Back to the Bay is a weekly column from Just Blog Baby Podcast Rory Anderson. Follow him on twitter or tune into the Just Blog Baby Podcast on BlogTalkRadio.com
I spent all offseason going out of my way to tell Raider Nation and then after week one I tried to calm the playoff talk. Now I find myself wrapped up in expectations and now setting benchmarks for how I want to see this football team perform. Usually that would not be a negative thing per se, but for this year’s Raiders team I should be heeding my own advice and just appreciating the wins when they get them. I simply cannot do it and that’s primarily because I can see the talent on the field and I know this coaching staff can as well. Sunday was a rough game for me and if you go back and search my Twitter timeline you will see that I had some choice words for some people. Although I have been able to calm down, my criticisms are the same, and this time I have some backup.
Shouldn’t Have Been That Close
There are multiple reasons why this statement is entirely true. Before I start let me nip the missed Steelers field goals in the bud. The first miss was off of an interception that should never have happened which was on a drive that could have put the Raiders up 24 or more going into half time, and the late touchdown run only happened because of a BOGUS defensive holding penalty on Brandian Ross when he intercepted a tipped pass from Ben Roethlisberger. If you also throw in the amazing field position that Jacoby Ford gave them when he fumbled the screen, then you take away almost all of the Steeler’s point production. In all reality the Raiders let the Steelers hang around when they should have gone for the jugular and put that team down.
Turnovers continue to be an issue for this football team, and at some point it is going to bite this team again. The Raiders offense isn’t dominant or consistent enough to compensate for constantly losing the turnover battle. What is most infuriating about the turnovers in this game is the sheer insanity of them. To begin with, Terrelle Pryor’s interception to Troy Polomalu was a miserable throw where he showed atrocious mechanics. If he stops to make that throw or even squares his shoulders a little better, then that throw is on the money and it goes down as a phenomenal play that many NFL quarterbacks couldn’t make. By not squaring up properly he made a pure arm throw and the moment he released it one could see it came out too early and it soared over Brice Butler’s head.
Speaking of Butler, his drop that became Pryor’s second interception was a crime. He was hit square in the hands by a very short pass on a very crisply ran short “in” route, and he pulled a James Jett. I understand that he was a seventh round draft pick, but he cannot make those kinds of mistakes. What is most frustrating about that play knows how well he has actually played this season. He has seen a bunch of snaps in every game and has made a couple of clutch passes. I know he felt terrible about that play, you could see it on his face. Luckily for us fans, this is a guy like every player Reggie McKenzie has brought in, that owns his mistakes and he learns from them.
Jacoby Ford on the other hand doesn’t learn from anything. I have written in this column and said on both Twitter and the podcast that Jacoby Ford is overrated and expendable. This game absolutely validates that belief. At least if you are Ford you can focus on the return game, but he cannot. Ford had three fumbles on Sunday, two of them lost to the Steelers, two of them occurred on returns, and one on a wide receiver screen. That is an obscene number of fumbles by a part time wide receiver and returner. More importantly, his only real claim to fame is kickoff returns, but the new rule he has had fewer opportunities to have a return, but when he has the results have been pathetic. Taiwan Jones on his first return got out to the 30 yard line, but that great starting field position got taken back due to a stupid holding penalty. If it were my decision, Ford wouldn’t be an Oakland Raider. He has no burst left, he cannot read his blockers or find holes on returns, and he is a huge liability to go along with being significantly limited as a wide receiver. He is extremely overrated and would be best replace by Greg Jenkins and I have said for weeks on Twitter.
Greg Jenkins is a wide receiver that is on the Raiders practice squad. He is fast, but more importantly he is quick in tight space and can make guys miss. He had a huge return in the preseason game against the Saints where he showcased his abilities, and at this point there is no loss in bringing him up. Some may wonder why I say cut Ford rather than Juron Criner whom many beat writers think is the next player to be released. There is the contract situation, but more importantly, Criner has upside. He is a big wide receiver that is strong and attacks the ball in the air. He has been struggling learner the playbook and to read defenses, but it is quite typical for wide receivers to take three years to really catch up and play fast. Just take a look at Victor Cruz. The Raiders can afford to promote him and keep him on the 53 simply as a returner and allow the receivers to be the focus in the offense. Right now the Raiders could use some definition of roles.
