Oakland Raiders report: Khalil Mack is the driving force, but Raiders’ defense needs more punch in 2017

Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack during an NFL football training camp Monday, July 31, 2017, in Napa, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

By Joe Hawkes-Beamon
Sports Radio Service Writer

Heading into the 2017 NFL season, the Oakland Raiders will have a top-10 offense that will score a bunch of points and be entertaining to watch.

That we do know.

When the Raiders’ offense, (sixth in total offense in 2016 averaging 26 points per game) is engineered by Derek Carr, who is vastly becoming one of the league’s top quarterbacks with back-to-back seasons of at least 3,900 passing yards and 25 touchdowns in his first three seasons  in the NFL, all signs point to the Raiders being in good hands with Carr at the helm.

The supporting cast isn’t too shabby either: with precise route-runners in wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree (both had 1,000-yard receiving seasons last season) and a stable of running backs, with hometown hero Marshawn Lynch (acquired via trade from Seattle after retiring prior to the 2016 season) expected to be the lead-dog ahead of change-of-pace backs in Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington.

Third-year tight end Clive Walford and nine-year veteran Jared Cook (signed in the offseason) should provide matchup problems in the middle field for the Raiders with opposing linebackers and safeties. Play from the tight end position has been an afterthought for Oakland early in Carr’s career, but should be vastly improved this season.

But if Oakland has any shot at playing in Super Bowl LII (let alone topple the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game), the defense will need to do a lot more in support of their high-octane offense if they are to play at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on the first Sunday in February.

First, the pass rush needs to improve tremendously.

Defensive end Khalil Mack, the reigning Associated Press (AP) Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY), finished with 11 of Oakland’s 25 sacks (a league-worse in 2016 for any defense).

There’s no questioning the motor that the two-time Pro Bowler and First-Team All-Pro plays with on every down and he’s the most feared player on Oakland’s defense, but he can’t do it all by himself and needs help. Even if Mack has his sites on 30 sacks in 2017, according to Carr who mentioned that after one of the Raiders’ practice sessions during training camp in Napa last week, Mack can’t be everywhere.

Taking a closer look, the Arizona Cardinals finished with a league-best 48 sacks and had two guys in Markus Golden (team- and personal career-high 12.5 sacks) and Chandler Jones (11.0 sacks) getting to the quarterback at-will.

Arizona’s second-ranked defense almost doubled the Raiders’ output in sacks from last season.

Mack had an eight-game stretch where he recorded at least one sack in every game last season, but there’s no way he can get to 30 sacks this season, which would shatter former New York Giants defensive end and Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5 sacks set in 2001. The four-year stud from Buffalo would need to average 2.5-3.0 sacks per game and the way opposing teams double- and triple-team him, that’s a tough feat to accomplish even if you’re considered one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.

Along with Strahan, there have only been 10 other occasions in NFL history where there have been 20+ sacks by a defensive player in a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau:

  • Three players with 22.0 sacks in a season: defensive ends Mark Gastineau for the New York Jets in 1984 (previous all-time record holder in a season), Jared Allen in 2011 for the Minnesota Vikings and outside linebacker Justin Houston in 2014 for the Kansas City Chiefs.
  • Two players with 21.0 sacks in a season: the late, great defensive end Reggie White in 1987 for Philadelphia and defensive end Chris Doleman in 1989 for Minnesota. Both men are in enshrined in Canton after playing 15 seasons each, with White second all-time with 198 career sacks (Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith is first all-time with 200 career sacks), and Doleman sitting fourth all-time with 150.5 sacks.
  • Two players (one accomplished the feat twice) with 20.5 sacks in a season: Hall of Fame outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986 for the New York Giants, who changed the way the outside linebacker position was played and made the “sack” term a household name when the statistic became official in 1982 after “LT” won his second-consecutive AP DPOY following his rookie season; and defensive end J.J. Watt, took home AP DPOY honors after the 2012 and ’14 seasons. Both men are tied for the most AP DPOYs in NFL history with three a piece.
  • Two players with 20.0 sacks in a season: the late, great outside linebacker Derrick Thomas for Kansas City in 1990, and recently retired outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware in 2008 for the Dallas Cowboys. Thomas ranks 16th on the NFL’s all-time sacks list with 126.5 in his career, is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and many folks believe that Ware (eighth all-time with 138.5 sacks) and a Super Bowl ring in 2015 with the Denver Broncos, is bound for Canton once his five-year waiting period is over.

