Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press
Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Miami Gardens, Fla. —
One veteran defensive player taught a youngster how to wind a luxury watch. Another pair of defenders joked on the opposite side of the locker room.
Davante Adams had nothing critical to say, and even expressed a fair bit of hopefulness.
The Las Vegas’ Raiders’ postgame reaction to their 20-13 Week 12 loss to the Miami Dolphins Sunday bore no semblance to their five previous losses this season.
Ever since interim coach Antonio Pierce took over for the fired Josh McDaniels three weeks ago, the Raiders have sworn they’re more united than ever before and shown as much by having emphasizing fun while around each other.
That mentality stuck as much after Pierce’s first loss as it did during a two-game win streak to start his tenure.
“(Losses are) going to bring people together or divide, and I think, in the past, it kind of divided us a little bit but I think this is going to bring us closer,” slot receiver Hunter Renfrow said. “We care about each other in this locker room.”
It’s a good thing the locker room vibes were different after a loss, because the problems on the field were certainly not.
For the first time under Pierce, the Raiders reverted to many of the worst tendencies evident throughout McDaniels’ ignominious 9-16 reign.
The score might not have looked lopsided as most of the defeats — especially not in back-to-back blowout defeats to the Bears and Lions that spelled McDaniels’ demise — but the production was every bit as slanted in one side’s favor.
The Dolphins racked up 422 yards and an average of 6.2 yards per play to the Raiders’ 296 yards and five yards per play.
“I’m learning how hard the NFL is, how hard it is to win,” rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell said after his first loss since being named the permanent starter. “Kudos to our defense, just played so well in the second half. I think they scored six points and obviously I don’t think we scored, so our defense did a good job keeping us in the game. It’s really going to come down to our offense, watching the film to just be better all around. It starts with me.”
O’Connell drew the majority of the blame for the lethargic offense performance that included him throwing three interceptions and taking two sacks. And it’s true that he looked as limited as teammates Jimmy Garoppolo and Brian Hoyer did in the Lions’ and Bears’ losses, respectively.
But he also finished with 6.4 yards per attempt and a 56 passer rating — better than both of the aforementioned outings by the veterans.
Perhaps more alarming than the lackluster outing by a young quarterback were coaching inadequacies that put O’Connell in poor position.
The Raiders captured a 10-7 lead when O’Connell went over the top to connect with Adams on a 46-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the first quarter, but then the playcalling and game-management changed. It started to resemble the way McDaniels would operate with a big lead or in a close game.
Las Vegas turtled up, forcing running back Josh Jacobs into a stacked box on six of the final nine plays of the first half and declining to use a pair of remaining timeouts. The McDaniels-like conservativeness came even after the Dolphins scored to go up 14-10 with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s second touchdown pass.
Tagovailoa hit running back Salvon Ahmed on a screen, which he took 11 yards untouched into the end zone, in the second quarter after having found his first score on a 38-yard pass to star receiver Tyreek Hill in the first quarter.
The Raiders’ defense forced their second of three turnovers on the Dolphins’ next possession when Nate Hobbs stripped tight end Julian Hill and linebacker Divine Deablo recovered the fumble at the Miami 27-yard line with a minute before halftime.
Despite the gifted short-field and game-changing chance to take the lead, Pierce and offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree decided to let time tick off the clock and were content with the first of two Daniel Carlson field goals.
“We didn’t want to have anything that happened that would be a negative for us,” Pierce explained “I just thought it was in our best interest going into halftime. It was the kind of game we wanted: We wanted it kind of ugly and gritty a little bit and we felt like we were kind of getting to it at that point and time.”
The Raiders would only get that deep into Dolphins’ territory once for the rest of the game, and it was in the final minutes when they were forced into being more aggressive. O’Connell hadhis one truly unacceptable interception early in the second half on a throw he aimed right at All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
The Raiders’ offensive woes persisted, as they went through the entire second and third quarters without gaining a single first down. By the time O’Connell settled down and Hardegree opened up the playbook, it might have been too late.
On their penultimate drive, Renfrow and Jakobi Meyers took short passes for long gains but the Raiders bogged down once they got inside the 30-yard line. O’Connell regularly held onto the ball for too long, and it cost him on a 4th-and-3 play when a hit by Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins led to a throw right into the chest of edge rusher Jalen Phillips.
Both of the Dolphins’ sacks were also by Phillips, who made it obvious how much the Raiders missed Kolton Miller as the left tackle sat for a second straight game with a shoulder injury. Jermaine Eluemunor shifted to left tackle again for Miller as Phillips routinely got the best of second-year player Thayer Munford on the other side.
But the Raiders’ defense made their share of splash plays too. In addition to Hobbs’ forced fumble, safety Isaiah Pola-Mao had the first interception of his career on the first play of the second half.
Linebacker Luke Masterson punched a ball out of Tagovailoa’s hands deep in Miami territory in the first quarter and safety Marcus Epps (who later left the game with injury and didn’t return) recovered for the first of the trio of takeaways.
“Those guys are second-year players, third-year players,” Crosby said of his teammates that forced the turnovers. “It shows the development. We’re intentional about taking the ball away. Every time somebody has the ball in their hands, we want to end the possession with the ball in our possession.”
Crosby made a couple plays in the run game late after O’Connell’s second interception to force Miami to punt it back to Las Vegas for one last chance at a game-winning drive.
The quarterback hit Adams — who finished with seven catches for 82 yards — and rookie receiver Tre Tucker — two catches for 36 yards — for a pair of first downs but didn’t end up getting the ball past the 39-yard line.
With 32 seconds left, O’Connell saw Tucker streaking open towards the end zone. He lofted a pass but Ramsey was able to high-point the ball for a game-ending interception.
“I knew at some point we were going to have to take a shot because we needed a touchdown so saw Tre had a little step and I hung it up there too much,” O’Connell said. “The defender made a really good play, so I think we were a little messed up on our alignment to start. I didn’t communicate well enough in the huddle so some better communication would have gotten the play better.”
Crosby and Adams both gave a vote of confidence to O’Connell, who finished with 271 yards on 24-for-41 passing. Pierce pinned the loss on himself but repeatedly chalked up the restrained playcalling as a way to, “protect the young quarterback.”
It wasn’t all that different from the several times McDaniels would go ultra-vanilla in a misguided attempt to retain leads.
The new-look Raiders suddenly have some of the same old problems.
“We gave ourselves an opportunity to win the game — under a minute, plus territory and we didn’t get it,” Pierce said. “There are no moral victories. I told the guys keep their chins up. We’re going to be the same way win, lose or draw.”