles. It’s very rare to see him miss one. He has the pure speed and instincts to make plays in coverage as well as the run game. Mack is the total package.
The only thing teams can do to neutralize him is devote multiple blockers to him on nearly every play, which frees up teammates to fill the playmaking void. While that strategy isn’t perfect, it is a better alternative than allowing Mack take over, though there is no guarantee that a double team can stop the U Buffalo product either.
With JJ Watt out of this game, Mack will be the star of the show on defense. If Mack can dominate the way he has during much of his career, Brock Osweiler’s postseason debut will be tough to watch for fans in the Lone Star State.
Best Win: 30-20 vs Denver
This was an interesting pick since the Raiders only defeated one current playoff team, and that is the same Houston team they will be playing on Saturday. Still, the win over Denver is more impressive partly because both teams were 6-2 heading into the showdown, but also because beating the defending Super Bowl champ is always a big win.
The Raiders won this game despite Derek Carr having his worst start of the season, throwing for only 184 yards. It was the offensive line that was the star of that game as they bludgeoned the stout Denver front to the tune of 218 rushing yards and 41 minutes of possession. Latavius Murray rushed for over 100 yards and three TDs on the day, while Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington combined for nearly 100 more.
Khalil Mack’s two sacks and fumble recovery paced the Oakland defense, while Reggie Nelson chipped in an interception, giving Oakland a plus two in turnover differential on the day.
If the Raiders can emulate this performance with ball control and security being the top two pillars on offense, and creating turnovers and disruption on defense, they will likely live to see next weekend.
Worst Loss: 6-24 at Denver
Picking a worst loss from Oakland’s few choices is tough because three of their defeats came at the hands of teams with byes this weekend, while the other was to the defending Super Bowl champs. Realistically, the Raiders didn’t lose to a bad team all year.
This game gets the distinction of worst loss for a couple of reasons: it was their widest margin of defeat, their lowest scoring output of the year and it kept them from winning the AFC West and getting a bye until next weekend. Had Oakland won the game and gotten the bye, McGloin may have been recovered enough from his shoulder ailment to start the Raiders’ first playoff game in over a decade.
Instead, the beating that the Raiders took at the hands of Denver doesn’t instill much confidence since it is the only game this year not started by Derek Carr. It showed mostly with turnovers, as the normally tightfisted Raiders coughed the ball up on three occasions after only 11 giveaways during the first 15 games. McGloin was wildly ineffective, throwing for only 21 yards on 11 attempts. Cook came in and turned it over twice, while the Raiders’ defense had a tough time keeping Denver out of the end zone due to bad field position. Neither side of the ball looked comfortable during the thrashing, which got as bad as 24-0 in the third quarter.
While Cook looked a little better than anticipated considering he was going against the number one passing defense in the league in his first NFL action, he will still have to learn on the fly during a game that many veteran QBs dream of starting.
Previous Matchups With Playoff Teams
Week 2: 28-35 L vs Atlanta
Week 6: 10-26 L vs Kansas City
Week 11: 27-20 W vs Houston (Game in Mexico City)
Week 14: 13-21 L @ Kansas City
Oakland didn’t play a ton of teams that made the playoffs this year and when they did, they didn’t fair particularly well. The redeeming aspect to this section is the fact that they already beat Houston this season, so there is hope for this weekend.
The game against Atlanta was a shootout that they couldn’t score enough to win. With the Falcons being one of the few teams with a better offense than Oakland, it’s not so surprising that the high-flying Raiders met their match in Matt Ryan’s bunch.
Both games against KC proved to be the toughest tests on the year, as Derek Carr had great difficulty moving the ball against the staunch Chief D. Oakland didn’t win a game all year when held to 13 points or less.
The Houston game stands out as the best indicator of how the Raiders could do this weekend for obvious reasons, but a lot is different about this upcoming matchup. The first game was played on a neutral field while Carr was still active. It’s impossible to know how a QB will react to their first career start, but its usually (Dak Prescott aside) a safe assumption that they won’t perform at an MVP caliber-level like Carr.
Given how the first game against Houston went, the outlook for this upcoming game doesn’t seem too promising when considering that Oakland ran for a measly 30 yards on 20 carries. If they can’t get the running game going, they will have to hope that their rookie signal caller can bear the load in his first start, which seems like a recipe for disaster. If Oakland is out possessed and out gained, as they were in the first meeting, they will have a very slim chance on enemy turf.
Performance Leading Up to the Postseason
The Raiders have only lost four games all year, but two of those four losses have come in the last four weeks. Even before Carr went down, the Raiders were starting to show they could be beaten by more physical teams like Kansas City, and that notion was validated by their pathetic showing in Denver.
Without Carr, the whole Raiders’ season feels like it has stopped. Any momentum they had built heading towards the end of the year is gone. He was about to prove himself to be one of the league’s true elite QBs, but now will have to wait until next year. Oakland scored 30 points in eight of their 12 wins and went 2-3 when scoring less than 27 points. They didn’t score 30 in three of their last four games, so that doesn’t bode well for them.
Level of Contender: Pretender
The playoffs were likely going to be a learning process for Oakland even with Carr at the helm. It would have been nice to see this team learn while trying to make themselves into legitimate contenders this year, but with Tom Brady playing like he is, it wasn’t likely.
One interesting factor of this team going into the playoffs is Cooks’ performance. If he struggles like many anticipate, the Raiders’ first trip to the postseason in 14 years could be a short one. On the other hand, if Cook surprises and wins a game or two, he could play himself into the favor of some other GMs and coaches, as it will be extremely unlikely to see him unseat a healthy Carr.
If it weren’t for the broken fibula, Oakland would be in the contender status here, but given that this bunch has no playoff experience and a rookie QB making his first career start, they can’t be expected to win more than a game. Of all this weekend’s games, though, this one has the smallest line. That shows Vegas has more faith in the Raiders than the other road teams, and they always know a thing or two. Maybe that is trying to warm up home fans as Vegas might be the next destination for the franchise. Either way, the +3.5 line is telling of a team that has a chance to defeat the lowest rated DVOA team in the playoffs.
If they do manage to knock off Houston, beating KC, whom they’ve lost to twice with their starting QB, or New England with the incomparable Tom Brady, will be monumental. It’s a shame, but we all will have to wait another year before we find out if Oakland is the real deal.
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