Oakland Raiders’ Future Coming Together Nicely

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Aug 8, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Oakland Raiders guard Gabe Jackson (66) against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Raiders 10-6. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Line

Last week, the Raider offensive line, missing rookie guard Gabe Jackson, had their worst performance of the year as the Rams defensive front – one of the best units in the league – simply overwhelmed them, getting to Derek Carr and Matt Schaub over and over for a total of six sacks, all of them in the second half. The line has been maligned all season as being a poor run-blocking unit, as well, as the Raiders have turned in a historically poor rushing performance as a unit this year so far.

But it hasn’t been so bad. The Rams and Paul Kruger notwithstanding, the Raider offensive line unit, anchored by veteran left tackle Donald Penn, has been among the best pass-blocking units in the NFL this season. When Derek Carr’s older brother David started as a rookie for the expansion Houston Texans, he was sacked a record amount of times in his rookie year, and in fact was the most-sacked QB in the league throughout most of his tenure there. Derek has had a totally different experience, as he has rarely experienced consistent pressure from pass rushers, and is generally free to get set and deliver passes, or step up into a clearly defined pocket to deliver passes. He stayed upright and clean in games against some of the league’s more dominant pass rushers, including the Chiefs’ tandem of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Yesterday against the 49ers’ solid pass rush,

Carr again remained upright most of the game, taking only one sack, and most of the game having a completely clean pocket to throw from, allowing him to exploit weaknesses in the secondary. The Raider offensive line has shown, even in many bad losses on the season, that it is up to the task of limiting or completely stonewalling top-level pass rushers and giving their quarterback a chance to make plays.

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Against the Chiefs, the Raider offensive line also showed that the teams’ struggles to run the ball may not have been all their fault. Young, untested running back Latavius Murray, demonstrating a vision and explosiveness that veteran backs Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew have been lacking all year, took advantage of good blocking and exploded for 112 yards on four carries, including two touchdowns. After Murray was hurt, the running game disappeared, despite nothing changing in terms of either scheme or line personnel, until Marcel Reece came in on the epic 4th-quarter game-winning drive. With Reece carrying the ball, the Raider offensive line was tasked with, very simply, punching the Chiefs defense in the mouth as the Raiders ran right up the middle.  They accomplished it over and over again on that drive. On a critical 4th and 1, and later on a critical 3rd and 1,guards Gabe Jackson and Austin Rivers, along with center Stefen Wisniewski, pushed Dontari Poe and company out of the way just enough to allow Derek Carr to convert on sneaks.

Against a very good San Francisco defensive unit – anchored by one of the best 3-4 ends in the game in Justin Smith – the Raiders, led by a recovered Latavius Murray, did not have the big home runs in the run game, but instead managed to run the ball consistently, something they’d been unable to do most of the year. Murray carried the ball 23 times – the most any Raider back has carried the ball in a single game all season – for 76 yards.  Late in the game, up 24-13 with 2:36 to go, Murray carried the ball four straight times behind his offensive line, ripping off 23 yards (including a 16 yard carry) into the teeth of a defense that knew it was coming, on a drive that killed two minutes of clock and forced the 49ers to use their last two timeouts.

The Raider offensive line is a unit that exemplifies the mix of developing young players and veteran role-players. Senior veterans Donald Penn and Khalif Barnes have provided leadership and solid play, while younger veterans like Stefen Wisniewski and Austin Howard found their roles as the years went on. Young players Menelik Watson and Gabe Jackson, meanwhile, have developed into starters, the type of starters who can anchor this line for years to come as the senior veterans move on.