Josh McDaniels’ exhibition coaching debut with the Raiders went largely as planned Thursday in a cruising 27-11 win over the Jaguars in the Hall of Fame Game on Thursday in Canton, Ohio. There was a lot of sentimental value in it for McDaniels given the game was played in the same stadium where he played his high school ball, but he was more pleased that his team never trailed, committed just a handful of penalties and didn’t turn the ball over.
“I thought we played with some good tempo and rhythm in the first half,” McDaniels said. “We were trying to get in and out of the huddle. I thought we stayed ahead of the down and distance for the most part offensively. I thought we got off the field on third down early in the game especially. Generally, I really liked our attitude from the group. They were into it. They gave great effort. The guys that weren’t in the game, they were paying attention on the sideline to all the situations that were coming up. Again, (there’s) plenty of things that we did wrong that we’ll be able to correct more on the film, but I liked the way we approached the game.”
Here are some observations from the Raiders’ victory.
Josh Jacobs’ surprise appearance and mixed effort from the O-line
Josh Jacobs started the game at running back and played the first two series. Lead backs almost never play in the preseason due to fear of injury, so if Jacobs is playing, his spot as the lead back may not be as solid as was widely believed. He only played the first quarter, but still. It probably shouldn’t be shocking considering the Raiders drafted rookie Zamir White in the fourth round and declined Jacobs’ fifth-year option earlier this offseason.
Though general manager Dave Ziegler and McDaniels clearly aren’t sold on Jacobs as a long-term option, I figured they’d slow play White. It appears that’s not the case. White missed a few training camp practices due to an undisclosed injury, but he returned to practice last week and made his NFL debut against the Jaguars. He averaged 4.7 yards per rush on 11 carries and had three catches for 23 yards.
“He ran hard with the ball in his hands and is tough to tackle,” McDaniels said. “He finishes runs the right way. He brings a physical element to the game and the team. It was a good opportunity for him to get in there and do that at our level. He played in the kicking game some. There’s gonna be some things we have to tweak and clean up, but I thought for him to get out there and establish (himself), that’s the style of runner he was at Georgia. To see him do it here was good.”
The good news for Jacobs is that he ran the ball well as he averaged 6 yards per rush on five carries and made a couple catches for 14 yards. And, given he started the game, it’s fair to say he still has the edge on White. It’ll be something to watch, however, as the preseason goes on.
“I always think it’s good for backs to carry the ball in the preseason,” McDaniels said. “There’s a lot of things that happen when you’re getting tackled and hit that you can’t simulate in practice. I think all of our guys had the ball tonight; all of our guys either caught it or were handed the ball and had to get tackled. We can’t really simulate that or rep that in practice.”
Overall, there was generally room to run for whoever was in the backfield as the Raiders averaged 4.8 yards per carry and gained 159 yards on the ground. They struggled to run the ball last season — they finished 27th in yards per rush according to TruMedia — and lacked offensive balance for most of the season. McDaniels has always made it an emphasis to establish the run throughout his career, but there have been questions about whether the blocking would allow the rushing offense to be effective. In their first showing under offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo, the big guys up front answered the call in that facet.
The pass protection was another story. The Raiders allowed five sacks, including two from former Raiders third-round pick Arden Key. There were some plays in which the Jaguars generated pressure simply by beating the Raiders up front, but there was also some miscommunication that led to avoidable losses of yardage. That’ll surely be something that’s harped on during film review.
The Raiders played around with the O-line alignments early and often. They started with a five-man unit of Brandon Parker at left tackle, John Simpson at left guard, Andre James at center, Lester Cotton Sr. at right guard and Alex Leatherwood at right tackle. In the second quarter, they switched to Parker at left tackle, Dylan Parham at left guard, James at center, Cotton at right guard and Jermaine Eluemunor at right tackle. Later in the quarter, they pivoted again to Eluemunor at left tackle, Alex Bars at left guard, Parham at center, Cotton at right guard and Leatherwood at right tackle to end the first half. Much like they do in practice, they’re trying multiple guys at different spots in their effort to identify the best five-man unit.
Don’t write off Alex Leatherwood too quickly
Parker has taken the majority of the first-team right tackle snaps since OTAs and Cotton has done the same at right guard, so Leatherwood has taken a lot of flak as of late. The growing narrative has been that the 2021 first-round pick was on the fast track to the bench after starting 17 games as a rookie. Particularly given the lack of physicality in modern practices and the fact games hadn’t been played, that always felt premature.
Kolton Miller didn’t play, so that’s why Parker got the start at left tackle. It’s a unique setup in that, though Parker and Leatherwood are competing for the right tackle job, they were both playing simultaneously at different spots. Leatherwood wasn’t perfect, to be clear, but he pretty easily outplayed Parker. Parker particularly struggled in the first quarter. He looked the most out of sorts on the Raiders’ second possession of the game when he allowed back-to-back sacks.
