Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The Raiders were smitten with Ohio State tackle Paris Johnson in this year’s NFL Draft, their interest so apparent that the Arizona Cardinals were moved to action.
The Cardinals traded up to No. 6 overall so they could nab Johnson one pick before the Raiders got on the clock. Las Vegas then went on to completely ignore its offensive line, not using a single one of their remaining eight draft picks on the position group.
It was a curious decision that seems to be having a lingering negative effect on the season. The Raiders sit at 3-4 going into a Monday Night Football game this week at the Detroit Lions (5-2), and one of the main culprits for their losing record is an inability to run the ball.
Las Vegas is last in the league at three yards per carry and much, though not all, of the blame belongs to an offensive line that’s unequivocally worsened as a run-blocking unit. That’s at least the view of the powers-at-be, as Raiders coach Josh McDaniels mentioned losing control at the line of scrimmage three times in his postgame news conference after a 30-12 loss at the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
“We were kind of playing the game backwards, and that’s not a formula that’s suited us,” he said. “We need to figure out how we can do that better.”
The problem is a 180 compared with last year, when the Raiders’ ground game was one of the team’s only strengths. Star running back Josh Jacobs led the NFL in rushing last season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 97 rushing yard per game.
This year, Jacobs doesn’t have a single game where he’s averaged more than 3.5 yards per carry or totaled more than 77 yards.
The fifth-year team captain is certainly not playing his best either as he admitted to some rust in the first couple weeks after sitting out of training camp amid a contract dispute. He should be past that by now, however, and yet has still posted a career-low Pro Football Focus grade — one that ranks him an uncharacteristic 39th out of 50 qualified running backs.
But Jacobs is often trying everything he can — shuffling his feet with patience or lowering his shoulder with urgency — in search of yards and not finding any. He’s 19th in the NFL in yards before contact, as opposed to second a year ago.
“I’m waiting for that breakout game because I think we have a chance to get it, because I see how close we are, that we have a chance to really break out a big one or get going,” offensive coordinator Michael Lombardi said. “I know the offensive line is really chomping at the bit to get that done.”
The question now is whether they’re capable of getting it done. The offensive line’s decline looks like it could be a classic case of the “Plexiglass Principle,” on a micro level.
The Plexiglass Principle is a data-driven sports idea that a big leap in success to exceed expectations in one season is usually followed by at least a marginal regression in the next.
The Raiders were supposed to have one of, if not the, worst offensive lines in the NFL a year ago, but the makeshift unit surprised and paved the way to Jacobs’ banner year.
On performance alone, bringing back the same five starters — though right guard Greg Van Roten ultimately beat out incumbent Alex Bars in training camp — was a reasonable plan. But perhaps McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler should have realized that last year was a case of the line hitting its peak, a phenomenon that was unlikely to repeat.
Bringing in young talent, even if it wasn’t their top choice in Johnson, might have been necessary.
“We have a lot of good players,” McDaniels said on Monday about the Raiders’ offense as a whole. “There’s a fine line between not doing good enough and really doing well…We finish one block, and all of a sudden it’s a bigger play, or we make a read or protection adjustment, and it changes the result of the play. Football is a mysterious game, and I think our players feel like we could do much better than what we’ve done.”
Las Vegas finished No. 10 in last year’s PFF offensive line rankings. It’s currently No. 16 this season.
That may not sound all that bad, but their hovering around NFL average is almost entirely for another, to use McDaniels’ word, “mysterious” reason — their pass blocking. Unlike last year when Las Vegas’ pass protection was mediocre at best, it’s a decidedly above-average this year.
Left tackle Kolton Miller is one of PFF’s top-graded pass blockers in the league, and the analytics company credits him with not having given up a single pressure in the last two weeks. Las Vegas is also 11th in league in giving up a 6.6% adjusted sack rate, per the DVOA ratings.
That’s decidedly better than the Raiders’ 30th and 31st place standings in adjusted line yards and power-success rate, respectively — a pair of run-blocking measures to gauge offensive line play.
“We get everybody’s best every week so we want to make sure to give our best and accept the challenge because it’s going to be a burden to try to run the football this week in the dome in Detroit,” Lombardi said. “So, we’ve got to do a good job of that with a good plan and a good level of execution.”
It’s worth noting that the Johnson, despite his high draft profile, hasn’t played all that well this season for the Cardinals — though undoubtedly better than edge rusher Tyree Wilson, whom the Raiders selected after the tackle was taken. Right tackle has been the Raiders’ most unsettled spot as they’ve repeatedly rotated seventh-year veteran Jermaine Eluemunor and second-year, former seventh-round pick Thayer Munford.
Eluemunor had a breakout season with the Raiders a year ago — other than his tendency to pick up penalties — but hasn’t been as reliable in 2023. Munford seemingly has begun to surpass him, starting in each of the last two games and logging more snaps than Eluemunor in two of the last three contests.
Munford’s progression along with second-year classmate Dylan Parham, whom PFF credits with having his strongest three games of the year in his last three outings, would be the biggest reason for optimism going forward. But the Raiders have a long way to go.
A rare strength a season ago has turned to one of many weaknesses this year. Chalk it up to the mystery of the NFL.
“We’re right there; our execution needs to be a little bit better,” Lombardi said. “We’ve got to do a good job as coaches putting together a good plan this week in the running game because Detroit is a very good rush defense.”