The Oakland Raiders are above .500 through five games for just the third time since 2002, primarily thanks to the offense.
The Raiders rank only 19th in scoring (20.6) and 21st in total offense (376.8), but Jon Gruden’s unit has been efficient (5.67 yards per play, 13th).
Let’s explore what’s working, and how Oakland could threaten the 5-1 Green Bay Packers on the road Sunday.
1. Jon Gruden (The Coach) has still got it
Criticize Gruden’s personnel decisions all you want, but the 56-year-old remains an excellent offensive coach despite nine years away. His preference for heavier personnel -- 49 percent of snaps with two or fewer wideouts (fourth-most in NFL) -- belies a modern offense with plenty of bells, whistles and eye candy to fool defenses.
Oakland can thrive in heavy personnel in part because of breakout tight end Darren Waller, who just earned a lucrative extension. The former Ravens practice-squadder has matched the preseason hype, showing tremendous speed (4.46-second 40-yard dash at the 2015 combine) and body control for a 6-foot-6, 256-pounder.
Gruden builds his offense around Waller, designing myriad plays for him both short (flats, sticks, hitches, screens, drags, even a jet sweep) and intermediate/deep (corners, seams, double moves). He also uses Waller’s rare speed to clear out coverage for other routes, not normally a tight end’s job.
Waller isn’t a great blocker, but he’s physical and gives effort, more than enough next to a beefy O-line. Trent Brown (whose status appears cloudy following allegations of domestic violence), Rodney Hudson and Richie Incognito are terrific run-blockers. The interior will only improve with Gabe Jackson, who could make his season debut Sunday.
The Raiders’ heavy personnel and run game (4.87 yards per carry, ninth-best) match up perfectly against the Packers’ defense. Not only has Green Bay allowed 4.85 yards per carry (26th), but coordinator Mike Pettine highly prefers five-plus defensive backs. When the Eagles leaned on 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) in Week 4, Pettine stayed in nickel and dime all game, and Philadelphia racked up 176 yards on 33 carries.
Gruden will test Pettine’s patience again, both to attack the Packers’ weakness and blunt their potent pass rush. Even with a first-rounder (Kolton Miller) at left tackle and the richest offensive lineman ever (Brown) at right tackle, Gruden has emphasized protection with quick passing, play-action and chip blocks. Expect the same Sunday, as Derek Carr remains highly susceptible to pressure.
2. A 352-pound hole in the Chicago Bears’ defense
Akiem Hicks’ elbow injury is one of most impactful across the league this season.
While not a pure sack artist like some smaller DTs, Hicks is a massive force in the pass rush, both creating on his own (23 sacks, 53 QB hits from 2016-18) and collapsing the pocket for Khalil Mack & Co. Hicks and Mack typically align on the same side, and very few offenses can handle both.
Hicks is equally devastating against the run, with uncommon agility for a man built like a fridge. After he was hurt in London, Chicago was bullied by the Raiders’ run game. Even normally stout nose tackle Eddie Goldman was washed down with regularity.
Hicks’ absence coincides with the league’s best O-line coming to town. The New Orleans Saints’ top-end core of Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Larry Warford and Ryan Ramczyk has yet to miss a single start this season, and rookie Erik McCoy has impressed as a Day 1 starter at center.
Alvin Kamara is banged up, but even if he’s out, the Saints will test the Bears’ interior early and often.
3. Major test for Cowboys’ LBs
The Philadelphia Eagles’ offense has sputtered at times without DeSean Jackson, but rookie running back Miles Sanders has blossomed as an explosive weapon, especially as a receiver.
Over the past four weeks, Sanders has receptions of 32, 33, 36, 40 and 45 yards, plus a run of 30. No other Eagle has one gain of more than 26 yards during that span.
One reception came on a broken play after Sanders started wide, but the other four were schemed from the backfield, two on halfback seams and two on wheel routes from the mesh concept. Both designs are Doug Pederson staples, and both worked Sunday in Minnesota. Sanders blew by Eric Kendricks on the halfback seam for a 32-yard touchdown, then used a rub to burn Anthony Barr for 45 yards on the wheel.
Now Sanders faces Cowboys linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Both have plenty of speed but have been exploited at times this season, and Pederson should have a few tricks up his sleeve.
4. ‘Snacks’ on the decline?
Damon “Snacks” Harrison was once the league’s closest thing to a one-man run defense.
From 2013-16, his New York Jets (2013-15) and Giants (2016) finished first, sixth, third and third in yards per carry allowed. Before his trade to the Detroit Lions in Week 8 last year, they were tied with a league-worst 5.32 average allowed. From then on, Detroit permitted 3.76 yards per carry, fifth best.
But with Harrison nearing age 31, he doesn’t look like himself. The 350-pounder mostly remains a rock against double teams, but his lateral agility has slipped. He’s become less of a factor on outside runs and can’t play both sides of blockers and close gaps like he used to.
Last year, Harrison led the Lions comfortably in both tackles (46) and solo tackles (26) on 245 opponent carries from Weeks 8-17. He has just 10 tackles (T-7th) and three solo (T-9th) on 132 runs this year.
The Lions rank 28th in yards per carry allowed (5.07), a figure not inflated by explosive runs (just four of 20-plus yards). Quarterbacks (17 for 122, 7.2 average) have scrambled against Detroit’s man coverage, and Harrison doesn’t play passing downs. He’s actually down to 43.1 percent of defensive snaps, his lowest mark since becoming a starter.
Unless Harrison can turn back the clock, the Lions’ defense is in trouble Sunday against the Vikings, who rank fourth with 5.07 yards per rush and excel on the perimeter with outside zone and crack-toss plays. Dalvin Cook has five runs of 20-plus yards and 14 of 10-plus yards, averaging a league-best (min. 70 carries) 5.4 yards per tote.
5. Quiet star DT in Buffalo
Ed Oliver was the ninth overall pick in April. Star Lotulelei arrived in 2018 on a five-year, $50 million deal. But the man shining up front for the Buffalo Bills is actually a Miami Dolphins castoff.
With so many star defensive tackles across the league, Jordan Phillips is easy to overlook. A boom-or-bust second-rounder in 2015, Phillips’ highs at Oklahoma were staggering, but he was defined by inconsistency. After he busted in Miami, the Bills claimed him off waivers last year and re-signed him to a one-year, $4.5 million deal in March.
Now the 6-foot-6, 341-pounder is having a career season in a contract year. He dominated the Titans for three sacks before the Bills’ bye in Week 5, bullying guards Rodger Saffold and Nate Davis.
Phillips gets a chance to prove his former team wrong Sunday, with a juicy matchup against the Dolphins’ porous offensive line.
--By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.