Friday, Oct. 1, 2021 | 2 a.m.
The Raiders eased into game-week practice for their upcoming Monday Night Football showdown at the Los Angeles Chargers on Wednesday during a position-group period with most units running at half-speed or focusing on instruction.
The offensive line was the exception. Offensive line coach Tom Cable barked orders, demanded pace and pushed his players.
The offensive line holding the most intense individual sessions on the team is nothing new, but it was particularly noticeable as the season now gets into mid-swing. The Raiders have no time to rest when it comes to their offensive line.
That’s because it’s arguably been Las Vegas’ only major issue during a 3-0 start to the season.
“I think it’s easy for people to look at a problem and say, ‘Boy, they’ve got problems there,’” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said last week. “But we’re in the business of finding solutions and we’ll continue to try and find solutions.”
Las Vegas is averaging only 3.4 yards per rushing attempt behind an injured and green offensive line that ranks in the bottom half of the league by virtually any advanced statistic. They’ve been able to work around it so far, but know to keep up the same overall pace, they’ll need more.
Having bloopers outnumber highlights up front, which they almost certainly did in Sunday’s 31-28 overtime victory over the Dolphins, isn’t sustainable.
“We had one play where we had both guards pull and run into each other,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden cracked after the game. “That’s not by design.”
The Raiders shed salary on the offensive line coming into the season, prompting many to call for this level of decline. The front office and coaching staff were confident they could keep producing at a high level with younger players but couldn’t have foreseen the injuries that have helped derail the rebuild.
After only playing in one game a year ago, right guard Richie Incognito has yet to be active this year after suffering a calf strain in training camp. The Raiders also lost the starting guard opposite Incognito, Denzelle Good, to a torn ACL in the first series of the season.
The young players have been a part of the problem, too. Las Vegas pinned its biggest hopes on rookie first-round pick Alex Leatherwood at right tackle and former undrafted third-year veteran Andre James at center.
They’ve struggled the most of all, piling up miscues and missed blocks to stall drives.
“We’ve had spurts where it’s been pretty doggone good and there’s been spurts where it needs to be better,” Gruden said. “But it’s a young group, they’re playing some formidable defenses.”
Concerns were evident from the first possession of the year. Las Vegas drove to one yard shy of the red zone against Baltimore before James picked up a penalty and then made an errant snap to push the team out of field-goal range.
Later, Leatherwood infamously committed a false-start inside the 1-yard line in overtime to turn what looked like a sure victory into an all-time thriller. A knock on Leatherwood coming out of Alabama was his tendency to pick up penalties, and it’s not a habit he’s kicked as a professional.
He’s tied for the NFL lead with four flags already despite missing time with injuries in each of the last two games.
James’ penalties — he’s got three total — and bad snaps are also a recurring issue as he flung one ball over Carr’s head late against Miami.
“I promise you we go over those things, but he’s also got a big dude in front of him, and no excuses, he still wants to put it there,” Carr said. “But I told him, ‘I’m sorry that went over my head.’ I just didn’t have the hops for him.”
Carr can try to cover for his teammates, but making a leaping save of a bad snap is not within his job description.
Left tackle Kolton Miller has been the lone bastion of reliability on the line, and the Raiders finally got their ground game going largely by rushing behind him in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Dolphins. Peyton Barber picked up a career-high 111 rushing yards and said it was because he could feel those in front of him getting stronger as the game went on.
“Offensive line, we’ve got a great group of guys,” Barber said.
Sounds simple, but that’s one of the Raider’s biggest reasons for optimism going forward. There are no bad seeds mixed in to the offensive line as everyone on the team raves about the group’s attitude and desire to improve.
Left guard John Simpson, who’s struggled almost as much as Leatherwood and James, has a reputation as one of the hardest workers on the team ever since arriving as a fourth-round pick last year. He’s also said to be as cerebral as Leatherwood, whom Gruden joked was a “deep, philosophical cat.”
New right guard Jermaine Eluemunor, whom the Raiders claimed off the Jaguars’ practice squad after Good’s injury, might have the biggest personality and most unique backstory on the team. He grew up in England playing soccer before catching one of the NFL London series games to become familiar with football.
He’s also stepped in and played competently, which unfortunately for the Raiders, means he’s probably been their second-best lineman. But the coaching staff is pushing hard toward a day when the whole offensive line leaves behind the mistakes and solidifies.
“Leatherwood is working with a guy that just got here (Eluemunor),” Gruden said. “Andre has really started half a dozen games in his career. The snap accuracy wasn’t as good as it needs to be (against the Dolphins), and John Simpson is a young player. So, it’s going to take some time. Development doesn’t happen overnight, but we’re getting better.”