The biggest reason why this game was closer than it should have been is offensive coordinator Greg Olson. I have talked about this guy on several occasions, but let me make one thing clear. I am a fan of him. I think he has done a masterful job with Terrelle Pryor and getting him through his mechanical issues along with developing in his progressions, and he has had bursts of genius, but this tendency of getting hyper conservative is annoying. It reminds me of “Marty Ball” in San Diego when they would consistently give away big leads by being too predictable. The most frustrating part is seeing how creative he can be early in games to get a lead. I am not the only one that has noticed this. Dennis Allen in his post-game press conference and in some media discussions mentioned how they need to be more aggressive and “get that killer instinct” in order to ensure the team doesn’t blow leads.
There are some on Twitter that are obsessed with the idea that Dennis Allen makes every decision. The ones I have encountered each have their own paranoid theories, but there simply is no proof to support that contention. From people I have tweeted with, one of those conversations I shared in a past column, the one thing that is consistent is the notion that Dennis Allen is a delegator. It makes the most sense. Look at who his mentor is. Sean Peyton took several pay cuts so the Saints could afford high priced defensive coordinators so he wouldn’t have to spend any time on that side of the ball. For a guy that models his coaching style after Peyton, it wouldn’t make sense for Allen to become a meddler on that side of the ball. It all boils down to Olson.
As I have mentioned before, Olson has some real genius in him. Take the very first play as an example. Olson knew that the Steelers would be keying on the guards in the running game. To be specific, if the linebackers and defensive backs say one of the guards go into motion, they would crash down and plug the holes in that gap. With that in mind, Olson called a trap option which is common at the college level. On that play a guard pulled out and made a seal block outside and when the defense saw him they crashed inside hard. Lamar Woodley seeing that pulling guard decided to crash down the line to stop Darren McFadden, but Olson gave Pryor an option. He told Pryor that if he saw Woodley come down hard to keep the ball and in the huddle only call a basic power run. The offense did not even know he had the ball until they saw him shoot out thirty yards down field and eventually run for the touchdown. Olson knew exactly what the Steelers saw on tape and he took advantage of it for the longest quarterback run in NFL history and the longest run in Raiders history. That is the work of genius.
Fast forward to the second half. The Steelers did not adjust their run defense in the sense that they were still keying on the pulling guard so every time one pulled they crashed the inside gaps to stuff the run. Had Olson called another trap option I would bet Pryor would have been off to the races for another long touchdown. Instead all of the runs were inside and all of the options were of the most basic kinds. He did not even bother to throw in those H back lead options where a tight end or Marcel Reece would line up on one side of the formation as an in line tight end and on the snap would come across the formation to be a lead blocker on the run side. It was extraordinarily brand to the point where I was actually predicting the play calls on Twitter and getting many correct.
By that time the offense had become so predictable that the pass game also suffered. Ike Taylor after being burnt on several first half comeback routes started sitting on those routes to the point where he had his back to Pryor when the ball was thrown in order to prevent the receiver from showing Pryor his numbers. That would have been the perfect time for a double move. If Olson had called a play where Denarius Moore ran a curl and go, Ike Taylor would have got burnt by ten yards, but it never came.
It has been said by many readers on Twitter that the offensive line issues must be playing a part in Olson’s decisions. I think that there is some truth to that and when you also combine the worries regarding the offense which had two turnovers and the significant lead, I think you can justify the plan of wanting to milk the clock. The problem for the Raiders is that this contention is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the Raiders offensive line is so banged up they run the risk of turnovers, but they also cannot open up holes for the running game on inside runs. What you are left with are the same risks you had in the first half. The question then becomes, why change?
There are many ways to skin a cat. Most fans think that a bad offensive line means a team should run to slow down a pass rush. That’s not necessarily true especially if you cannot run the ball efficiently and you are still getting 3rd and long situations like the Raiders. What Olson needs to do is get McFadden in the open field as much as possible. It doesn’t matter if it is a screen play, or a swing pass, or an angle route out of the backfield, all of these routes are essentially run plays. What the Raiders need to do is take a page out of the 49ers playbook when they had Roger Craig and combine those concepts with the UCLA shotgun formation that has two backs with one that goes in motion towards the flat going behind the quarterback and the other either operates off option or a screen or play action allowing the quarterback to throw towards the other back in the flat. It is that sort of creativity with even short passes that could have put the Steelers down in the second half rather than allowing them to crawl back. Even a toss play or some more outside zone read plays would have been much more effective than plowing directly into Brisiel’s butt every play.
