Thus, the Journey Begins

After months of trudging through the off-season doldrums, the Raiders are back to port and ready to shove off into the long journey of another NFL season. Thus, the journey begins….

It all started Saturday night when the Oakland Raiders squared off against the Arizona Cardinals in the first pre-season matchup of the 2017-2018 schedule. Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives from Saturday night’s scrimmage.


The Positives

Offense:
One definite positive is the fact that Oakland rested nearly every starter on the offensive side of the ball. The O-line, Carr, Cooper, Cook, Lynch, and Crabtree rode pine and watched the 2nd team do work from the outset. This is a sure-fire sign that your team is loaded and ready to go—at least on offense.

In their place we saw EJ Manuel take the field first and show us why he’s getting a slight edge in reps during training camp. Manuel finished the night completing 10-12 passes and earning a passer rating of 103.8—not too shabby. EJ, however, didn’t do it alone.

Strong play by both Patterson and Walford helped EJ’s bottom line and made a great case for themselves. Both receiving positions are engaged in camp battles and these two may have made significant headway based on last night’s performance.

Patterson started the game off with a tidy 4-yard completion (Musgrave anyone?). He later added some flash to his silver and black highlight reel with a 30-yard catch and run that showed off his RAC ability and penchant for making defenders miss in the open field. While Cordarrelle couldn’t finish a 1-on-1 matchup at the end of the play, his nifty spin-move immediately after catching the ball on a drag pattern helped him stretch a short route into a nice 17-yard gain.

Clive “ATV” Walford also came up big showing Raiders fans what they’ve been wanting to see since he was first drafted back in 2014. Looking much speedier than last year, Walford was actually able to get separation on the DB and pick up an impressive 30-yard reception.

 

If Clive can repeat this type of quickness and catching ability throughout the season, defenses will be forced to respect the middle of the field thereby opening up opportunities for Crabs and Coop on the outside. Add in the threat of Cook and things really start to open up on the outside and in the flats this year—opposing defenses have been put on notice.

Jaydon Mickens deserves a place in the plus column as well. Mickens looked good all night as he worked with multiple units throughout the game. It all started off with a beautiful 15-yard speed out that put his defender on his booty (and I’m not talking about treasure).

Mickens punctuated his performance last night by taking a page out of Johnny Holton’s playbook with a 24-yard end around in the fourth quarter. Let’s hope that if and when he cracks the fourth wide receiver spot, he gets more dynamic calls than Holton did last year.

 

Defense:
While the negatives outweighed the positives on defense, there is still plenty of positive takeaways on this side of the ball. The linebacker position was hot and cold just as the secondary was. On the other hand, the defensive line showed much improvement with the addition of 3rd round pick Eddie Vanderdoes and the return of Mario Edwards Jr.

Starting with the secondary, Karl Joseph showed us more of who he is and what he will become. His ability to recognize plays and mismatches is second-to-none for a player as young as himself. From Karl’s heads up timeout to save a defense who only had 10 players on the field to his ability to identify plays before they develop and lay big hits at the line, Joseph was definitely a standout on Saturday.

 

Breon Borders netted only two tackles for the game but showed an ability to be around the ball throughout the tussle. Luani put up similar numbers and flashed on a good read in the red zone that almost netted him his first NFL interception—work on those hands Shalom!

The linebacking crew was a mixed bag, however. The lone bright spots belong to Cory James and undrafted free agent (UDFA) LaTroy Lewis. The former, was the Raiders’ leading tackler who produced 7 solo tackles in the first half. James showed an ability to make quick decisions and close gaps quickly. Several times James played the safety net chasing down players that made their way into the second level of the defense.

LaTroy Lewis may not earn many minutes during the regular season, but the UDFA was able to bring down the quarterback twice in the second half. If his trajectory continues, he may be a valuable asset in the LB rotation behind Mack and Irvin. Lewis can rush the edge, but can he do it against the big boys?

Last but certainly not least is the defensive line. This unit wasn’t the Raiders’ greatest weakness last year but an improvement here can vastly improve glaring weaknesses that exist(ed) in the defensive backfield last season (and possibly this season as well). All that looked to be on the mend Saturday with solid outings from James Cowser, Eddie Vanderdoes, Denico Autry, Justin Ellis, Treyvon Hester, and the return of MEJ.

As repeated often during press conferences and Saturday’s broadcast, Cowser isn’t a flashy player but he stays in his lane and handles his assignments with a textbook consistency. Not every player needs to be a playmaker—some need to only do their job and set their teammates up for success.

For some, Vanderdoes was a head scratcher in the 3rd round. His play Saturday should begin to quell those concerns as the kid looks to be in good shape after shedding the weight that earned him criticism in college. Vanderdoes, while only netting two tackles on the evening, got consistent pressure up the middle. If he can sustain this ability to collapse the pocket, opposing quarterbacks and ball rushers will not be able to evade outside pressure and escape through the pocket. When this happens, everybody wins.

 

Ellis’ forced fumble and Hester’s two sacks and one hurry revealed the potential depth on this defensive line. Bolstered by Autry’s nose for the ball, the defensive line looks revamped, recharged, and ready to compliment two of the best edge rushers in the game today—Two edge rushers who earned the night off and can be counted on to continue causing stress to QB’s league-wide.