The dropoff from Mack, on defense was considerable last year for Oakland, who finished as the 26th-ranked defense in the NFL.

Outside linebacker Bruce Irvin was second on the team with seven sacks, but he needs to get 10.0-12.0 sacks this season on the opposite side of the defense to lighten the load for Mack. Irvin did finish tied with Atlanta Falcons’ outside linebacker Vic Beasley with five forced fumbles last season, most in the league.

Mario Edwards Jr. has had a hard time staying healthy, and Justin “Jelly” Ellis needs to step up his production and provide more pressure to opposing quarterbacks. Throw in Denico Autry and Jihad Ward into the mix as well of guys that are expected to have better seasons for the Silver and Black.

Rookie defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes could be a force in the middle of the defensive line if he’s completely returned from the ACL injury that derailed his junior season two seasons ago for UCLA, in the Bruins’ first game of the 2015 season.

The Raiders believe that Vanderdoes has recovered well, well enough that they spent a third round pick on him in the NFL Draft this past April.

As of Monday, Vanderdoes was the starting defensive tackle on the team’s unofficial depth chart ahead of Ward but according to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, Vanderdoes was briefly out with what the team called a “minor” knee injury Tuesday, but returned to practice on Wednesday.

It remains uncertain if Vanderdoes plays in Oakland’s preseason opener in Arizona Saturday night.

Second with no “true” middle linebacker on the roster (“true” meaning a middle linebacker with at least 1-2 years of NFL experience) on the roster, the Raiders need someone to fill the void at one of the critical spots on the defense for any team.

There’s high hopes for another rookie in Marquel Lee to seize the job in training camp, a fifth-round pick from Wake Forest that could be a hidden gem for Oakland.

The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Lee was a three-year starter in his four seasons for the Demon Deacons and finished tops on the team 105 tackles (63 solo and 42 assisted), 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles his senior year.

Lastly, Oakland’s secondary has to protect the back-end of the defense and limit the long ball. Oakland was seventh-worse in the league last season surrendering an average of 375 passing yards per game in 2016.

With both safety positions solidified with 11-year veteran Reggie Nelson (team-high five interceptions and his second-straight Pro Bowl berth) and second-year player Karl Joseph (60 tackles total) patrolling the middle of the field, and David Amerson likely to maintain his spot at right cornerback, incumbent Sean Smith’s starting job at left cornerback is in jeopardy to four-year player TJ Carrie.

The nine-year veteran had a forgettable 2016 where he was consistently picked on by opposing quarterbacks, who had a passer rating of 114.0 against Smith last year, completing 44 receptions on 77 targets for 749 yards and eight touchdowns according to a recent training camp report filed by NBC Sports Bay Area Oakland Raiders Insider Scott Bair.

Carrie has passed Smith on the depth chart in training camp, lining up with the starting 11 over the weekend. Smith has been seen working out with the second-team defense playing a hybrid linebacker/safety covering tight ends in sub packages and at slot cornerback when the offense goes four wide receivers.

Limiting the the big-play wouldn’t hurt either.

Oakland’s defense surrendered a league-most 61 plays of 20+ yards to opposing offenses.

The 2017 season could be one of the greatest seasons in Raiders’ franchise history, and the defense will play a major roll (good or bad) in what Raider Nation is hoping will end in the organization winning its fourth Vince Lombardi trophy.

 

 

 

Raiders Report: Sean Smith falls behind TJ Carrie on depth chart

AP Photo File: Oakland Raiders cornerback Sean Smith stands on the field during an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

By Joe Hawkes-Beamon
Sports Radio Service Writer

NAPA — In football when a guy signs a four-year, $38 million contract ($20 million guaranteed) to play one of the NFL’s toughest positions, cornerback, you better be good and produce because you’re being paid starter’s money.

