Steven Senne / AP
Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 | 2 a.m.
You would think that with a 3-2 record and coming off a bye, the Raiders would be relaxed and soaking in good vibes right about now. But that is decidedly not the case, as Las Vegas is battling through a tumultuous week — much of it their own doing — as they get ready to face one of the league’s best teams on Sunday.
How rocky is this week for Las Vegas? Let’s take a look at the biggest obstacles — on and off the field — facing the silver and black as they prepare for Tampa Bay:
When the NFL decided to play football during a pandemic, there were bound to be some bumps along the way. But the Raiders have gone above and beyond to make things difficult on themselves, and because of that the team’s COVID-19 situation may get worse before it gets better.
Right tackle Trent Brown is at the center of the storm this week, as he returned a positive test on Tuesday and is currently on the COVID-19 reserve list. And because location-tracking devices put the rest of the starting offensive linemen in close physical proximity to Brown, they have had to isolate as well. That has left the Raiders without their five best available offensive linemen for the past two practices, and it’s not a sure thing that any of them will be cleared to play on Sunday.
And that’s not the half of it. On Thursday, it was reported that the NFL is now investigating the Raiders because Brown may not have been wearing his tracking device at all times. The league also may have found video evidence that the offensive linemen congregated inside the facility without masks. None of that is acceptable, and if it turns out to be malicious, the league could hand down a big penalty.
The Raiders need to get a handle on the COVID-19 protocols quickly. The internal leadership on that issue has been poor, and this is at least the third separate time the league has had to look into the franchise for possible violations.
If possibly having the entire offensive line wiped out for a critical game isn’t a wake-up call, what is?
With all the potential COVID clusters swirling inside the Raiders’ facility this week, there is no guarantee that Sunday’s game even gets played. The league has already taken steps toward that end, as the contest has been moved from its prime-time Sunday Night Football slot to a regular Sunday 1 p.m. kickoff.
That allows the NFL to place a more dependable game on Sunday night, protecting the league’s ratings jewel, and it also makes the Raiders-Buccaneers game easier to postpone to Monday afternoon (or even Tuesday) if it comes to that.
If the game has to be postponed more than a day or two, that’s when the real complications begin. The Raiders have already enjoyed their bye week, so there are no remaining free slots in the Las Vegas schedule between now and January. Would that bring a forfeit into the equation? That is the very last option for the league, and one that has been resisted so far (in favor of rescheduling), so expect the game to get pushed through this week no matter how many Raiders players may have to sit out. Still, Las Vegas is playing with fire.
The COVID situation is putting Las Vegas in a bind from an X’s and O’s standpoint as well. If there’s a time when you’d want your offensive line together and practicing, it would be heading into a matchup against Tampa Bay. The Bucs defense is ferocious, ranking second in the NFL in sack rate (9.32 percent), so the prospect of breaking the huddle with a gaggle of backup offensive linemen is not ideal.
Brown is on the COVID-19 reserve list, as are left tackle Kolton Miller, left guard Denzelle Good, center Rodney Hudson and right guard Gabe Jackson. That leaves guards John Simpson, Andre James and Patrick Omameh and tackles Brandon Parker and Sam Young as the only active blockers on the roster right now. There are three more linemen on the practice squad (Jaryd Jones-Smith, Erik Magnuson, Kamaal Seymour). That’s only eight guys, total, which is a pretty dire situation.
To hear offensive coordinator Greg Olson tell it, however, the team has barely noticed the lack of available blockers.
“To be honest with you, we haven’t changed our routine [in practice] at all,” Olson said. “Obviously our numbers are down a little bit. As far as our practice reps, we continue business as usual and next-man-up mentality. Nothing has really changed.”
The Raiders also have depth issues in the secondary now, with safety Johnathan Abram joining cornerback Damon Arnette on the COVID-19 reserve list.
Arnette was out with a thumb injury anyway, so the Raiders were prepared for his absence. Losing Abram would be a blow, however, as the second-year safety has provided flashes of impact play (interspersed with some lowlights, as expected for a young player).
The Buccaneers are loaded with pass-catching options, from stud receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to slippery slot man Scotty Miller to bruising tight end Rob Gronkowski. From the Raiders perspective, Abram may have given them a matchup option against Gronkowski, and Abram’s physical presence could have helped in the middle of the field against Miller and Godwin.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther expressed confidence that the rest of the secondary will be able to make up for Abram’s absence if he is unable to go.
“John is a big part of what we do, but we also have some guys that have been around here that have reps in practice,” Guenther said. “We get them each and every week in case guys go down. Obviously, [Erik] Harris, [Jeff] Heath and Dallin Leavitt, those kinds of guys. We have some corners that have some ability to play safety, that can cover and play in the deep half. We have some guys that are versatile guys, so we’ll just have to see with John whatever the situation is. If he’s playing, great. If not, we have to have somebody step up in his place and play at a high level.”
Though Abram has been up and down this year, he brings a physical, hard-charging style that no one else on the roster can match. If he is eventually ruled out for Sunday (or Monday, or Tuesday), Las Vegas will have to reconfigure its coverage plans.
If Tom Brady is listed last when discussing your obstacles, then you’re facing some pretty difficult obstacles. That’s what the Raiders are up against.
Of course, Las Vegas has been pretty good against future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks this season. They beat Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 2 and defeated Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks ago, so taking out yet another Super Bowl-winning QB would make for a fine feather in their cap.
Guenther acknowledged how difficult it will be for the Raiders defense to match up this week.
“Brady looks like he’s real comfortable in the offense,” Guenther said. “They have some really good weapons outside, and they have a lot of guys with different abilities as receivers. Tight ends are really good and the backs run hard and they’re physical up front. They do a real good job of protecting. So, another big challenge. Seems like they get harder each and every week, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”