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Week 3 Final: Raiders 27, Browns 20

Good game, right down to the wire, but a bit frustrating in some respects. It’s always a good day to walk away with a W, no matter how close, but before people start talking about turning a corner, it’s important to keep it in perspective. After a strong first three quarters, Oakland found a way to make a nail-biter out of what should have been a laugher, nearly blowing a three-possession lead. That’s the hallmark of young teams who haven’t learned how to finish games strong.

Some real bright spots to be worked on in the weeks to come, though — despite a midfield fumble in the 4th quarter that let the Browns get back in the game, Amari Cooper just gets better week to week. His route-running and after-catch moves make him a real offensive threat. The running game took a while to get going, but once it did, Latavius Murray broke off some great runs to extend drives.

Getting some sacks definitely helps as well, of course, but on a day where the secondary struggled as usual, it was somehow fitting that a banged-up Charles Woodson had the game-clinching interception, with Cleveland driving strong for what would have been a tying score. Linebackers Ray Ray Armstrong, who had the Raiders first sack of the game (and season), and Neiron Ball, who had a fumble recovery and a sack in the last five minutes of the game, really stepped up. Again, the key here is not so much the mistakes that let the Browns stay in the game, but that the Raiders continue to finish games, which they have done well today and last week.

How long has it been since the Raiders started off 2-1, ten years, twelve? How long as it been since they won two games in a row? I honestly can’t recall. Next week is another road game, against the Bears, who are terrible this season, then home against Denver, who are definitely not the team they’ve been the last few years. If the Raiders continue to play like they have against Baltimore and Cleveland, with poise and resilience, they could hit the bye week at 4-1.

Game Preview: Raiders at Browns

At first glance, this game might look like a bad one — Oakland has not won a road game since 2013, and the last time they won in the Eastern time zone was in 2009. But the Browns have some key players banged up already, and have a bit of a quarterback controversy to boot; despite a solid performance in last week’s victory by Johnny Manziel, Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine has opted to start Josh McCown, who is on the downside of his career.

So this game is really something of a test, to see if the team that showed up and played hard for a full 60 minutes against a good team can travel across the country and smack a solid but vulnerable team. Travis Benjamin is a dual threat as a receiver and punt returner, and will probably give Oakland’s shaky secondary fits. But this is a good chance for the Raiders to finally get that road-game whammy off their backs.

Keys to victory

Running game: Latavius Murray needs more carries, and the Browns’ improving run defense is as good a test as any.
Marcel Reece: If anything, Derek Carr has almost too many weapons now, and it’s fun to watch him make use of Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, and Andre Holmes. But Reece and tight end Mychal Rivera are also potent weapons, and keeping them in the mix will keep Cleveland’s pass D on their toes.
Pass rush: Khalil Mack and Aldon Smith have come close to getting sacks, but so far Oakland has zero sacks. Cleveland has a talented offensive line, but McCown is not the most mobile QB, and there will be opportunities.

Game Grades: Raiders vs. Ravens

Pass Offense:  The numbers don’t lie — Carr had 30 completions in 46 attempts for 351 yards, 3 TD and 1 INT. That interception, coming near the end of the game and allowing Baltimore to take its first lead of the game, could have been a back-breaker. But it turned out to be a good test for Carr and his receiver corps, who all showed great poise and confidence in roaring back down the field for the final go-ahead touchdown. Cooper and Crabtree each had over 100 receiving yards, something that has not happened since Carson Palmer was quarterback. Crabtree in particular had several difficult catches in crucial moments, keeping drives alive. Pass protection was strong as well; while Carr took several hits, he was only sacked once all afternoon. Grade:  A-

Rush Offense:  What we did see of the running game was good, there just wasn’t enough of it. Latavius Murray ran for 65 yards on 15 carries, while Taiwan Jones’ two carries netted him 9 yards. Carr had the best run of the day, a 24-yard rumble down the sideline on a designed bootleg keeper. Grade:  B

Pass Defense:  After two games, the Raiders still have zero sacks, and are still getting torched in the passing game. Joe Flacco passed for 384 yards through the day, 150 of those yards going to Steve Smith. Tight end coverage is still a problem, as Crockett Gillmore had 5 receptions for 88 yards and 2 TDs, though almost all of that was in the first half. TJ Carrie’s forced fumble on Baltimore’s first offensive play helped the Raiders jump out to a ten-point lead within the first five minutes of game time. DJ Hayden had some moments of nice coverage and tackling. Neiko Thorpe made up for a poor showing throughout the day with the game-sealing interception, brought on in part by Khalil Mack getting good pressure on the left tackle and forcing Flacco to throw in desperation. There is something to be said for being good at the right time. Grade: C+