Sean Smith could be in trouble of losing his starting job after signing with Oakland two offseasons ago.

According to NBC Sports Bay Area Raiders Insider Scott Bair, Smith has fallen behind backup TJ Carrie on the depth chart at training camp and hasn’t worked with the starting 11 the past three days in favor of Carrie. Smith lined up at outside cornerback with the second team on Friday and Saturday, but was used as a hybrid linebacker/safety covering tight ends in sub packages on Sunday and at slot corner when the offense went to four wide receivers Bair further reported.

Carrie who is entering his fourth season with the team, and rookie cornerback Gareon Conley are pushing the nine-year veteran for his starting spot in training camp.

Smith played well in most of his 15 games started last season registering 40 tackles (33 solo, 7 assisted), 11 pass defensed and two interceptions, but was notoriously picked on by opposing offenses.

Smith first game with Oakland in New Orleans was atrocious, where he was burned for two touchdowns, one of those scores a 98-yarder to former Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks that got Smith bench thereafter.

According to Bair, opposing quarterbacks had a passing rating of 114.0 against Smith last year, completing 44 receptions on 77 targets for 749 yards and eight touchdowns. There was a seven-game stretch where Smith didn’t allow a touchdown, living up to the big money the Raiders rewarded him with.

But Smith started to struggle down the stretch last season while dealing with a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery.

Now Smith is in an open competition and just because he has a huge contract, doesn’t mean he is guaranteed to be the starter when the Raiders open up the 2017 season in Nashville against the Titans on Sept 10.

Information from the NBC Sports Bay Area was used in this report.

 

Raiders Instant Report Card: Cooper finally scores, Raiders tie Broncos for first place in AFC West with win over Chargers

By Joe Hawkes-Beamon
Sports Radio Service Writer

OAKLAND, Calif — I guess the Raiders love winning games by the closest of margins this season.

In a match up teams going in opposite directions, Oakland prevailed over visiting San Diego, 34-31, Sunday afternoon. Oakland took advantage of four Chargers’ turnovers and a botched field goal attempt on San Diego’s final drive of the game.

All of Oakland’s games this season have been decided by seven points or less, leading to the Raiders (4-1) to a share of the AFC West lead with the Denver Broncos.

Denver (4-1) was knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten, losing at home to the Atlanta Falcons 23-16 Sunday. Atlanta (4-1) also defeated the Raiders 35-28 in Week 2, spoiling Oakland’s home opener.

Checkout each unit’s grade following the Raiders’ first win at the Oakland Coliseum this year:

Quarterback (B+) – Coming into the game Sunday, their was so much talk that Oakland would blowout San Diego, who are a depleted with 14 players on injured reserve but that was not the case.

Oakland missed opportunities in the first half on offense, settling for three Sebastian Janikowski field goals and trailing San Diego, 10-9 at halftime.

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr seemed overly-excited in the first half in front of the sold out Raider Nation crowd, throwing only his second interception of the season on a shovel pass intended for rookie running back DeAndre Washington to Chargers defensive tackle Brandon Mebane on Oakland’s first drive of the game.

But Carr rebounded, completing 25-of-40 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns against a Chargers secondary that were playing without Pro Bowl cornerback Jason Verrett, who was lost for the season with a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

With Oakland trailing 17-9 in the third quarter,  Carr threw a beautiful pass to wide receiver Amari Cooper down the Chargers’ sideline for a 64-yard score to pull Oakland closer, 17-16.

Following a Philip Rivers’ 1-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Hunter Henry that pushed San Diego’s lead to 24-16, Carr found wide receiver Michael Crabtree for a 21-yard touchdown on 4th and 2 that trimmed the Chargers’ lead to 24-22 before Carr found Cooper on a quick slant for the two-point conversion that tied the score 24-24.

For the season, Carr has thrown for 1,383 yards, 11 touchdowns, and two interceptions while completing 67-percent of his passes.

”Sometimes you just have to find ways to win and get it done at the end,” Carr said after the game. ”It would be nice if we didn’t have to do all the stress and drama at the end. That would be nice.”

