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Barber: Offensive line propels Raiders’ 31-24 win over Lions

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OAKLAND - It was a bloody-knuckles win for the Raiders at the Coliseum on Sunday. Or at least it was for Andre James. As the rookie offensive lineman sat at his locker after the game, shirt off and eye-black still on his face, the knuckles of his right hand were scraped raw.

The reward was worth the pain, though. James and the rest of the Raiders’ thrown- together offensive linemen were the unsung stars of a thrilling 31-24 victory over the Detroit Lions. Josh Jacobs ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns, but he had some holes to work with. Quarterback Derek Carr had one of his best games in years, with 289 passing yards and a 116.2 rating, but he was hit only twice by the Lions, and sacked once.

Granted, Detroit does not have a great pass rush. It’s about on par with Oakland’s. On the other hand, it was a spare-parts offensive line the Raiders had on the field — just as it has been all year.

Left tackle Kolton Miller is the only Raiders O-lineman to start every game this season. The team has trotted out six different fronts in eight games. And yet, for the most part, that line has been the strength of the team.

It was Sunday, even with James, an undrafted rookie, making his second NFL start at center, and with utility man David Sharpe replacing Trent Brown at right tackle for nearly the entire game.

Coach Jon Gruden deserves some praise, too. His balanced game plan — 35 run plays, 32 pass plays — took some pressure off the offensive linemen, allowed them to be the aggressors. But that game plan wasn’t perfect. Seven times the Raiders’ offense faced third-and-5 or longer. Carr’s lone sack came on one of those plays, but they weren’t a disaster for the home team. In fact, the touchdown pass that proved to be the game winner, a 9-yard throw from Carr to Hunter Renfrow, came on third-and-9.

All in all, the Oakland line more than held its own.

Sharpe is used to the life of a backup lineman by now. The Raiders made him a fourth-round draft choice in 2017, but he has never been an anointed starter. He bounced from Oakland to Houston (first on the Texans’ practice squad, then their active roster), then back to Oakland, and has always been the “swing tackle,” a guy to plug in when the first-teamer gets hurt. He has started three games in three NFL seasons.

Trent Brown is sort of at the other extreme, professionally. He’s making more than $15 million this season and is considered one of the top offensive tackles in the league. Sharpe is making $645,000, the minimum salary for someone with his experience. So you might have expected a big drop-off when Brown limped off the field following the Raiders’ third offensive play, especially when you consider that Sharpe hadn’t taken first-team reps this week.

“Man, it’s definitely harder,” Sharpe said after the game when I asked him about coming off the bench. “You always gotta stay ready as a backup. But just getting warmed up, finding that groove, it’s a little tougher, man. Just getting a feel of the game, the speed of the game.”

Sharpe wasn’t flawless. Detroit’s Trey Flowers got around him a couple times. But Carr generally had enough time to look like an elite quarterback.

James’ task was even tougher. The 22-year-old wasn’t just coming into this game with limited NFL experience (a total of 82 snaps, most of them filling in for starter Rodney Hudson in Green Bay two weeks earlier). He was nursing an injury, too. Hudson and James both had bum ankles this week.

“It’s kind of a stupid situation,” James said.

James wound up practicing just once, a light workout on Friday. “Early in the week, I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m gonna be able to go,’” he said. “I was probably not even like 80 percent (by Sunday).”

As the week progressed, it became an ankle race in Alameda. Would Hudson and James both be laid up, requiring Richie Incognito to move from left guard to center? Or would one of those ankle joints heal sufficiently by the time Gruden and offensive line coach Tom Cable had to make a Sunday decision?

“‘How you feeling today?’ That was our thing,” James said, laughing. “I knew it was either gonna be me or (Hudson). I think Richie would have done a good job today. But I didn’t want to have to do that to him. I don’t think he did, either.”

Center, of course, is a particularly pivotal position, because it’s the center who makes the blocking calls for the offensive line. Hudson has been doing it as well as anyone in the NFL for nine years. James hasn’t even done it for two months, because his natural position is tackle. The past few weeks have been a crash course for him.

“I love the mental aspect of it,” James told me. “That’s probably one of the biggest differences moving from tackle to center. But I love it. It’s a fun game, making your mind work like that in high-pressure situations.”

Gruden couldn’t have been thrilled with every aspect of James’ performance. He bounced a couple of shotgun snaps to Carr, and rolled one right past the quarterback. That last one, on a third-and-5 play early in the second quarter, forced Carr into an incompletion and forced the Raiders to settle for a field goal in a game that demanded touchdowns.

Carr gestured and yelled at James after the errant snap, not an entirely charitable response under the circumstances, in my opinion. After the game, though, the QB had nothing but praise.

“It was weird to do it this time without Rodney, I’ll be honest. But how about Andre James, toughing out this whole week?” Carr said. “He missed a few days of practice, comes in late for us, rookie, never played center in his life, makes his first start and makes those calls. Picking up blitzes. Good with communication. I thought he was on it all night. I think I changed one or two calls, maybe.”

Carr and the Raiders picked up an important win Sunday — in a close game against a solid opponent, at the start of a short week leading to a Thursday night showdown against the Chargers. Oakland is 4-4 and on the fringe of the AFC playoff race.

It’s wild that the offensive line has been the main engine of change. Carr, playing behind a pair of rookie tackles in Miller and Brandon Parker, was sacked 51 times last year. This year is different. Sunday, Carr was dropped for the first time since Week 5 at Indianapolis.

“It’s been a journey,” James said.

It has. And you get the feeling it’s not over.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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