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Josh Jacobs

Danny Karnik / Associated Press

Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs (28) stiff arms Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones (45) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Atlanta.

Going into Week 13 against the winless New York Jets, Raiders coach Jon Gruden bristled at the notion that his team would overlook a matchup against anyone in the NFL. “The Raiders are starving for wins,” Gruden said. “We haven’t been in the postseason in, I don’t know when—a long time.”

Gruden has a way of exaggerating and must actually know the organization last reached the playoffs in 2016, two years before he arrived for his second stint on the sidelines. He’s also almost surely aware that the Raiders’ last playoff win came in 2002, the year he beat them in the Super Bowl after the coach was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But there’s one thing he’s not fooling about: The franchise is desperate to get into the playoffs in its first year in Las Vegas. The Raiders have been building toward this moment for three seasons, and anything less than a postseason berth would be considered a failure internally.

With a 7-5 record after a miracle win on a completed Hail Mary to Henry Ruggs III in the final seconds at New York, Las Vegas sits in position to make it with four games to go. The Raiders are technically outside the playoff picture at the moment, but two of their next three games are at home against a pair of teams one win in front of them—Indianapolis in Week 14 and Miami in Week 16.

Win these last four games, or likely even take three out of four, and Las Vegas will get in. Here are five things the Raiders must do to make sure that happens.

Get Josh Jacobs healthy.

Gruden said the Raiders’ go-to running back was on track to return from a sprained ankle all week going into the Jets game. Then, in a surprise announcement Friday, he said Jacobs wouldn’t make the trip to New York.

Maybe Jacobs really was too hobbled to play, or maybe the Raiders decided it would be better to nurse him back to 100% for the stretch run. Fans have to be hoping it’s the latter. Las Vegas hasn’t run the ball particularly well all year, but it has looked lost without Jacobs. Devontae Booker, Jalen Richard and Theo Riddick are all nice complementary backs, but they seem unable to carry the load on their own.

Without Jacobs, Las Vegas gained just 79 yards on 21 carries against New York. That’s not good enough for an offense built around getting a big contribution from the running game.

Focus on Darren Waller, Nelson Agholor and Hunter Renfrow as receiving options.

That might sound counterintuitive after Ruggs made the game-winning catch—and possibly the team’s top season-long highlight—to beat the Jets. But that reception was the anomaly, not the norm; he caused two giveaways earlier in the game and has largely struggled throughout the year.

The rookie Ruggs remains a tantalizing long-term prospect, but at the moment, there’s no reason why he should be getting more snaps than Agholor, who offers similar speed and big-play ability, and has been more reliable all season.

Renfrow has also earned a bigger share of the workload. By Pro Football Focus’ grading, he’s been the Raiders’ best offensive player, and it often seems like they could make more frequent use of his textbook route running.

There’s at least been no underutilizing Waller, who had a historic day with 13 receptions for 200 yards and two touchdowns against the Jets.

Las Vegas prides itself on balance in the passing game, but with the season on the line, it might be best to hone in on getting its best players the ball.

Pick up the pass rush.

With three sacks of Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, the Raiders had their best pass-rushing game of the year in Week 13. That’s an encouraging sign, but there’s still work to be done.

This was the Jets, after all, and even after the big day, the Raiders still rank last in the NFL with a 2.77% sack rate. The good news? The coaching staff knows it’s a problem and is doing everything possible to address it.

The Raiders signed two reclamation edge-rushing projects, former Falcons Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley, to the practice squad two weeks ago. Beasley was already elevated to the active roster and debuted against the Jets with promising results.

He didn’t have any tackles, but he helped draw attention from Clelin Ferrell, who broke out with two strip-sacks. Ferrell said Beasley was directly responsible for one of the two turnovers after he suggested a pass-rushing stunt that worked to perfection.

Get Cory Littleton on track.

The Raiders’ linebacker has looked a little better in the past two games since returning from a bout with COVID-19, but the team still needs more out of him.

Las Vegas signed Littleton to a massive three-year, $35 million free agency deal with sights on him becoming the team’s defensive star. It hasn’t worked out that way. Littleton leads the league with 15 missed tackles, while the Raiders have continued to struggle against running backs both from a rushing and passing perspective.

Given personnel shortcomings, it’s unavoidable that the Raiders will take their lumps up front and on the back end of their defense. The middle is where they should be strong, and the quickest way to shore that up would be getting Littleton back to the form that saw him rate as Pro Football Focus’ top-graded tackler in the NFL a year ago with the Los Angeles Rams.

Be aggressive.

Facing a fourth-and-7 from the Jets’ 40-yard line in Week 13, Gruden made the curious choice to punt. The Surrender Index, a statistical model that calculates every NFL punt’s effect on win probability, rated the decision in the 98th percentile of poorest punting decisions dating back to 2009.

The worst part: It wasn’t that out of the ordinary for the Raiders. Gruden has skewed heavily conservative from a strategic standpoint all season. Las Vegas has one of the best offenses in the league, and the coaching staff must learn to trust it more.

In fairness, Gruden has made up for those blunders in other areas. It’s harder to quantify, but he’s been one of the best play callers in the NFL—seemingly always dialing up the right attack at the right time. He talks about his players getting better in every area, though, so it’s only fair that his players should expect the same out of him.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

Article written by #LasVegasSun