The beauty of sports is that when you need to, you can let a final score overshadow everything else you saw that night. And Thursday night’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers for the Oakland Raiders was a perfect example of that.
There were flags. There were disappointments. There were miscommunications. There were injuries.
BUT, there was also a win — and after beating the Chargers, 26-24, on national television, the Raiders are 5-4 with a pair of extremely winnable games on the horizon. And yet, before we jump ahead to the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets, let’s put this one to bed with a little bit of a rewind…
Defense took advantage
The Oakland defense wasn’t great last night, but they were plenty good enough — and while I think that’s an important distinction to make, it’s not one that ultimately matters. Because of the defense, the Raiders scored 10 points before they gained 10 yards — a cushion that was desperately needed for all that would come next.
After interceptions by Erik Harris ended L.A.’s first two drives, the Raiders forced a punt before the Chargers put together back-to-back touchdown drives in the second quarter that gave them a 14-10 lead. Those two drives combined took up 10:20 of game clock and amassed 126 yards over 20 plays. In short, it wasn’t pretty.
And yet, they bounced back. After the half, the Raiders forced punts on L.A.’s first two drives of the second half and held them to a field goal on drive No. 3 before the Chargers got back in the end zone. Of course, the biggest drive of the game was the last one, where the Raiders forced Phillip Rivers to go 0-for-7 with an interception despite getting a bogus penalty called on Oakland to keep the drive alive.
If you’re reading Charger blogs this morning, they’ll point to the injuries on the offensive line as a big reason for Oakland’s ability to get pressure on Rivers — which is totally valid. And yet, Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby and Benson Mayowa did exactly what they should do against minor league talent: they dominated. The trio combined for 4.5 sacks, an additional tackle-for-loss, eight quarterback hits, two passes deflected and a total of 14 tackles between them. And, it was just enough.
While everyone will remember the game-winning drive from Derek Carr, one thing that has caused me some concern this season is the overall inconsistency we see from this group within games. Obviously, this is a luxury the Raiders aren’t used to having: moments of positive offense, but it’s the positive experience that makes the struggles so difficult to stomach.
On the first drive of the game, the Raiders started on the Chargers’ 31-yard line. It was a perfect opportunity to punch them in the mouth and get on the board with a touchdown. Instead, they ran six plays for a total of nine yards and kicked a field goal. After another Harris interception (this one for a touchdown), the Raiders wouldn’t get the ball back on offense for over five minutes.
When they did? Woof. Their next two drives were both three-and-outs that netted a combined five yards. Again: two more chances to step on the throats of the Chargers that were missed. Instead of going up 17-0 or even 24-0, the Raiders let the Chargers hang around to the point that they actually responded by taking a 14-10 lead.
Thankfully, the offense responded with a touchdown before the half to go up 17-14, giving them momentum heading into the locker room knowing they’d get the ball after halftime.
After the half, the Raiders marched down the field (giving their defense a much-needed extended break), and kicked a field goal. Second drive? Missed field goal. Third drive? Punt. Fourth drive? Punt.
Again: four chances to crush the Chargers and eliminate any worry or concern — and all four chances were squandered. Once again, the offense allowed the Chargers to hang around, and once again they regained the lead. Fortunately, the offense decided to pull their heads out on the final drive, marching 75 yards in 10 plays for the game-winning touchdown — doing their best to make us forget about everything that came beforehand.
Gruden masterful (kind of)
Everything I just said about the offense falls under the heading of “things Jon Gruden is responsible for”, and so while it was a good night for Gruden, it wasn’t perfect.
The real thing I loved about Gruden was his ability to manage the clock before halftime and in the fourth quarter. Both times, the Raiders took over with about four minutes left on the clock — and both times the Raiders put together 10-play drives (one for 76 yards, the other for 75). But equally as important: they did it without leaving too much time on the clock.
I’ll focus in more specifically on the fourth-quarter drive. The Raiders started the drive down by four with all three timeouts. How many times in this situation do you see a team panic, rushing through their offense thinking “well, we can always punt and use our timeouts to get the ball back”? Answer: far too often.
Gruden and Carr, however, were smart enough to know they didn’t need to panic (probably because they weren’t positive they’d get the ball back). As a result, they ran a measured, extended drive that ate up clock, gained yards in chunks and allowed them to operate within their normal offense. They could run if they wanted to, they could throw screens if they wanted to, etc.
As a result, they milked the clock down to 1:02 when Josh Jacobs rushed in from 18 yards for the game-winning touchdown. The consequence of this? You could see the Chargers doing exactly what the Raiders didn’t: they panicked. Rather than dinking and dunking for the required 40-50 yards, Rivers acted like he needed to get them all at once — an approach that resulted in seven incompletions and a pick.
For the fifth time this season, the Raiders won — and for the fourth time, they did it as an underdog. While people like to joke about Gruden, the truth is the guy is a masterful offensive coach, and clearly a guy players respond well to. The Raiders haven’t had one of those in a long time, and, well, the good news is that this guy is gonna be around for a while.