On a Positive Note
“Just Win Baby”, don’t you think I know that? I mean, I write and podcast for a site named “Just Blog Baby” so give me a break. I know a win is a win and in fact in past years the Raiders would have most likely have blown that game, but not this Raiders team with this defense. The Raiders had a combined 19 hurries and five sacks including 1.5 by rookie Sio Moore and 0.5 by fellow rookie Stacey McGee. The Raiders were in position to pin their ears back and on many occasions they got sacks with only four rushers something that seemed impossible three months ago. Lamar Houston has kept his fantastic year going with another sack leading the team with four total sacks, but most importantly, the Raiders have 14 players that have recorded a sack or more this season. Even Daniel Muir got into the act with a sack and he impressed all game long. I have no idea where this version of Muir came from because all of the film I saw on him was showing off his stoutness at the point of attack and stuffing runs, but he got consistent pressure against the Steelers. I guess we know why Christo Bilukidi was cut. The only thing Muir did in this game that really annoyed me was his sack dance. I love sack dances, but his was…disturbing. It could have been worse, he could have done what Warren Sapp did on his famous scoop and score touchdown and afterword jumped in a circle like a five year old hula hooping while on a trampoline.
Did you notice DJ Hayden in this game? Of course you didn’t, because he played very well. In this game he gave up four catches on five balls thrown at him but he had five tackles and no yards after catch. His fellow cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter also had exceptional games. In fact, both of them recorded interceptions and for Jenkins, it was his first of the season although he had been very close on several in previous games. Jenkins did what he did best on his interception. He went stride for stride with a wide receiver going deep in a “one on one” situation and he attacked the football in the air and came down with the interception. Porter’s interception was a little fancier for a lack of a better word. He snagged his off of a tip and he got it inches away from touching the grass. Both interceptions were great to see and this new defense that forces turnovers is very impressive.
Something else caught my eye. If you watch the game again, you can see the Raiders lineman and blitzers attacking Roethlisberger’s arm with a big hacking motion to try and force a strip sack, but also when he pulled the ball down they would attack his hip. Jason Tarver made it clear in the preseason that he wanted the football. He said he expects the defense to go and get the football and turn it over to the offense, and now you can see how this defense is aggressively attacking the ball carrier and trying to make something happen. When we talk about teams that have a culture of forcing turnovers, we automatically think of the Chicago Bears. That did not just happen all of the sudden, it was something that was ingrained in each player early and they taught techniques to force turnovers such as Charles Tillman’s famous ball punch. This is the first time I can recall in the recent past that I have seen the Raiders defense aggressively attacking the ball to force turnovers rather than just hoping they happen.
Sizing Up the Eagles
I decided it would be best to watch every Eagles game this season to try and get a real feel for this offense, but also the defense. Overall this offense is not that impressive although it shows some glimpses of real extravagance. The theory that the Eagles lack the proper quarterback to create the Chip Kelly “revolution” may be true, but that seems to be a significant stretch. When you watch this team you notice how simple it is. They have three run plays (outside zone, inside zone, and trap) that they run both ways, and their passing game is based on some traditional west coast routes and concepts. Occasionally they throw in some deep route combos that add some run’n’shoot concepts, but that has been pretty limited on tape.
What the Eagles do very well is open up running lanes inside with the inside zone run. Also, they are quite adept at running the screen game and each game they run several in order to get LeSean McCoy involved in multiple ways. In the Giants game the Eagles put a man in motion from the right side to the far left and they snapped the ball when he was behind the line of scrimmage. The motion man acted as a swing route decoy while the play went to the right on a screen and it went for 44 yards. This is the same UCLA concept that I mentioned earlier as a good concept for the Raiders to use.
What the Eagles do best is go fast. The offense is not confusing per se, but it is difficult to deal with if the defense is not well conditioned or wears down. Teams that have been successful against this offense have taken it off schedule on early downs by stopping LeSean McCoy and on later downs they have to disrupt the receivers and get pressure on the quarterback. Nick Foles is not Michael Vick, but he does have some limited mobility. He can get away from pressure, but he does not scramble for yards and looks for someone to dump the ball off to. Foles is good at making sure his eyes stay downfield and if you give him an open window he will take advantage of it. On the other hand, he is also easy to bait into bad throws and veteran cornerbacks and safeties can lure him into bad throws.
