Barber: Raiders' pass rush the difference in 26-24 win against Chargers
OAKLAND — The last meaningful play in the Raiders’ 26-24 win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday night was an interception by Oakland safety Karl Joseph. What doesn’t appear in the official game book is the pressure Maxx Crosby applied on the play. The Raiders rookie looped up the middle and bore down on the Chargers’ Philip Rivers. As Rivers threw the ball, Crosby plowed into the quarterback’s chest.
The throw was a prayer, and God did not answer. Karl Joseph did.
Crosby’s fierce rush on that final defensive play was symbolic. The weakest part of the Raiders’ game became their strongest for one week, and the result was a huge win — a messy, resilient, primetime victory against a division opponent. It gave the Raiders a winning record as the playoff picture begins to form.
Everything revolves around the quarterback in the NFL. Offenses rest on the QB’s shoulders, on his ability to sort out what the defensive scheme is, and to make the quick decisions and accurate throws that will expose its flaws. Even a mediocre passer will pick a defense apart if he gets adequate time.
The sole antidote is pass pressure. It’s the NFL’s kryptonite. It’s the only way to neutralize Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, and a sure way to render lesser quarterbacks incapable. That’s why every team in the league is looking for the next Nick Bosa, and why the Raiders have had to answer for trading Khalil Mack since the day they sent him to Chicago. As Jon Gruden has said countless times since, “Those guys are hard to find.”
For most of this season, the Raiders haven’t had many of “those guys.” Coming into the Chargers game, only six NFL teams had fewer sacks than Oakland’s 15.
In effect, the Raiders have had to do a lot of other things well to cover the lack of a pass rush. Their running game has been robust, their run defense underrated. Derek Carr has been increasingly efficient in Gruden’s offense.
But those things weren’t clicking against the Chargers. The Raiders ran for just 78 yards, their lowest total of the season. Carr came through when Oakland needed him most, leading crisp touchdown drives late in the second and fourth quarters, but it took him a while to get going. And the rushing defense was far below standard as Melvin Gordon and company ran for 146 yards and a 4.9-yard average.
If the Raiders had rushed the quarterback as they did in back-to-back games against Minnesota and Indianapolis earlier this season, a pair of sack-less outings, this would have been a loss. Instead, they had their first five-sack game in almost two years, and just their second since the start of the 2016 season.
The guys up front showed up on the third play of the game, when Crosby and fellow rookie Clelin Ferrell sacked Rivers to set up third-and-14 (which the Chargers managed to convert), and on LA’s final play, and on a lot of snaps in between.
The Raiders knew this was the week to step up. The Chargers have a dubious offensive line. They lost center Mike Pouncey earlier in the season, and were without their starting right tackle, Sam Tevi, for this one.