Rush Defense:  Justin Forsett’s numbers were almost exactly the same as Latavius Murray’s, 15 carries for 68 yards, with a long of 16. Lorenzo Taliaferro’s 7-yard end-zone rumble for a late touchdown was way too easy. The line needs to improve against both the pass and the run, of course, but really even one of those would be a good start. Grade: C

Special Teams: Sebastian Janikowski was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals, and hit all four extra points. Marquette King only had to punt twice, the second one a booming 70-yarder that forced the Ravens to start from inside their own 10-yard line. Balitmore’s Sam Koch boomed all of his kickoffs through the end zone, which may have been for the best, since the return game is still very much a question mark. TJ Carrie returned two punts, for a total of 4 yards, with a long of 5 yards, which tells you how the other punt return went. Grade:  B-

Coaching:   Head coach Jack Del Rio and his staff deserve a lot of credit for getting the team to rebound from a nasty opening-day loss. As the defense weathers key injuries and continues to gel, it is crucial that the offense pulls its weight and then some. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave crafted a nice game plan that suits Derek Carr’s strengths, and lets him utilize his new offensive tools efficiently. There still needs to be more of a running game, but Musgrave seemed to be adapting his game plan to what the Ravens defense gave the Raiders offense.

Third-down efficiency on both sides of the ball is always a telling stat, and this game was no exception — the offense converted nearly two-thirds (9/14) of their third-down plays, while Baltimore converted barely one-third (4/11). Perhaps most importantly, the mostly young team faced and passed some critical tests, including staying in the game after losing an early lead, getting into (and surviving) a classic “shootout” game, and bouncing back quickly and strongly from an interception late in the game, to pull out an exciting victory in the final seconds of the game.

As the Raiders prepare for their first road game (three of the next four games are on the road), before coming back to start facing tough division opponents, it’s hard-fought games like this that the team can build on. Grade:  A-

Game Grades: Bengals at Raiders

Full box score here.

Pass Offense: Don’t be fooled by the almost respectable stats. Derek Carr went 7-for-12 for 61 yards before hurting his hand trying to stiff-arm Pacman Jones (who should have been ejected several plays earlier for his assault on Amari Cooper, but that’s another story). Matt McGloin was 23-31-142, with 2 TDs and 1 INT, but all well after the game was out of reach. (The total between both QBs is just under five yards per attempt on average.) The Raiders did not start an offensive play beyond the 50-yard line until the fourth quarter. Amari Cooper looked very good in his rookie outing, showing the poise and great hands that got him picked 4th overall this spring. Michael Crabtree had a couple of clutch catches. Marcel Reece caught both of McGloin’s TD passes. Grade: D+

Rush Offense: Latavius Murray averaged 4.0 yards per carry, which sounds decent, until you see that that means 44 yards on 11 carries. The Raiders could not generate sustained drives until garbage time, and by then they had to abandon the run. There simply wasn’t enough to get a decent assessment on line push and run blocking, not to mention rushing. Grade: C-

Pass Defense: What pass defense? Oakland’s pass rush generated no sacks, allowing Andy Dalton to carve up the Raiders secondary at will, going 25-34-269, with 2 TDs and no interceptions. Tight end Tyler Eifert, who missed almost the entire season last year, had 9 receptions for 104 yards and 2 TDs, frequently on basic seam routes that kept confounding the Raiders’ secondary. DJ Hayden continues to be a liability, alternating between getting burned in coverage and blatantly molesting AJ Green to prevent a touchdown (which of course gave the Bengals a fresh set of downs inside the Raiders’ 5-yard line). Either a true pass rush is going to have to develop to take pressure off the secondary, or one or more of the DBs is going to have to step up. Otherwise this team is going nowhere. The offense is simply not built to get into shootout-type games.Grade: D-

Rush Defense: Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard gashed the Raiders defensive line early and often. A key early play was on the Bengals first scoring drive, when the went for it on 4th-and-goal from the 1, and Hill ran around the left side, leaving linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong grasping at air. I don’t know what Sio Moore did to get in the doghouse of the current coaching staff, but it’s not like the LB corps is any better without him. Hill and Bernard totaled 126 yards on 27 carries (4.67 yds/carry), not catastrophic but not exactly much of an improvement either. Grade: D

Special Teams: Kicking and punt returns were serviceable enough, which given the other facets of the game almost qualifies as a bright spot. Marquette King set a league record for number of punts last season, and it would probably be a good idea to keep his leg in shape this time around as well. Most of his six punts were fine, though he shanked the first one. Sebastian Janikowski had no field goal attempts. Grade: C

Coaching: During the course of the game, Derek Carr, Nate Allen, and Charles Woodson left with injuries. Until the extent of those injuries is known, it’s tough to say what head coach Jack Del Rio and his crew have signed up for. But this was a thoroughly underwhelming inaugural outing in all phases. The offense had trouble gaining first downs, and never even crossed the 50-yard line until the end of the 3rd quarter. The infield dirt of Oakland Coliseum, the last such intrusion of a baseball diamond on an NFL field, serves as a middle finger throughout. It would be one thing if the Raiders could use the dirt as a tactical advantage over other teams, but they’re as prone to it as anyone else. It is an obstacle to be dealt with, and this is not a team built to handle obstacles.

