The AFC West is currently the worst division in the league in terms of record through 13 weeks of play. There were big expectations for the division early in the season with the dynamic Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders offense returning most players in 2017, and a veteran Denver Broncos defensive unit who won the super bowl only two seasons ago. Even the Los Angeles Chargers had promise after they spent 2016 with main players on the injured reserve.
With a three-way tie for first place between the Raiders, Chargers, and Chiefs at only six wins each, it shows the vulnerable state of the division. In any other division, none of these teams would be in first. But with the Kansas City Chiefs struggling after being handed their fourth straight loss thanks to the New York Jets, the Raiders and Chargers have been able to sneak back into the playoff picture. For the Raiders to champion the AFC West, the Oakland Raiders offense will need to carry them the rest of the way.
Oakland Raiders Offense Needs to Improve to Take Wild West
Focused on Offense
Oakland has the toughest schedule remaining of the three first-place AFC West teams. Next weeks matchup with the Chiefs will be essential to the silver and black. Closing the season with NFC East standouts Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles will be no easy task. If Oakland wants to make a run in the postseason, this time with a healthy Derek Carr, the offense needs to play up to the expectations that they had in the preseason.
The Raiders defense having major flaws entering 2017 was no secret. For years they have had inconsistent play from their secondary and linebackers. The addition of NaVorro Bowman has added an element to the Raiders defense where they have lacked early in the season. Young linebackers such as Cory James and Marquel Lee are talented but did not lead the defense early this season the way Bowman has upon his arrival.
Ken Norton Jr. suffered the consequences after being canned by the organization last week. Defensive backs Dexter McDonald and Sean Smith have looked much better as of late not because of the firing of their coordinator, but because of the pressure that has been lifted off their shoulders with the addition of Bowman.
Jack Del Rio stated that the defense played very well, referring to the play of their defensive backs the last two games. The defense this past Sunday was the unit who forced key turnovers to decide the game. Even with star pass rusher Khalil Mack and super champion Bruce Irvin anchoring the defense, expectations are on the offense to produce.
Where the Offense Needs to Improve
Although the defensive side of the ball has made the most drastic change by replacing coordinators, the offense is the lagging unit. The Raiders added weapons to their roster this off-season when they acquired tight end Jared Cook from the Green Bay Packers, wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson from the Minnesota Vikings, and running back Marshawn Lynch from retirement.
The only missing link from last years high powered offense has been former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, whose contract was not renewed after leading the team to their best offensive season in 14 years. The play calling duties have since been taken over by then quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. Oakland is on pace to slightly improve their defensive ranking from a year ago, while their offense is on pace to see a decline from their sixth overall offense rank in 2016.
With the 2017 season coming to an end in four weeks, the Raiders need to put their offensive players in a position to be successful in order to be the serious contenders that they were once believed to be early in the season.
There have not been many touches by Patterson as of late, who played a pivotal role from the wing back position early in the season against the Tennessee Titans and New York Jets. There has also been a limited role from tight end Clive Walford, who had a prominent role last year before the arrival of Cook, and also had clutch catches in the win against the New York Giants.
With two skillful tight ends and a big play threat from Patterson, Oakland needs to utilize their weapons in order to protect Carr and keep the offense from having to convert on third down. The Raiders have been using empty formations without access to their top receivers and throwing the ball to Lynch, who isn’t known for his pass catching ability. The offensive unit is talented, but not being placed in a position to showcase their skills.
Carr is being put under unnecessary duress in the pocket because of the lack of protection and the lack of run threat when in empty formations. He did a good job of getting rid of the ball quickly this past week against the Giants when in empty, but protecting the teams key player will be vital after seeing what happened last postseason without Carr.
After being asked about the first half offensive struggles, head coach Jack Del Rio stated, “We talked about protect and produce. Protect the ball and protect the quarterback”.
That is exactly what needs to happen if the Oakland Raiders want to not only make the playoffs but be impactful in the postseason. Having the offense in sets that include tight ends Cook and Walford, Patterson in the backfield, Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper, and a mix of the three running backs will not only protect Carr but keep the opposing defense guessing while providing a variety of weapons to the pro bowl quarterback.
The Path to Taking the Wild West
The Raiders have not been playing to their potential on offense. Defensively, they have actually improved from last season when they were a 12 win team. It needs to be accepted that the defense is what it is at this point. They are a few years away from being a top-tier unit, mostly because of their youth.
However, the offense simply cannot say the same. They were carrying a worse defense a year ago, and fans expected the same, if not better, this year. According to the website, Over the Cap, Reggie McKenzie and the Raiders have invested $37 million to the offensive line, which is the highest in the league. If the offense cannot produce to close the season, look for the pressure to be on new offensive coordinator Todd Downing this off-season.