The offensive line struggles for long stretches in pass protection and they are very poor at communicating to handle the blitz. Frequently on tape you could see the left tackle and guard let free blitzers come or see them get confused with cross blitzes. This is an offensive line that the Raiders should be able to take advantage of especially on the outside. The interior line has played better especially in the run game and this is running team, but the complicated blitz packages that Jason Tarver has created have confused successful quarterbacks this season which is bad news for Nick Foles. The Eagles will not have a particular player to focus on in pass protection because the Raiders don’t have a single pass rusher that makes their scheme work. Instead, they have 14 players that have recorded sacks and that makes the Raiders pass rush dangerous. I expect Jason Tarver to be very aggressive so it will be up to the defensive backs to keep the Eagles receivers in check.
Desean Jackson is not worth the double team. He is a one trick pony that really just runs fast. He should not be a number one receiver and I doubt Chip Kelly ever saw him as one. Had Jeremy Maclin not torn his ACL he would be a ten catch per game guy that would make this offense potentially dynamic. The key is not to lose him in coverage. Against the Cowboys he recorded a touchdown on a play where the Buccaneers game could not get a pass rush at all and as the play developed he simply leaked across the defensive backfield until Foles saw him in the back of the endzone and they scored.
Defensively the Eagles are poor. Their pass rush has been batter as of late, but it is very inconsistent and not talented. Their best pass rusher is Connor Barwin and his success when he has it comes from delayed blitzes or coverage sacks. The run defense is better and starting nose tackle Bennie Logan has been decent inside. Oddly the cornerbacks have struggled mightily and one of those is Cary Williams who was a tough nosed corner in Baltimore. He is a strong guy, but he struggles with precise routes and can get beat consistently. Overall the defense has struggled and will continue to struggle on a regular basis due to the lack of talent. One player that could have a significant impact for the Eagles is inside linebacker Mychel Kendricks. I would not be surprised if he is asked to spy Pryor and he muct be blocked in the run game.
When I boil it all down, I like the chances of the Raiders in this game. They match up very well with the Eagles. The Raiders are the only team in the NFL that has not allowed a run over twenty yards this season and that sort of dominant run defense will slow down the pace of the Eagles and take it off schedule. The Raiders defensive backfield is more talented and matches up well with the Eagles skill position players. This is another game where I expect a Raiders win and this week I am predicting a 21-10 win.
Last week’s Steelers game yielded some interesting statistical outcomes from PFF. Offensively the best performance came from Khalf Barnes who recorded a 3.2 with a 1.7 in pass blocking and a 1.1 in run blocking. Mike Brisiel was second with a 2.0 overall. Only eight Raiders on offense had a positive rating. That should tell you the fan everything you need to know about how an ultra-conservative second half can wreck a team’s chance to win and make the perception of them very poor.
On defense 12 Raiders had a positive rating with the best overall rating going to Lamar Houston with a 3.2, the best pass rush rating going to Dan Muir with a 2.5 (second was Vance Walker with a 1.9), and the best coverage rating going to Mike Jenkins with a 2.9 which was obviously boosted by his interception. The worst defensive rating was Brandian Ross with a 2.9 and 2.8 of that came in run defense. That seemed to be a strange rating as far as I am concerned, but that is where tape is different from stats.
The Eagles have a 17.4 overall rating for their offense. To put that in perspective, the Raiders have a -32.2 but what is most interesting is where the bulk of both scores come from. For the Eagles the vast majority of their offensive statistical success comes from run blocking with a rating of 38.7 while their pass blocking has yielded a -23.9, whereas the Raiders have a -24.5 in run blocking, but a -2.8 in pass blocking. Luckily for the Raiders Menelik Watson has been practicing this weekend and I not only expect him to play, but to start at left tackle. That will allow Khalif Barnes to be moved inside to left guard and get Lucas Nix off the field since he had a score of -6.5 last week and has a total score of -25 for the season.
Defensively the Eagles are actually one rank higher than the Raiders and they have a better run defense, and penalty rating. The Raiders have a better pass rush and coverage rating, but both numbers are well into the negatives and are in the bottom ten in both categories. These are strange results and I think it is because the Raiders had a singular disastrous game against the Broncos, but also because this defense isn’t a normal defense. It is a hybrid that mixes combos and blitz concepts which make it on tape a very versatile and dynamic defense, but seemingly poor on paper. This is the significant disconnect between tape study and statistics and I continue to put my confidence in what I see on tape.