Reviving the Oakland Raiders Run Game

In today’s NFL, football revolves around the quarterback. Having a franchise quarterback is essential for legitimate playoff contenders. From Tom Brady to Aaron Rodgers, all of the best teams in the NFL have franchise quarterbacks. Even on defense, the game still revolves around the passer. A successful defense can get to the opposing quarterback with a dominant pass rush, and having a secondary to disrupt the pass is essential.

As the passing game continues to become more and more important, it’s easy to forget about the running game. The running back position simply isn’t as important as it used to be. Despite the success of the passing game, the running game should never be ignored. As the last three Super Bowls have proved, a team cannot win without a reliable rushing attack.

Reviving the Oakland Raiders Run Game

As the years have gone by, the outcome of general manager Reggie McKenzie’s efforts to turn the franchise around have started to take effect. McKenzie managed to get the Oakland Raiders out of salary cap trouble, drafted well, and made a lot of smart free agent decisions. In the 2015 season, the Raiders played much better than in previous seasons, featuring a great pass rush on defense, a reliable run defense, and flashes of some offensive brilliance. However, the season wasn’t without problems, and one of those problems was the running game.

The Hot Start

The first half of the season was pretty smooth. After a blowout loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in week one, the Raiders came back strong and won four of their next six games. They did lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers the next week, but it was a close game with a talented team. The Raiders were borderline playoff contenders for most of the year. And this was mainly because of how they performed in the first half of the season.

The offense was clicking on all cylinders. In those first eight games, the Raiders averaged 104.6 rushing yards per game along with a 4.5 yards per attempt average. Pro Bowl running back Latavius Murray had 630 of the total 837 yards in that first half, and was averaging 4.5 yards a carry. Quarterback Derek Carr was hot, throwing for 2,094 yards, completing 63.1% of his passes and he only threw four interceptions to his 19 touchdowns.

One of the best games for the Raiders was when they shredded the top-ranked run defense of the New York Jets in a 34-20 win. Carr threw for four touchdowns and Murray ran for 113 yards on 20 carries. The rushing attack had a great start, and the Raiders looked like a legitimate threat to make the playoffs.

The Woes

After the Steelers game, adversity struck the Raiders. Injuries hit Murray, as well as offensive linemen Rodney Hudson and Austin Howard. Both Hudson and Howard missed three games each during the season, and Murray never got healthy. With Murray and the offensive line banged up, a change of pace running back was really needed in Oakland last year. Unfortunately, nobody stepped up.

In fact, other than Murray, the rest of the backfield was a non-factor running the ball. When all was said and done, Murray finished sixth in the league with 1,066 yards. While that sounds impressive, it’s worth noting that Derek Carr was the team’s second leading rusher with 138 yards. This is unacceptable. Even though Carr is athletic and has shown he can run when he needs to, he’s not a run-first quarterback.

The schedule got tougher in the second half as well. The Raiders played the Kansas City Chiefs twice, and the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos once. Both opponents ended the season in the top ten against the run. In the end, the second half was awful for the Raiders. The pass defense was bad last season, and they gave up too many points. Earlier in the season, the explosive offense could compensate, but injuries prevented them from carrying the poor defense.

The running game would only accumulate an average of 77.5 yards per game on a 3.4 yards per carry average in the second half of the season. Murray had 436 yards of the 620 total rushing yards in the last eight games, and his yards per carry average dropped from 4.5 in the first half to 3.3 in the second.

The Raiders went 3-5 in the second half, with their wins coming from individual performances. A great game from Carr against the Tennessee Titans gave the Raiders a win. A monster five sack performance from All-Pro defensive end and linebacker Khalil Mack against the Broncos gave Oakland a win against the eventual champions. And an overtime drive by Carr for a game winning field goal in a Thursday Night Football match-up versus the San Diego Chargers. All three wins were by a margin of only three points.

The Patched Holes?

Reggie McKenzie, as well as head coach Jack Del Rio sought to fix the problems on both sides of the ball, and their off-season moves have been applauded by experts. To help the running game, the two biggest acquisitions have been left guard Kelechi Osemele and running back DeAndre Washington.

Osemele was regarded as one of the best free agents in 2016. NFL.com and CBS ranked him as the third best, while Pro Football Focus ranked him as the second best. Osemele is an extremely versatile lineman. Last year, Pro Football Focus gave him the third best run blocking grade of any offensive lineman. This 6’6” 333 pound monster is big, mean, and nasty. There’s no question he’ll immediately help the Raider run game.  

“Right under your chin strap. I’m trying to knock you out,” Osemele told the team’s official website. “They call me ‘KO’ for a reason. They’ve been calling me that for a while, so that really defines who I am as a man,” he added. “I’m going to look you in the eye and I’m going to take you down.”

Washington was taken in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. His size and play has drawn comparisons to former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. He’s powerful at 5’8 and 204 pounds. He was among the leaders in college football with a 3.5 yards per carry average after contact, behind only Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry who led all running backs with a 3.9 average. His great receiving hands and quickness will be a perfect compliment to Murray.

The Outlook

The second half of the 2015 season was disappointing for the Raiders, but it was a necessary growing pain. While the season is a month away, Oakland’s rushing problems look fixed on paper. Washington will grow as a player, and should be the change of pace back Murray needs to stay fresh. The offensive line will be big and powerful, opening up holes more frequently.

All of this will improve the running game and keep it consistent and reliable all year, which will only benefit Derek Carr and his dynamic receivers. The domino effect continues, because a scary offense only helps the defense. The improved offense and defense will help each other in the long run, and the Raiders should improve in the 2016 NFL season.