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Barber: Raiders' pass rush the difference in 26-24 win against Chargers

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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.

“We knew they had a couple people hurt on the O-line, so we had to just take advantage of it,” Raiders defensive tackle P.J. Hall said after the game.

Then, less than halfway through the first quarter, Los Angeles left tackle Russell Okung left with a groin injury. Trent Scott, who was playing in place of Tevi, moved to the left side, while rookie Trey Pipkins III — that’s a real person, not an O Henry character — moved to right tackle.

So yes, you can apply an asterisk to the D-line’s big performance if you insist. But the Raiders were down a couple players, too. Defensive end Josh Mauro missed the game with a groin injury, and the team placed edge rusher Arden Key on the injured reserve list with a foot injury Thursday. The rotation was thin.

Even if the Chargers had a diminished offensive line, this didn’t shape up as a game the Raiders would rule with their pass rush. As Crosby said afterward, “He gets ride of the ball real quick.”

He was talking about Rivers, who was 18-8 against the Raiders in his career before Thursday’s game, with an overall passer rating of 97.4. Since the Raiders returned from Los Angeles in 1995, Rivers has thrown for more yards at the Coliseum than anyone other than Derek Carr and Rich Gannon.

“He’s a great quarterback,” Crosby said. “The thing with him is you have to be in his face all game to try to get him flustered. I felt like we did a good job of that. We just kept coming all game until the final whistle blew.”

Rivers rarely looked comfortable Thursday. In fact, he threw some terrible, up-for-grabs balls, and most of those were in response to a fierce rush. The Raiders hit him 10 times.

Crosby, a fourth-round draft choice who is probably the Raiders’ best defensive player already, applied a lot of that pressure. So did Benson Mayowa, a situational pass rusher who currently leads the team with seven sacks. But the big news was Clelin Ferrell, the first-round pick from Clemson.

Ferrell came to the Raiders with the weight of high expectations. That was partly because the team took him with the fourth overall pick of the 2019 draft, higher than most analysts expected him to go. And it was partly because he is tied, fairly or not, to the Mack trade. Ferrell is one of the pieces charged with replacing Mack, an All-Pro.

Before Thursday, Ferrell hadn’t come close. He hadn’t recorded a sack since Week 1 against the Broncos, and had made very few high-impact plays. Ferrell had 2½ sacks against Rivers, though, and hit him three times.

“It was a signature game for him, obviously, but it’s great for him to get some sacks,” Gruden said. “Maybe some of the people who are counting sacks out there will acknowledge this.”

Ferrell might be miffed at those people, too. After the game, he dressed slowly at his locker as reporters and cameras gathered behind him. He methodically placed possessions in his gear bag, applied his jewelry. When he finally turned around, there must have been 20 people gathered around him. Ferrell said he would answer only one question and did just that, offering a bland three-sentence response before walking away.

The kid was feeling himself. I guess he had it coming. He wasn’t a disappointment Thursday; he was a game-changer. You could say that about the Raiders’ pass rush as a whole.

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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