Josh Jacobs Presents Major Challenge for Shorthanded Chargers Defense
In Jon Gruden's first season back as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, he burned through a number of running backs in search of a playmaker around which he could build his ground game. Unable to locate one on the roster he inherited, Gruden entered the offseason in search of a long-term answer.
That solution arrived during the 2019 NFL Draft in the form of Josh Jacobs, a former three-star recruit that fought his way to the top of the depth chart at perennial superpower Alabama. Gruden says he knew "right away" that Jacobs would fit into the Raiders offense and made him a priority on draft night, eventually selecting him with the No. 24 overall pick.
"We thought about taking him at No. 4, and we thought about taking him with all three of our first-round picks," Gruden says. "He was a guy we targeted. We needed a feature back. We had a lot of needs on this team. We weren't very good. And we needed a feature back and fortunately for us, we think we found it."
Jacobs needed little time to assimilate to the NFL. In just his first eight games, Jacobs passed Hall of Famer Marcus Allen for most rushing yards by a Raiders rookie (740 and counting). Overall, Jacobs has amassed 842 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per touch, making him one of the most productive and efficient players at his position across the league. Only nine other running backs have crossed the 800-scrimmage-yard threshold, and each has at least one NFL experience under their belts.
Jacobs could deliver another huge performance Thursday against the Chargers, a team that has allowed the 13th most rushing yards per game (114.1) through nine weeks and ranks 25th against the run in DVOA.
"He's having a real heck of a year," Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn says. "It wouldn't surprise me if he won Rookie of the Year. I mean, this guy could run it. He can catch it. He has a nose for the end zone. He's a dynamic player."
Though the Chargers defense held the Green Bay Packers to just 45 yards on the ground last Sunday, the short week and the injury report could limit the unit's effectiveness against Jacobs. The team listed starting defensive tackles Justin Jones and Brandon Mebane as limited for practice on Monday and Tuesday, an estimation of their participation levels given Los Angeles has not gone full contact this week. Meanwhile, middle linebacker Denzel Perryman continues to battle a knee injury and looks like a game-time decision. If any or all miss Thursday's game, it would have a significant impact on the run defense.
But even if the Chargers find the right approach to defending Jacobs and see their top run defenders return in time for Thursday's game, Jacobs could still wreck shop on the defense. He has bullied better units already this season and plays for a coach who knows how to put him in positions to succeed.
"We have high expectations for him," Gruden says. "We think he's got everything we're looking for. He's a great kid. He's fast. He's powerful. He's really into football. He's buttoned up all the way. So, we expected big things from him."
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH