World’s Best Preview: Inside the Raiders

Bill Huber

Something will have to give.

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr leads the NFL with a completion rate of 73.3 percent. That mark is far ahead of his lifetime mark of 63.4 percent.

The Green Bay Packers will be tasked with stopping Carr on Sunday at Lambeau Field. Green Bay’s defense is fifth in the NFL with an opponent completion percentage of 57.9.

“It’s scheme, it’s him having a real good understanding of what they do and having a real good understanding of defenses,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “He knows exactly where to go with it.”

With Carr playing efficiently, the Raiders are 3-2 – a vast improvement over the past two seasons, when the Raiders went 10-21 in Carr’s 31 starts.

“Carr is a good player. He’s a really good player. We just weren’t very good,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of last year’s 4-12 season. “We’re putting our team together, we’re building our team. We weren’t very good on defense last year. I think we only started seven drives on the plus side of the 50 all year. We’re getting better on defense. We’re playing better on the offensive line, we’re running the ball better and Derek’s playing better. I think Derek’s going to be a great player no matter who coaches him. Like anybody else, sometimes a supporting cast and the way you play defense is a factor. We have to continue to build our team around our quarterback and if we can do that I think he’ll be one of the top guys in the league.”

The supporting cast is evident with the first-round pick used on running back Josh Jacobs and two key moves to the offensive line. Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock bolstered the front wall by signing mammoth right tackle Trent Brown to the richest contract for an offensive lineman in NFL history and adding 36-year-old left guard Richie Incognito. Combined with Gruden’s scheme and better protection, Carr is spending more time on his feet. Last year, Carr was sacked 51 times. Through five games this season, Carr’s been sacked eight times – a pace for 26.

And that leads into a second key in which something will have to give. While Oakland has done a tremendous job of protecting Carr, Green Bay has done a tremendous job of putting the quarterback on his butt.

“They made a concerted effort not to get him hit, which is obviously I think what most offenses want to do,” Pettine said. “You can tell that’s really important to them. Our guys know that, and we just have to fight that frustration, so we don’t start chasing it. Hey, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. Sometimes, things are out of our control. We still want to have an effect on him and have ways to move him off a spot and get off his first read, and then hopefully we’ll get some hands in throwing lanes and things like that. But just staying patient and keep getting pluses on the grade sheet and not getting worried about it.”

Short at receiver: Carr’s success is remarkable given the lack of firepower at receiver. It’s not that the Raiders didn’t try to upgrade. They acquired prolific but high-maintenance receiver Antonio Brown from Pittsburgh. But Brown melted down, and the Raiders dumped him on New England. Thus, Oakland might have the worst receiver corps in the NFL. All the receivers on the roster have combined for 37 catches – as many as tight end Darren Waller. Making matters worse, their leader at receiver, Tyrell Williams, will be inactive with a foot injury. He’s scored in each of his four games this season.

So, this will be the Raiders’ receiver corps: pint-sized rookie Hunter Renfrow (12 catches for 101 yards), former Packers returner Trevor Davis (four catches for 42 yards), practice-squad call-up Keelan Doss (three receptions for 25 yards), kick returner Dwayne Harris (one catch for 7 yards) and Zay Jones, whom the Raiders acquired in a trade on Oct. 7. He caught 7-of-18 passes in five games for Buffalo.

Nonetheless, Carr has gotten by with a dink-and-dunk approach centered on tight end Darren Waller. Waller has 37 receptions for 359 yards. A receiver at Georgia Tech, he was on Baltimore’s practice squad for most of last season.

“He’s one of the great stories in football,” Gruden said. “I just hope people around the league, young people, take a good look at this guy. It’s just a credit to him. I mean, he was out of football, he had some bad things going on in his life. He’s a converted wide receiver. When we played the Ravens, we saw Waller working out before the game. I couldn’t believe how much bigger and stronger he looked. We took him off their practice squad, and he has not just been a receiver he has been a great blocker. He’s been an outstanding in-line tight end. You can line him up in the slot, out wide. Great kid and he’s overcome the problems off the field that he has had. And he can be a real resource, a positive resource for people that are struggling out there with substance abuse. Look up Darren Waller, get to meet Darren Waller and start cheering for this kid. It’s really been great.”

Waller’s been so good that he signed a contract extension worth about $9 million per season earlier this week.

The long and short of it: Of 34 qualifying quarterbacks, Carr’s air yards per pass attempt of 5.91 is the shortest in the NFL.

That reliance on short, quick-hitting passes was apparent to everyone on the Packers’ defense. However, if a Packers secondary gets too nosey and focused on the short stuff, Carr has the arm talent to make it pay. While Carr is 27th with 13 passing attempts 20-plus yards downfield, he’s completed six of those passes for 158 yards, three touchdowns for a sizzling passer rating of 130.8. Green Bay’s defense, which has bitten on some double moves as well as last week’s opening flea flicker, has allowed 15 receptions of 25-plus yards – the ninth-most in the league.

“That’s where we’ve got to play with great eyes,” Pettine said. “You can get lulled to sleep, whether it’s with a run or whether it’s just with the short passes. Essentially every underneath pass they have, they have the complementary double move off of it. It’s just something our guys have to be mindful of and as they’re breaking on a throw and they’ve got to make sure they keep their eyes on their work if they do turn up, that they stay on top. So, I think part of it is the scheme helps. I mean structure-wise there will be times when we feel like we can be more aggressive underneath as opposed to always having to stay on top.”

The running men: Given the state of the receiver corps, it stands to reason that Gruden will want to pound away with the fresh-legged Jacobs against a Packers defense that will be on a short week.

Jacobs has rushed for rookie highs of 430 yards and four touchdowns. The combined total of the next two rookie rushers is 490 yards and four touchdowns.

“We felt like he’s an outstanding player,” Gruden said. “He didn’t get a chance to be the feature back much at Alabama but he’s picking up blitzes, he’s a sharp kid, he catches the ball, he’s tough to deal with. He’s a great kid. You guys will love him.”

Jacobs has broken a combined 28 tackles on rushes (23) and receptions (five), according to Pro Football Focus. Among all backs with at least 40 carries, Jacobs ranks third in PFF’s elusive rating, a formula that combines missed tackles, touches and yards after contact. He’ll test a Packers run defense that finally turned in a strong performance in limiting Detroit to 2.8 yards per carry.

“He’s one of those running backs you can’t pigeon-hole in the sense that, ‘All right, it’s definitely this type of run or that type of run,’” inside linebacker Blake Martinez said. “It’s definitely a good challenge from that standpoint to be able to read and react. He can do outside runs, inside runs. Hard to tackle when he hits the hole and has great vision to find the open hole. When he has to run through the hole and break some arm tackles, he’s able to, and when he’s outside on the edge, he’s able to make cuts to get you off-balance and break free.”