Negatives

Offense:
Not a whole lot to highlight here. Even if there were, the vast majority of our starters were not on the field last night and little to no concern should be felt by Raider Nation. That said, the offensive line may be the most troublesome unit on this team right now. That’s a lofty statement given the amount of talent currently on the roster (Hudson, Jackson, and KO), but the tackle position wasn’t solid last year and could possibly be more troublesome this season.

With Penn holding out, the tackle position is in immediate danger. Vadal Alexander was a false start factory last season and his struggles continued on Saturday night. Alexander didn’t dominate a single matchup in his first preseason game of 2017. To make matters worse, he was beat badly on one play which lead to a nine-yard sack that left EJ Manuel in a heap on the ground. Substitute Carr for Manuel and you begin to see why this is such a concern (see December 24th, 2016).

The lack of quality depth on this line was further compounded when Denver Kirkland suffered a lower leg injury late in the game. Though the team hopes to not have to rely on Kirkland this year, he is a big part (pun intended) of this team’s jumbo package as evidenced by last year’s rushing clinic against the Denver Broncos.

Furthermore, depth is depth and losing a big body like that is never a good thing. Thankfully, Kirkland walked to the sideline on his own and the injury doesn’t seem to be as serious as it could have been. The Raiders remain hopeful that returns to health soon and that some solution can be reached to get Penn back on the field.

Defense:
The most noticeable weaknesses in the exhibition opener belong to the defense. More specifically, these woes can be attributed to Sean Smith and Marquee Lee. What’s most concerning is that both of these players are currently being relied upon to be starters come opening day.

First off, Sean Smith looks to be possessed by the ghost of DJ Hayden. Smith was flagged twice last night and it didn’t take long for the first of these flags to fly. Smith took an early “L” when he was flagged for pass interference on his first snap of the game. Later in the game, Smith was beat deep by Chris Hubert, thereby resulting in an illegal contact call—Smith just reached out and grabbed him. Smith was beat deep again on what could and should have been a touchdown that was only saved by an errant Drew Stanton pass. In the regular season, this is an easy six points.

 

Smith is guaranteed $9.5 million this year, but with an eye on the Lombardi, there are no scholarships on this team anymore. Conley and Borders wait in the wings and TJ Carrie is looking to prove his consistency. If Smith continues to falter, look for him to be cut, benched, or outright replaced. It may just be that Smith is not cut out to play man-to-man in the NFL. The success he enjoyed in KC’s zone heavy scheme just isn’t translating in Oakland.

With Corey James looking much better in his native OLB position, the onus is on the rookie Marquel Lee to solidify the middle of this linebacking corps. Saturday’s game revealed that he’s most definitely not ready for this kind of responsibility. As mentioned in the broadcast, the deck is stacked against him; with stricter NFL practice rules in effect, Lee just isn’t getting the game-like exposure he needs by practicing in pads just a few times a week. He’s got three more pre-season games to get tuned in. Granted he’ll get plenty of minutes in those games. Let’s hope he makes the most of it.

As far as his debut is concerned, Lee was the second leading tackler with six total and five unassisted tackles on the game. His second bright spot came with a fumble recovery forced by Justin Ellis. His first fumble recovery came as a result of being in the right place at the right time despite being in the wrong place moments before the ball landed in his hands.

Lee had a long night of paying his dues as he was routinely lost in coverage, out-of-place, and taking bad angles to the ball. Despite his muscular stance, he also had problems disengaging from blockers and looked to be manhandled early and often in Arizona. The knock on Lee in college was that he looked slow on tape. His performance Saturday seems to support this claim. Not all was bad as Lee did flash at times as is evidenced by this play below:

 

Marquel is a young player with a ton of responsibility on his shoulders. Heeney was in a similar position just last year and we saw how that ended. Raider Nation has to hope that Lee makes the most out of his extended playing time in the preseason and gets up to speed quickly. Of all the things Lee looks not to be, pray that he is a quick learner that can be coached up in a very short time.

In Conclusion:
Last year Oakland showed that they have indeed returned to greatness. Unfortunately, a late-season Derek Carr injury crushed any hope of a Superbowl run last year. A 12-4 finish with an unprecedented amount of 4th quarter heroics made for a fascinating season, regardless.

This year, Reggie looked to free agency to reinforce an already potent offense and turned to the draft to fill the voids presented by our less than perfect defense. Though the team finished strong on the defensive side of the ball down the stretch, they were not without their issues. 4th quarter nail-biters and blown leads don’t always swing back into your favor in this league.

Expecting a repeat performance and relying on old Captain Comeback to bail us out time and time again is not an effective strategy for a team looking to win multiple championships. Sure you can argue that Stabler was a master of it and that this style of play parallels the Just Win Baby motto that permeates the lore of the Silver and Black. However, in this day and age, relying on 30+ points a game to eek out victories just isn’t preferable.

Winning the division, and not the wild card, is paramount to set this team up for success. Earning home field advantage throughout a playoff tree that is sure to pit Oakland vs. New England in a battle for the AFC Championship is of utmost importance. The success of the young players throughout this preseason will no doubt be a key as we sail the seas of the 2017-2018 NFL season.

The anchor has been pulled, and the journey has begun!


Written By: Kenny Stapler