The plan Jon Gruden had when he returned as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders in 2018 is finally showing signs of fruition.
After tearing the team down his first year and struggling through two losing seasons, Gruden has the Raiders in position to contend in the AFC halfway through Year 3 of his second stint with the franchise.
The Raiders followed a win in a defensive struggle in the cold of Cleveland by holding off the Chargers in a 31-26 victory Sunday that went down to a replay review on the final play that wiped out an apparent winning TD for Los Angeles.
That has Las Vegas (5-3) in a four-way tie for the sixth seed in the AFC playoff race after the more difficult first-half schedule.
“We’ve been competitive week in and week out," Gruden said Monday. “We’ve adapted to a lot of different circumstances, missing players, missing practice, different types of weather. Obviously the COVID experience has really made things bizarre and different.”
The Raiders have dealt with several injuries that have hit the offensive line and secondary especially hard, as well as a positive COVID-19 test for right tackle Trent Brown that forced them to play a game after not having their entire starting offensive line at practice all week.
But thanks to a dynamic offense led by an improved quarterback Derek Carr, running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller, the Raiders have increased their scoring by 7.7 points per game to become a contender.
“We like where we are,” Jacobs said. “We’re not satisfied though. We’re nowhere near our peak. We have to cut out a lot of things we’re doing that are beating ourselves and come out and execute definitively.”
Carr. The Raiders quarterback faced questions heading into his seventh season but has responded by playing the best football of his career. He has been more aggressive, with his average pass traveling 1.1 yards more downfield than he did last season. He's been more willing to run, matching his career high with 10 runs for first downs. Carr also ranks fifth in the league in passer rating at 110 and has 16 TD passes compared to only two INTs.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Pass rush. The Raiders have been searching for a pass rush ever since Gruden traded Khalil Mack to Chicago before the 2018 season. The wait is still going as the Raiders are tied with the second-fewest sacks in the league with nine, despite getting two vs. the Chargers. Second-year edge rusher Maxx Crosby has five but 2019 No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell has none and 2018 third-rounder Arden Key also hasn’t gotten a sack.
Nelson Agholor. The 2015 first-round pick who flamed out in Philadelphia thanks to too many dropped passes has become a dependable deep threat in his first season with the Raiders. Agholor has 17 catches for 347 yards and five TDs, including four that have covered at least 20 yards. Only Tyreek Hill has more big-play TDs with five this season.
Cory Littleton. The team’s biggest free agent acquisition has struggled to make an impact. One of the better coverage linebackers during his time with the Rams, Littleton has struggled guarding tight ends and backs since joining the Raiders. He also has no sacks or forced turnovers.
The Raiders are hoping to get first-round CB Damon Arnette back soon from an injury to his hand that has sidelined him since Week 3. ... LT Kolton Miller is trying to come back this week from an ankle injury. ... LG Richie Incognito (Achilles tendon) also could return soon but Brown (COVID-19 list) is expected to miss at least a few more weeks. ... FB Alec Ingold is awaiting X-ray results on his injured ribs and Gruden said he’s “concerned.”
$1,215,000 — That’s the amount of money the Raiders organization, Gruden and players have been fined by the NFL this season for various violations of the COVID-19 protocols. The team has also been docked a sixth-round draft pick.
The Raiders host Denver on Sunday before finishing a three-game stretch against AFC West rivals at home Nov. 22 against Kansas City.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL