The Miami Dolphins face the Las Vegas Raiders later this afternoon. This is the second straight season Miami has visited the Raiders in their new Las Vegas stadium, with the Dolphins coming away with the 26-25 win last year. Can they repeat that success this year, and clean out the taste of last week’s loss to the Buffalo Bills?
To get a better look at the Raiders, I turned to Matt Holder from SB Nation’s Raiders site, Silver and Black Pride. You can check out the Dolphins side of our discussion here.
Kevin Nogle (KN): The Raiders defense has been scary the first two weeks of the season, especially the attacking pass rush who are doing it without a lot of blitzing. Miami’s biggest weakness so far has been the offensive line, which may as well not even have been on the field last week against the Bills. What has been the key to Oakland’s defensive emergence this season and how in trouble is Miami’s offensive line?
Matt Holder (MH): I think the biggest difference has been a change in philosophy. With Paul Guenther as defensive coordinator, the Raiders tried to build a run-first defense and that’s why they made certain decisions like drafting Clelin Ferrell over Josh Allen. Now that Gus Bradley has taken over, he has the defensive line playing a much simpler scheme and allowing them to just get up the field and pass rush, then react to the run.
It’s kind of always been Bradley’s scheme going back to his Seattle days. He’s going to sit back in coverage and is okay with giving up three yards a rush or short dink and dunk passes, but eventually, you’re going to have to throw the ball down the field and that’s helped unlock a guy like Maxx Crosby, who was known for his get off and athleticism as a rusher at Eastern Michigan. Plus, the addition of Yannick Ngakoue has helped take some of the pressure off Crosby, so the Raiders really made it a point to address the pass rush this offseason and it’s already paying off.
Yes, I do think Miami’s offensive line is in trouble. Las Vegas has five sacks as a team in two games and as far as pressures, PFF Grades and those more advanced numbers go, they’re one of the best teams in the league. And like you said, it was pretty ugly for the Dolphins’ big uglies last week.
KN: The Las Vegas offensive line has been dealing with injuries early this season, including losing guard Denzelle Good for the year and being without guard Richie Incognito (who was with Miami a decade ago and is still out there doing it). How is the line holding together?
MH: It’s shaky. Richie Incognito hasn’t practiced in a month so it doesn’t look like he’ll play, and he was in a similar situation last year where he was injured but wasn’t put on IR for a while and ended up missing the season. I’m not trying to say that will happen again, but the Raiders might have to play the season with two backup guards, while also breaking in a new center.
*Note: Since speaking with Holder, the Raiders placed Incognito on injured reserve.
While I wouldn’t say Las Vegas’ situation is as bad as Miami’s - sorry for the shot there - like the Dolphins, the Raiders’ offensive line is probably the weakest part of the team.
Left tackle Kolton Miller is a stud who is living up to his new contract so far, but the other four have struggled, partially because two of them were supposed to be backups. First-round pick Alex Leatherwood was always expected to be a starter, though, and he’s struggled in pass protection out of the gate.
Granted, the Ravens and the Steelers are two tough first draws for a young and new offensive line, but I am worried about a guy like Christian Wilkins wreaking some havoc in the backfield.
KN: The Raiders only have 134 yards rushing this season, in part because Josh Jacobs missed last week. Meanwhile, Derek Carr leads the league in passing attempts (93) and is 128 yards clear of the next highest in passing yards as well (817 to Kyler Murray’s 689). Are the Raiders just a pass and pass some more type of team or should we expect to see some return to a balanced run-pass offensive philosophy? Is the offensive line injuries part of the pass first, pass second, pass third offense?
MH: Do I think Josh Jacobs would make things a little better? Yes. Do I think he’d make so much of a difference that running the ball wasn’t a problem anymore? No.
The Raiders currently average 2.9 yards per carry as a team, which ranks dead last in the NFL. As you alluded to in your question, yes, the offensive line and injuries to it have made the position group struggle to get much movement in the rushing attack. Again, they have played against a couple of good front sevens, so I think this week be a good test if they can move the ball a little better on the ground.
To answer your question about philosophy, it does appear the Jon Gruden had a feeling his team was going to struggle up front, so he’s adjusted his play-calling and been throwing the ball more on early downs. He’s also been dialing up more shots this year with either play action and/or keeping an extra blocker in or two to help the offensive line in pass protection, and Derek Carr is being much more aggressive than in the past, leading to more chunk plays.
KN: On that same note, Jacobs does not look like he will be available this week. Another former Dolphins player, Kenyan Drake, started for the Raiders, but Peyton Barber led in carries and rushing yards. Should we expect to see Barber or Drake this weekend?
MH: When Jacobs was ruled out last week, a reporter asked Gruden if that meant it will be a big game for Drake. Gruden responded by talking about Peyton Barber and how it was going to be a huge opportunity for him.
That quote took a lot of people in the Raiders’ world, myself included, by shock. We all thought they brought Drake in for this reason, to be the second option behind Jacobs, who has an injury history. But, as you pointed out, Barber got the lion’s share of the carries, including the important ones to help seal the win late in the game against the Steelers.
Now, Drake was still part of the game plan, just more as a receiver. I’m not sure if that was because of what I was talking about above, playing Pittsburgh’s tough defense with a new offensive line, or how they plan to platoon the two backs moving forward. If I had to guess, I think we’ll see a good mixture of Drake and Barber on Sunday.
KN: A 2-0 start against two playoff teams from the previous year has to feel good. What are your expectations for the Raiders for the rest of the year?
MH: It definitely feels good to be 2-0 and beat two quality opponents. However, the Raiders have been 6-4 with the “easiest remaining schedule” the last two years in a row and failed to make the playoffs, so I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic.
The biggest difference though has been the defense, which I think provides more room for optimism this time around. Even when the team was winning in 2019 and 2020, the defense was still bad and an area of concern but, as I mentioned above, that’s not the case so far in 2021.
It’s year four in the Gruden 2.0 era, so I think it’s reasonable for fans to expect the Raiders to make the playoffs this year, especially after a hot start.