As the Raiders pack their bags for a 10-day trip to the East Coast, there is a feeling at team headquarters, and beyond, that these guys finally turned a corner in their dramatic 31-30 victory against the Chiefs on Oct. 19.
They should hope so, if they believe a playoff spot is still within reach. Because if the Raiders are to gain ground on Kansas City and Denver and other AFC teams, they will need to play better than they have during their 3-4 start, and considerably better than they did during the four-game losing streak that preceded the KC win.
And the rally has to begin up front, with the Oakland offensive line.
This O-line entered the season as one of the most highly regarded, and highly compensated, protection units in the NFL. And the Raiders blockers have been good in 2017 — very good, according to some scouting sites. But they haven’t been as flawless as they were a year ago, and the offense has suffered.
“Are we where we were last year? No,” offensive line coach Mike Tice told me after practice Thursday. “But I don’t think we’ve been awful.”
Tice is an NFL lifer who played tight end for 14 seasons, mostly with the Seahawks, then immediately transitioned into coaching in 1996. He was Vikings head coach for four years (2002-05), Jaguars assistant head coach for four (under Jack Del Rio from 2006-09) and Bears offensive coordinator for one (2012). He was one of Del Rio’s first hires here in 2015.
Tice was candid with me when discussing his line. He exuded job security, as much as that is possible in the NFL.
Right off the bat, Tice admitted that his beefy soldiers started slowly in the run game this year. “We haven’t quite found our groove yet,” he said.
There are reasons. The most obvious is the Raiders’ transition to a stretch, or zone, blocking scheme with the addition of running back Marshawn Lynch. One of the worst stubborn traits of football coaches is insisting that players conform with styles that don’t suit them. Give the Raiders credit. Lynch’s best work has been done in zone-blocking schemes, and Del Rio, Tice and offensive coordinator Todd Downing have retooled their system to capitalize on that.
But it has been a challenge to the O-line — and to Tice.
“I’m not a zone guy,” he admitted.
As a result, the Raiders have spent what Tice calls “an inordinate amount of time” working on stretch plays. “Last year, one of these stat guru companies said we ran the ball between the tackles more than any other team in the league,” he said. “This year, we’re way down.”
Tice said his players have told him, “Coach, we’re tired of running sideways.”
“My guys want to come off the ball and hit,” he added.
The Raiders entered Week 8 ranked 24th in the NFL in rushing yardage at 92.9 yards per game. But that’s partly because they’ve frequently played from behind. Oakland has averaged a healthy 4.3 yards per carry, and Tice insists the scheme is improving.
To emphasize the point, he introduced me to his system of measuring run efficiency. On first down, Tice considers any run of 4 yards or longer to be a success. On second down, the runner must pick up more than half of the remaining yardage. So if it’s second-and-6, only gains of 4 or more are scored as wins.
“Last week we had second-and-20 twice, and we ran for 10 yards and nine yards,” Tice said. “Well, those are nice runs. But they’re not efficient.”
By Tice’s tally, the Raiders are at a 40 percent efficiency rate. His goal is 50 percent.
Anyway, it’s pass blocking that built this group’s reputation. Raiders quarterbacks (primarily Derek Carr) were sacked just 18 times last season, the lowest figure in the NFL. It’s a big reason Carr passed for 28 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards, and was probably the driving force behind Oakland’s 12-4 season.
This year, Carr and his backup, E.J. Manuel, have been sacked 13 times in seven games. Not exactly the painful experience Derek’s older brother, David Carr, suffered during his years with the Texans. But not as clean as 2016, for sure.
Tice isn’t gnashing his teeth. Two of those sacks were charged to a running back or tight end rather than one of his offensive linemen. And more important, he said, Derek Carr has fared well if you look beyond sacks.
“If you check the numbers on how many times the quarterback is getting hit, those numbers are still low.” Tice said. “That’s what is really important for me.”
The site Pro Football Focus agrees with the coach’s assessment. Before Thursday night’s game, PFF ranked the Raiders second in the NFL in both pass-blocking efficiency and total pressures (46). Tice’s line has allowed just one hit that wasn’t a sack.
Carr certainly contributes to this record by getting the ball out quickly. But contrary to public perception, the Raiders have generally kept a clean pocket in 2017. Last week, the Chiefs hit Carr once and did not sack him.
Tice said he he’s pretty liberal when counting hits, too. He demonstrated on a wiry little reporter, first with a lunge and full grasp, then with a light touch that stopped short of impact. “For me, if a guy gets close to the quarterback, and (the QB) goes like that and his feet move, that’s a hit,” he said. “Now, is that a hit by league standards? No. But by Mike Tice standards, yes. But we have high standards.”
Overall, Tice insisted, his linemen have graded out solidly. Again, he has a system. For every play, Tice’s linemen get a grade of 0, 1 or 2. They are dinged if their opponent records a sack or a tackle for loss on a running play. Tice considers a score of 1.6 or above a passing grade. Against the Chiefs, four of his five starters passed.
It’s testament to the Oakland offensive linemen that we’re splitting these hairs. This is one of the rare NFL O-lines to gain more fame than infamy.
“People remember a lineman when he whiffs, or when his guy makes a play in the backfield, for a negative play,” Tice said. “But one thing I remind my guys: If they had 60 plays, that’s like 60 boxing matches or wrestling matches. Every single play, there’s contact. No lineman is going to go 60-0. If I can get them to go 52-8, you might say, ‘Oh, eight bad plays?’ But let me tell you … ”
After playing on a Thursday, the Raiders had extra days to prepare for Buffalo this Sunday. Tice said the staff treated it almost as a bye week and did some extra self-evaluation.
They could use some extra advantages. Lynch will not play; the NFL suspended him one game for making contact with an official against Kansas City. Right tackle Marshall Newhouse, whom Tice said had started to hit his stride before injuring his foot, was limited in practice this week; Vadal Alexander, who was pushed backward on several passes against the Chiefs, may get another start in that spot. And the Bills’ defensive line may be the strength of that team.
“I said to (my players) last week, you’ve played some good games,” Tice noted, “but you guys haven’t given me a great game.’”
As the Raiders eye a turnaround, Buffalo would be a great place to make that happen.
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.