After a seemingly endless wait, the Raiders were finally back on the field Friday night. Coach Jon Gruden’s new-look roster took on the Detroit Lions to show some progress and highlight where work still needs to be done. Oakland would hold on to win, 16-10, though the final tally didn’t tell the story.
Some questionable penalties, self-inflicted wounds and other miscues prevented the score from being much more lopsided.
Of course, it’s preseason, and many of the players, especially in the second half, will not be on a roster when the regular season starts in September. Game plans are also simplified, with an emphasis on getting players into positions for coaches to analyze and make the best roster choices they can. While the outcome shouldn’t be used as a barometer for future success, we can look at some takeaways from the overall team play and player performances.
The Running Game is Back
During the 2017 season, the Raiders ranked 25th in rushing after finishing sixth the previous year. Gruden is looking to reverse that trend and, if this contest is an indication, he has already succeeded.
On the game’s first rushing attempt, running back Marshawn Lynch broke off an apparent 60-yard touchdown run that was called back due to a questionable holding call on rookie left tackle Kolton Miller. Even though the gain was nullified, it was a precursor of things to come. Lynch was able to bounce an inside zone run to the edge and race down the sideline. His noticeable quickness and breakaway speed seem to confirm reports that Lynch came to camp in great shape and is focused on winning.
The offensive line consistently set the edge, and the Raiders gained 147 yards on 31 carries or 4.74 yards per rush. This could simply be a case of a favorable matchup as the Lions were 18th in rush defense last year, but the offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage.
Chris Warren III Pushes For Roster Spot
As the second play in this clip highlights, undrafted free agent running back Chris Warren III gave the coaching staff another name to consider when it comes time to decide who makes the 53-man roster. Warren accounted for 86 yards on 13 carries, averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Of course, running backs in Gruden’s offense must be complete players and provide pass protection and be receiving threats. Warren did well in both categories.
“He’s (Warren) a big back. You don’t know it, but he’s 253 pounds, he can run 4.5 (40-yard dash),” Gruden said. “He’s a hammer, he can really thump you, and he’s got breakaway speed. He’s improving in the passing game, he’s becoming more and more of a running back instead of just a runner. He’s becoming a receiver, blitz pick up, all those little details are improving, but he’s got a lot of talent.”
If Warren can continue to stack good practices with solid game performances, he will most likely earn a place on the roster. Fellow running backs Doug Martin, Jalen Richard, and DeAndre Washington are very similar to each other, but do not fit the power back role, so they will compete with each other, rather than against Warren.
Conner Cook in Command
Conner Cook has been assessed by many as a wasted draft pick. Perhaps until now. The fact the Raiders traded up to select him with current Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback Dak Prescott still on the board made the pick look that much worse. While one preseason performance will not silence the critics, it showed Cook has a real shot at backup quarterback.
Cook completed 11 of his 19 passes for a 57.8 percent completion rate. He put up 141 yards, with an average of 12.8 yards per completion. His one touchdown pass was also the only one thrown in the game. Stats aside, it was how calm and in command he looked that really stood out. Of course, the condensed game plan might have played a role in that.
As the plays in these clips show, Cook was able to read the field, escape the pocket, then throw with great accuracy while on the move. On the first play, Cook shows pinpoint accuracy on this scramble drill. His pass to tight end Paul Butler to start the second quarter was perfectly placed. He would follow it up three plays later with a touchdown pass to wide receiver Ryan Switzer. Cook looks like he is getting comfortable in Gruden’s offense.
“He’s had an excellent training camp,” Gruden said. “He has not turned the ball over, he’s shown pretty good command. There are a couple decisions I just can’t wait to talk to him about and get his perspective but he moved the team, put points on the board. I liked the 2-minute at the end of the half.”
Gruden would go on to call Cook “one of the most improved offensive players” on the team. That is high praise for a coach known to be toughest on his quarterbacks. Fellow quarterback EJ Manuel will still have opportunities to showcase himself, but it looks like he will be in an uphill battle as Cook looks to be in control of the backup role.
Dominant Defensive Line
Except for a stretch late in the third quarter, the Raiders’ defensive line joined the offensive line in completely controlling the line of scrimmage. It started on the Lions’ third offensive play when rookie defensive tackle PJ Hall overpowered the right guard to notch a sack on his first official NFL snap.
The defense secured the win with EDGE rushers James Cowser and Fadol Brown meeting at the quarterback and causing a strip sack. The E-T stunt that created a free rushing lane for Cowser on this play is another highlight of good things to come. Both defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac are well known for their line games. Confusing the blocking assignments of the opposing offensive line will be a staple of this year’s defense. You can expect plays like this to be pretty frequent this season.
As a group, the defensive line only allowed 88 rushing yards and an average of 3.8 yards per carry. This includes the 34 yards it gave up late in the third quarter when it seemed unable to contain Lions running back Kerryon Johnson. Outside of that drive, the line held the Lions to 54 yards and an average of 3.3 yards per carry while sacking the quarterback four times. This was without their best defensive linemen, Khalil Mack, or standout rookie third-round pick Arden Key.
Aggressive Pass Defense
After watching the four- man rush, zone based defenses of the previous coaching staff, it was good to see the Raiders attack the quarterback. Guenther is going to be aggressive and it will be exciting to watch.
The area blitzes that were run to great success in last season’s Week 2 game against the New York Jets were never really used again. For whatever reason, the staff did not feel confident with blitzing, and the defense finished 26th in third-down conversion percentage. As the second play in this clip illustrates, this staff will not make the same mistake.
In order to bring extra rushers, the secondary has to hold up. Ensuring that happens falls on new defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley. The first clip is an example of the man-to-man coverage the team is going to deploy on most of those blitz packages. If the coverage can hold up, the defense will certainly improve their 26th-ranked passing defense from last season.
Kicking Specialists are Locked In
The kicking game might be overlooked at times, but is worth pointing out when it is two rookies who will be counted on. In this game, they both showed they are up to the task. Except for one kickoff going out of bounds at the end of the game, the special teams units functioned very well.
Punter Johnny Townsend showed off his accuracy on his angled punts and pinned the Lions inside the 20-yard line on three of his five (60 percent) punt attempts. His average of 39.8 yards was brought down by a couple of punts from the Lions’ side of the field, but Townsend pinned them at the 15-yard line on the first, and 10-yard line on the second of those attempts.
Undrafted kicker Eddy Piñeiro hit on all three of his field goal attempts and his lone extra-point try. Two of his field goals were attempted off the infield dirt, including his 48-yarder to end the first half. This was planned and by design as Gruden wanted to get his kicker experience kicking off the foreign surface.
Fans should be excited that the team looked impressive even without some of their best players -Mack, Arden Key, cornerback Gareon Conley and left tackle Donald Penn – just to name a few. It’s just one preseason game, but the roster and coaching certainly looked vastly improved over last season. This was merely the first step in a long journey, but it was a good first step. If the Raiders continue to build on their early success, the silence from the critics will be deafening.