Following up a 12-4 season with a 4-5 start leads to finger-pointing, and head coach Jack Del Rio is the target.
The expectations for the 2017 Oakland Raiders were high and they are falling considerably short of meeting them. The additions of Marshawn Lynch, Jared Cook and Cordarrelle Patterson combined with its current nucleus were supposed to ignite the offense into one of the most unstoppable forces in the league.
While Cook is on pace for a career year, Lynch is averaging just 40 rushing yards per game. Patterson’s made an impact on jet sweeps and reverses but has only 69 receiving yards and is averaging under five yards per reception.
Defensively, it’s a wonder how the Oakland Raiders even went 12-4 last season, considering how underwhelmingly the defense performed. Finishing in the bottom 10 of the NFL in rushing and passing yards per game allowed, the Raiders’ defense gave up 24.1 points per game, which was in the bottom half of the league. The Raiders’ defense allowed 6.1 yards per play, which was the most of any NFL teams last season.
Help came in the way for the defense in the form of cornerback Gareon Conley, safety Obi Melifonwu and defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes, who were the team’s first-, second- and third-round draft picks.
Unfortunately, Conley and Melifonwu have been limited to just three games combined due to injuries and Conley’s problematic shin splints may force him to miss the remainder of the season. The midseason pickup of Navarro Bowman has provided the unit a boost but they have still given up an average of 30 points per game after Bowman’s arrival.
There has been plenty outside of Del Rio’s control that has plagued the Raiders, but the poor usage of personnel is one that he deserves criticism for.
With over 1,600 pounds (average of 322 per starter) of manpower in its starting five, Oakland boasts one the NFL’s biggest and most powerful offensive lines. They thrive in situations where they can drive block and root defensive lineman out of their gaps to open running lanes for the Raiders backs. What they aren’t is fleet of foot or particularly quick working laterally, but for some reason, that is what Oakland is tasking them with this year.
Instead of running a predominantly gap-blocking scheme, the Raiders are attacking defenses with wide zone runs. That style of blocking moves the entire offensive line in the direction of the play, but there is no designated hole the ball is to go through. The onus is put on the offensive lines ability to work laterally to create lanes and on the running back to find the space. That concept not only negates the strength of the offensive line but also Lynch who is a powerful back that is best when attacking downhill. Putting more stress on his ability to read the defense and cut takes away from his power components.
There have been some signs of Oakland getting back to gap-blocking runs, but steering away from it in favor of outside zone is a gross misuse of its personnel, and that is 100 percent on Del Rio for allowing it.
The passing game has equally been confusing. Despite quarterback Derek Carr’s ability to push the ball down the field vertically, Oakland is scheming up quick passes and screens. Carr has proven quite capable of reading defenses and hitting window throws with anticipation while attacking man coverage where his receiver has leverage. Not attacking defenses vertically allows opponents to play up on the short passes and aggressively play forward.
According to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, Carr’s average intended air yards is only 8.2, which is 26th in the NFL. With an average of 2.33 seconds of time to throw, Carr is by far the fastest triggered quarterback in the NFL. Carr’s rocket arm combined with the ball skills of Cook, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree should be a recipe for an aggressive passing attack. Again, Del Rio may not be an offensive-minded coach but it’s easy to see the negligence in how the offensive personnel is being utilized.
Prior to the 2016 season, the Raiders went 13 consecutive years without a playoff berth. Before the start of that 13-year drought, the Raiders only missed the playoffs a total of 15 times in the Super Bowl era ranging from 1966-2002. In what was a black-eye in Raiders history, in the 12 seasons between the 2002 Super Bowl loss and Jack Del Rio being hired as head coach, the Raiders averaged just 4.7 wins per season and finished last in the AFC West six times while never finishing higher than third.
Del Rio deserves credit for getting Oakland out of a dark era of Raiders football, but this season is putting doubt into last seasons success. Did everything just go right, and is the 2017 version of the Raiders more indicative of what they will look like under Del Rio?
Time will tell and Del Rio deserves to be the Raiders head coach in 2018 but how they finish this season will be telling. For as bad as Oakland has played, the playoffs are not out of the equation. The sixth seed is very much in reach and there’s no reason Oakland can’t steal it.
At 5-4, Buffalo is currently clinging to the sixth seed but have been embarrassed in back-to-back games to the Jets and Saints. At 4-5, Oakland is lumped in with the Ravens and Dolphins, just a game behind Buffalo with 7 games to play. All of the teams vying for the final playoff spot are flawed but capable of separating from the pack. Why not Oakland?
The pending seven-game stretch for Oakland out of the bye week will be revealing to Del Rio’s capabilities of leading the Raiders. Do they make adjustments offensively to better utilize its talent? Do they subscribe to the next man up philosophy on defense and show growth?
No matter what happens, Del Rio deserves next season to prove if 2016 was a lie or not. With that said, it could be a make or break year for him. The Raiders are too talented to be a middling team in the AFC. If he is the guy that can lead Oakland to playoff wins and beyond, that starts with a run at the sixth seed this year and contending for an AFC Championship in 2018.
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