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.