Running Backs (B) –Without starting running back Latavius Murray, the ground game was left in the hands of rookie running backs DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, and fullback Jamize Olawale.

The trio registered just 23 carries for 89 yards on the ground, with Richard leading the group with only 31 yards on eight carries.

Washington rushed for 23 yards on a team-leading nine carries. Olawale (six carries and tied for a team-high six catches) was the only back to score, a 1-yard plunge in the fourth quarter that gave Oakland a 34-24 lead.

Offensive line (C-) – After not giving up a sack last week in Baltimore and keeping Carr upright, the unit gave up three sacks to San Diego Sunday.

Rookie defensive end Joey Bosa, who was making his NFL debut after missing San Diego’s first four games, found himself getting well acquainted with Carr, sacking Carr twice.

Linebacker Jatavis Brown recorded a sack for San Diego.

Wide Receivers (A) – It took five games, but wide receiver Amari Cooper finally got into the end zone Sunday.

Cooper had his best game of the season, catching six passes for 138 yards, and a touchdown. Cooper blew past Chargers’ strong safety Adrian Phillips down San Diego’s sideline for a 64-yard score.

The Raiders’ second-year wide receiver was targeted a team-high 12 times Sunday, and now leads the team in targets (44), yards (456, pacing fifth in the league among wide receivers), and is second to teammate Michael Crabtree for the team lead in receptions (29 to 26).

Crabtree finished with three catches and 47 yards Sunday, but hauled in his fifth touchdown catch of the year. Crabtree is tied with Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown for the most touchdown catches in the league with five.

In 21 games with Oakland since 2015, Crabtree has recorded at least three catches in all games played and his 13 touchdowns from the start of last season are tied for sixth in the league over that span.

Oakland’s 32nd ranked defense had another tough day, giving up 423 yards of total offense to a Chargers team that was missing star wide receiver Keenan Allen and versatile running back Danny Woodhead. Allen and Woodhead both were lost for the season with torn ACL’s.

Even in the win, Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio wasn’t happy with his defense’s performance, Del Rio called out his defense, saying that they need to “Stop playing Santa Claus. Stop giving out presents.”

Defensive Line (B) – Defensive tackles Stacy McGee (1.5 sacks) and Dan Williams (0.5 sack), were key in stopping Melvin Gordon and the Chargers’ ground game.

McGee forced two of San Diego’s five fumbles on the day.

Oakland’s defensive front limited the former Wisconsin Badger to 16 carries for 69 yards rushing.

Linebackers (A) – Newly signed linebacker Perry Riley, Jr. played great in his debut in Silver & Black, leading the team with seven tackles (six solo).

The former Washington linebacker started next to rookie Corey James for the injured Malcolm Smith. Smith, who did suit up, was active but didn’t play any snaps.

Riley Jr. will get a lot of playing time and could possible remain the starter if Smith’s injury continues to derail his season.

Secondary (C-) – The “gifts” that Raiders head coach might be referring to is the abundance of passing yards the secondary has given up game after game, as evident of the 356 yards and four touchdowns that San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers threw on the rebuilt unit.

Free agent addition Sean Smith intercepted his second pass of the season and rookie Karl Joseph recorded both his first interception and fumble recovery, but Oakland couldn’t stop the Chargers wide receivers.

David Amerson, rated as the best cornerback in the league according to Pro Football Focus, was burned by wide receiver Tyrell Williams for a 29-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter that gave San Diego a 7-3 lead.

Williams and fellow wide receiver Travis Benjamin had 117 receiving yards each, while combining for 12 catches.

Oakland is surrendering 330 yards per game through the air per game, which is dead last and that needs to improve.

Special Teams (A-) – Kicker Sebastian Janikowski accounted for 14 points on 4-of-5 field goals on the day, while punter Marquette King had three punts for an average of 41.3 yards per punt.

The Raiders welcome another bitter division rival, the Kansas City Chiefs (2-2), next Sunday at 1:25 p.m. PT.

Kansas City was on a bye week.

