Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020 | 9 a.m.
Despite falling short of their goal by missing the playoffs for the 16th time in 17 years, the Raiders look back on last season more as a building block than an abject failure.
They’ve taken solace all offseason in how they were a failed two-point conversion in their final game away from doubling their win total from four victories to eight in coach Jon Gruden’s second year at the helm. If Derek Carr’s pass in the final seconds against the Broncos had found the intended hands of Hunter Renfrow instead of getting batted down by a defensive lineman, a 16-15 loss would have turned into a 17-16 win.
That would have been good for a seventh-place finish in the AFC, a standing not quite strong enough to qualify for the postseason, but one that would result in a playoff berth this year. The NFL has expanded the playoffs for the first time in 30 years this season with an extra team from each conference advancing. That’s good news for fringe contenders like the Raiders, but they’ve got work to do to get back into the position from a year ago.
Here were some of their biggest problems last season and the ways they seemed to address them in practices throughout training camp.
Problem: Red zone inefficiency
The fateful two-point conversion failure in Denver wasn’t an anomaly; the Raiders struggled to score when close to the end zone all season. They ranked 22nd in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage at 52.83 percent, a statistic both coach Jon Gruden and quarterback Derek Carr have repeatedly described as unacceptable.
Solution: Red zone creativity
Even amid a condensed practice schedule because of the coronavirus-delayed training camp, the Raiders spent an abnormal amount of time running plays both at the goal line and inside the 20-yard line. They seemed to devote at least a segment of every practice to it, getting the ball to practically every skill player. Expect the playbook to widen near the end zone this year.
Problem: Big-play shortage
The Raiders fielded an above-average offense overall last season, but their success was more methodical than explosive. Carr ranked last in the league in air yards per throw, according to Football Outsiders, meaning almost all of his passes were near the line of scrimmage. The Raiders ranked 21st in the league in explosive play—defined as runs that go at least 20 yards and passes that go at least 30—according to Sharp Football Stats.
Solution: Amped-up aggression
Carr has made it no secret that he wants to show his arm strength off more this season, and it appears Gruden and offensive coordinator Greg Olson will indulge him. Top draft pick Henry Ruggs III could be a big help in that department. It took a week or so for Carr to get his timing right with Ruggs’ blazing speed, but once he did, the two started to connect on deep throws daily.
The Raiders averaged eight penalties per game last season, third-most in the NFL. Even worse, they ranked dead last in the league in penalty yardage, losing 375 yards on the year to flags.
Hell hath no fury like Raiders defensive line coach Rod Marinelli when one of his players jumps offsides or makes some other mistake. And the rest of the coaching staff is only slightly more forgiving. There’s been no coddling at Raiders’ practices. Coaching techniques skew old-school in Las Vegas, with the presumed hope that they’ll translate into a tighter game-day product.
Problem: Suspect secondary
No issue loomed larger than an atrocious pass defense last season. The Raiders tied for last in the NFL in giving up 7.8 yards per pass attempt. In the modern NFL, no team that porous on the back end can possibly be a championship contender.
Solution: Youth movement
Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock are taking a leap of faith with the youngsters they’ve drafted in each of the last two seasons. The Raiders will field one of the youngest defensive backfields in the league with three presumed starters—cornerbacks Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette, and safety Johnathan Abram—under the age of 24 years old. Arnette is the key. The first-round draft pick out of Ohio State wasn’t guaranteed a starting spot but earned it throughout training camp, causing the Raiders to unexpectedly drop veteran cornerback Prince Amukamara.
Problem: Lost linebackers
The Raiders might have had the worst linebacking corps in the league last year, especially in pass coverage. They were regularly caught out of position and failed to come up with the key stops in high-leverage situations.
Solution: New blood
The Raiders overhauled the middle of their defense during the offseason, and the two prized free-agent acquisitions—former Ram Cory Littleton and former Bear Nick Kwiatkoski—are bringing a new energy to the unit. They’re stressing communication and have shown an ability to adjust to however the offense lines up.