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The black-and-silver are winning their way

Despite breaking a league record for penalties, Oakland is just winning, baby

As a former player, I have grown frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and the coaches’ game plan.

The Oakland Raiders broke a 73-year-old league record by committing 23 penalties in one game on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And won. The most amazing thing is, somehow, after watching the coaches’ film, I was impressed.

Unorthodox, yet simple

Despite having talented running backs and a well-respected offensive line, the Raiders were cautious about when and how they ran the ball. It was clear that they were going to avoid running the ball against any single-high safety pre-snap looks. If there is a single safety deep (single-high) and the other near the line of scrimmage, that means the defense is most likely in a variation of Cover 1, Cover 3, or sending a blitz. Obviously, having more defenders near the line of scrimmage makes it more difficult to run the ball. But most teams try to run it anyway. Quarterback Derek Carr and the Raiders offense often left the huddle with two plays called, one run and one pass. At the line, Carr would send receivers in motion and bark out dummy cadences to get the safeties to shed their disguise and show whether they are in single-high or not. At which point Carr would either snap the ball and run the play or say, “easy easy,” communicating to his team that an audible was coming. Then he would say “kill kill,” which notifies his team that the first play is dead, and the defense is more vulnerable to the second play.

One early example of this came with 2:50 left in the first quarter. After a holding call negated a 14-yard run, the Raiders were facing second-and-18. From the shotgun, Carr lifted his foot to signal to the center to snap the ball, and the Bucs safeties, expecting the ball to be snapped, showed single-high. Carr yelled, “easy easy” and killed the run play, changing to a “sluggo seam” route. The tight end Mychal Rivera, the primary target, widened his alignment slightly to give himself more room to release. The “sluggo seam” is a tough route to cover when in a single-high defense. It is a simple and old passing concept, but the Raiders ran it with two tight ends in the game, which is abnormal. From a three-receiver right formation, with both tight ends lined up next to the tackle on the right and Michael Crabtree split wide right, Carr pumped to Amari Cooper, the single receiver on the left running a slant and go (sluggo), then turned to hit the tight end up the right seam for 27 yards.

Carr was rarely wrong with his audibles, putting his team in the best plays to succeed. Running the ball against mostly Cover 4 or 2, the Raiders running backs averaged 5.42 yards per carry on 21 carries. And Carr threw four touchdowns and set a new franchise record with 513 passing yards. Cooper and Crabtree were on the other end of 181 of those yards.

The only times they intentionally ran the ball against single-high, they lined up in a formation I have never seen before. They brought in an extra lineman and lined him up as the point man in a bunch set with a fullback inside of him and a receiver outside of him. It was most successful in overtime. At the 9:20 mark, Latavius Murray ran for 19 yards, in part because of the confusion this unbalanced bunch formation caused. The fullback went from left to right to block the backside defensive end and one linebacker followed him, as he should. The receiver ran a ghost (fake reverse) from left to right and the cornerback ran with him as well as the other linebacker. With both linebackers vacating the middle, the Raiders’ O-line handled the Bucs’ D-line and had leverage on the linebackers who tried to work back into the play as Murray ran left.

The Raiders pulled out another uncommon tactic. On a couple of occasions, they ran a five-step dropback with Carr on deep pass plays with an empty backfield formation. Most teams only run quick three-step dropback plays from empty because the quarterback is not well protected, but the Raiders have faith in their O-line and Carr’s ability to make good decisions. With 5:38 to go in the third quarter against Cover 4, Cooper was in the slot matched up with a safety. He just ran straight. Presumably, the safety thought he was going to make a break at some point because so few teams run go routes from the slot in empty formation. But the Raiders did, and Cooper caught a 34-yard touchdown.

Continuing with the theme of unorthodox, yet simple, the Raiders’ first touchdown was a simple goal-line play-action pass to an unlikely receiver, offensive lineman Donald Penn.

Jims and Joes

“It’s not about X’s and O’s. It’s about Jims and Joes.”

That is one of the corniest and annoying coaching clichés ever, but sadly in this case it is fitting. The Raiders’ coaches didn’t do anything all that interesting or innovative. The run-blocking schemes and route combinations were fairly simple. Even the double-call concept isn’t new. All teams can do it. But the Raiders did it more and were successful because of the players. Carr was alert and crafty. The Bucs defense started to hold their disguises through Carr’s dummy cadences, so Carr started to quick-snap them, which means they would snap the ball as soon as they got to the line, catching Bucs defenders out of position. Carr was also accurate and poised in the pocket, even when being blitzed. After not recognizing a blitz in the first half, Carr was sacked and fumbled the ball away to the Bucs. From then on, he was outstanding against the blitz. The game-winning touchdown pass was against a blitz. Carr recognized the blitz, evaded the free rusher and delivered a perfect pass to Seth Roberts, who broke two tackles and scored.

Carr deserves a great deal of respect for his high-caliber play this season, but he has the luxury of throwing to two receivers (Cooper and Crabtree) who can get open against most NFL cornerbacks and will make spectacular catches look routine. But Carr is not completely dependent on them. Half of his 40 completions went to eight other Raiders. Carr is not one to force the ball to his No. 1 receiver. He is reading defenses. You can watch the 68-yard pass in the second quarter to fullback Jamize Olawale to see Carr identify the mistake in coverage and connect with the uncovered Olawale.

After watching the coaches’ film, I am a Derek Carr believer. He is as good as advertised. This week, he and his Raiders will host the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Last season, the Raiders managed to win one of their matchups with Denver, but Carr did not light it up. The Raiders scored just 10 points and 15 points in their two games against the Broncos. I’m eagerly anticipating this prime-time matchup to see how much better Carr has really gotten.

Domonique Foxworth is a senior writer at Andscape. He is a recovering pro athlete and superficial intellectual.