The condition of the field is bullshit, but it’s not the fault of the coaching staff. What is the coaching staff’s problem is that they fielded a team that was clearly underprepared and overmatched. The Bengals, no doubt exhorted by their offensive coordinator (and former Oakland head coach) Hue Jackson, came out strong right from the start on both offense and defense. The Raiders did not seem to have that sense of urgency on either side of the ball, and failed to execute at critical moments.

The next time a cheap-shot asshole like Pacman Jones takes the Raiders’ star #1 draft pick receiver, rips his helmet off after he’s been tackled to the ground, and slams his head into the helmet, one of the special teams players needs to take Jones on his next punt/kickoff return, and snap him over his knee. Don’t worry, Mark Davis will pay your fine. But the Raiders’ failure to respond at all to that was all the Bengals needed to know. Del Rio may feel that he’s instilled a stronger team culture of discipline and execution, but the results did not show on the field. The team needs to play with aggression and purpose, and Jones’ conduct alone — mauling Cooper and knocking Carr out of the game — should have been something to rally around. The old Raiders would have sent a backup DE in to late-hit Dalton and knock his ass out of the game in retaliation. Instead they derped their way around their own side of the field until it was 33-0 in the 4th quarter.

With most teams, you can spot “easier” parts of the schedule where they don’t have to worry as much about a blowout or an automatic loss. Part of that is parity, part of that is just the general level of competence in teams, coaches, and players. Every team should be able to point at a few games and say to themselves, “Yeah, we got that one.”

But looking at how the team performed today, there are no such games on the Raiders’ schedule. The Ravens next week, even though Steve Smith is their only real offensive weapon, are a threat. The trip to Cleveland in two weeks is no joke. And so on. Even the lowly Titans — you saw Marcus Mariota beat down the Buccaneers today, but did you also know that the Raiders have only won in Tennessee once, and that was in 2005? Did you know that in 11 visits to Oakland, today was the first time the Bengals won? The Raiders are clearly going to have to fight and claw for just a chance at victory this season, whether the opponent is “good” or “bad”.

As such, the coaches need to install a game plan that emphasizes the run game, ball control, low-risk passing, keeping the opponent off the field. They didn’t do that, and they failed to adapt long after the score got out of hand. As a general observation, the best thing that the coaches can do for this team is to get them to play so that other teams will fear and respect them. They need to know that if Pacman Jones takes their star receiver, sits on his chest and beats his head against his own helmet, Pacman Jones is going to leave the game with some broken bones, preferably a sternum or collarbone or fibula. The Raiders’ meek response instead showed that they were to be neither feared nor even respected, but merely pitied or laughed at.

And the sooner the A’s season is done and that goddamned dirt infield is gone, the better. Grade: D

Amari Cooper Profile

Of course all articles on new first-round draft picks are puff pieces by nature, but this profile on Amari Cooper is a really nice balance of on-field performance and off-field character. From his ability to run, catch, and score on every route, to his and Teddy Bridgewater’s positive influence on their classmates’ work ethic and performance in high school, Cooper seems like a player who expects huge things out of himself and his teammates. Can’t wait for the season to start.

2015 Draft: Day 1

And with the #4 pick of the 2015 NFL draft, the Raiders take [drum roll] Amari Cooper.

While it was no surprise that Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota went 1-2, thus pre-empting the need for the Eagles or Browns to trade up to Oakland for that #4 pick, it was something of a surprise that Leonard Williams was available, and the Raiders still went for Cooper.

Williams ended up falling to #6, where he was snapped up by the Jets, to add to what is already one of the best d-lines in the league. While it’s curious that USC alum and defensive guru Jack Del Rio passed on Williams, that’s probably just an indication that the Raiders felt an additional urgency to get Derek Carr a reliable weapon that he can work with for the years to come.

Williams was certainly a favorite for most of the fan comments I’ve seen at a variety of forums, but Cooper is a promising talent who flourished in a pro-style offense with mostly average quarterbacking. He already improves an offense that was historically bad last season, and with even an average running game, in a division where all three opponents have quarterbacks in the late stages of their careers, Oakland could be on the rise again.