 

 

 

Baltimore will be Oakland’s stiffest test of the season

By Joe Hawkes-Beamon
Sports Radio Service Writer

AP file photo: Oakland Raider quarterback Derek Carr (4) during an audible against the Tennessee Titans Sun Sep 25th will throw against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday

OAKLAND, Calif — With all due respect to the Atlanta Falcons, who gave Oakland their only loss on the young season: you are still a suspect team with an inconsistent pass rush and a quarterback in Matt Ryan that is a great fantasy football league stat filler, not a championship quarterback.

Or the New Orleans Saints and the Tennessee Titans, whom Oakland has defeated this season.

Oakland faces their toughest test yet of the season, against Ravens team in Baltimore Sunday  in Week 4 in a game that could have a significant determine playoff seeding in the AFC.

Sunday’s game will showcase the NFL’s second-ranked offense in the Raiders, who are averaging 436 yards and 26.7 points per game (Atlanta leads the NFL, averaging 448 yards and 34.7 points per game), against Baltimore, who are just allowing 254.3 yards and 14.7 points game, second behind Seattle’s 250.3 yards and 12.3 points per game.

Raiders starting quarterback Derek Carr lit up a depleted Ravens’ defense in the two team’s match up last season in Oakland, throwing for a career-high 351 yards on 30-of-46 passes, three touchdowns and one interception in the Raiders’ 37-33 victory.

Carr’s 12-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Seth Roberts with 26 seconds left in the game capped off a 9-play, 80-yard drive after Carr went 7-of-9 on the final drive.

Last week, Carr completed 21-of-35 for 249 yards, one touchdown, and one interception leading the Raiders (2-1) to a 17-10 victory in Nashville, their second road win of the season.

For the season, Carr has thrown for 867 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception.

Oakland’s ground game racked up 123 yards, with starting running back Latavius Murray scoring his third rushing touchdown on the season.

Oakland’s 32nd ranked defense, who gave up 500 yards of total offense in back-to-back games to start the season, held Tennessee to 393 yards.

Rookie safety Karl Joseph, making his first career start, led the Raiders with 10 tackles (4 assisted), and cornerback Sean Smith recorded his first interception as a Raider.

The Ravens are coming off a tight, 19-17, road victory in Jacksonville Sunday, thanks to a Justin Tucker 54-yard field goal with 1:02 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Baltimore is off to it’s third 3-0 start in franchise history, their first since 2009.

Baltimore starting quarterback Joe Flacco is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL entering his ninth season, already with six 3,000-yard passing seasons, a 10-5 playoff record, and a Super Bowl ring.

Even though Flacco has passed for 774 yards, he’s been uneven with the football, throwing three touchdowns and four interceptions, two against a young Jaguars’ defense last week.

However, Flacco was one pass away for tying an NFL record for consecutive completions in a game (22), but did break his own franchise record of 14 straight completions in a game, which he set in 2009.

Oakland should have their hands full with wide receiver Mike Wallace, who signed with Baltimore during the offseason.

Wallace, who is one of the more dangerous deep-ball receivers in the NFL, has caught all of Baltimore’s receiving touchdowns.

On the season, Wallace has 10 catches for 166 yards, while fellow wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. is second on the team (behind tight end Dennis Pitta’s 18 catches), with 16.

Smith Sr. registered 10 catches for 150 yards last year against Oakland and can go off in a heartbeat, if Oakland doesn’t loses track of him.

Baltimore’s defense were relentless in Week 3 against Jacksonville, holding the Jaguars to just 216 total yards. The Ravens held Jacksonville to just 2.3 yards per rush on 21 carries for 48 yards.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, now in his 14th year with Baltimore, is tied for the team lead in sacks with defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan with three.

Jernigan should see plenty of former Ravens’ offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, who returns to Baltimore for the first time after signing a five-year, $58.5 million deal with Oakland in the offseason. Osemele spent his first four seasons with the Ravens from 2012-15.

Oakland, having to make the near five-hour cross-country flight, looks to improve on a 1-16 record in their last 17 games in the Eastern time zone with a victory.

Kickoff is at 1:05 p.m. ET.