— Jacksonville Jaguars (@Jaguars) August 5, 2022
It’s still only one game, but it gives Leatherwood’s stock a lift, nonetheless. He’s not out of the running to be a starter just yet.
Jarrett Stidham has the backup job in a vise grip
With Derek Carr sitting out, Jarrett Stidham started the game as quarterback. Nick Mullens opened the second quarter, but Stidham came back in after a couple of possessions. Stidham didn’t put up mind-blowing numbers as he completed 8 of 15 passes for 96 yards and rushed for a touchdown, but he looked comfortable and poised as he helped orchestrate three scoring drives.
“He got off to a decent start,” McDaniels said. “We had a couple times down there where we got stopped in the red zone; those can come back to haunt you if you don’t put those in. I thought he made some good decisions. He threw the ball away a couple times when it wasn’t there. He escaped out of the pocket on the one touchdown run. He generally operated the offense well. I thought Nick did the same thing. They each had a little bit of duress that they had to deal with. And, again, I’m happy that you get to do that in a preseason game because, really, you get the opportunity to see if they’re gonna make a good decision. They didn’t turn it over tonight, which I was happy about that, and made some good plays.”
It’s not surprising that McDaniels has more trust in Stidham considering he coached him for three seasons with the Patriots. Stidham only has 48 career passes to his name, but he’s performed well in training camp and kept up the good work against the Jaguars. Mullens looked solid and completed 8 of 11 throws for 72 yards, but he’s clearly playing catchup behind Stidham.
Patrick Graham’s new multiple defense got off to a good start
The Raiders defensive coordinator has played coy during media availability when asked about the defense being more multiple up front, but he tipped his hand on their first defensive possession of the game. They started out in a 3-4 front with three defensive tackles and two outside linebackers on the field. The defensive tackles were Kendal Vickers, Kyle Peko and Andrew Billings with Gerri Green and Tashawn Bower at outside linebacker. The defense also lined up in a 4-3 front with Peko and Billings at defensive tackle. Malcolm Koonce rotated in at both outside linebacker and defensive end.
Both from week to week and within games, the Raiders are going to be varied up front. Graham has downplayed the significance of it, but it’s a pretty big shift from the past given they ran a 4-3 defense for multiple seasons in a row.
More than adjusting to that change, the biggest question for the D-line right now is health. Defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins and Bilal Nichols are on the physically unable to perform list, pass rusher Kyler Fackrell was placed on season-ending injured reserve last week, and pass rushers Chandler Jones and Clelin Ferrell were banged up at practice last week. We’re still over a month out from the start of the regular season so there’s no need to panic just yet, but personnel could end up being a bigger hurdle than acclimating to a new scheme for the Raiders.
Putting that aside, the defense was impressive against the Jaguars. A handful of projected starters, cornerback Nate Hobbs and safeties Tre’von Moehrig and Johnathan Abram, and a few potential starters in Billings and linebackers Divine Deablo and Jayon Brown played early, but the unit remained strong even when the reserves came in. They held the Jaguars scoreless for seven consecutive possessions to start the game and didn’t allow any points until the third quarter. As good as the offense was early on, the defense may have been even better over the course of the game.
“We played the run decent early in the game,” McDaniels said. “We forced them into some third-down situations; we were able to get off the field. I thought we were aware of the sticks on third down and tried to defend the sticks and what they needed to get. I thought our tackling — we’ll have to see exactly about that — but I thought we tackled decent. I thought we were running to the ball and trying to get to the ball carrier and break down and make some tackles, which, again, in a preseason game is a great opportunity because you don’t get to practice it. There’s plenty of things I’m sure we’re gonna fix and correct, but I like the way they ran to the ball and tackled tonight.”
• There were a few players who dressed but were healthy scratches: Carr, receivers Davante Adams and Hunter Renfrow, Miller, defensive end Maxx Crosby and linebacker Denzel Perryman. There was another group, though, composed of players who missed multiple practices leading up to the game and didn’t dress out: tight end Darren Waller, defensive ends Jones and Ferrell and cornerbacks Rock Ya-Sin, Anthony Averett and Amik Robertson. Those players may have sat out, anyway, but it’s an indicator that they’re dealing with injuries.
• The rookies got their feet wet. White looked to be as good as advertised. Parham played guard and center. Though he’s had a few botched snaps during training camp practices, his exchanges looked to be pretty clean. In the third quarter, Thayer Munford Jr. started to see some time at right tackle. There was some overreaction to him taking some random first-team snaps during practice, but he has a legit shot to make the roster as a swing tackle if he performs well. Defensive tackles Neil Farrell Jr. and Matthew Butler saw some time in the second half but didn’t flash much.
• The Raiders played a handful of starters, so they clearly don’t have a hardline rule on them participating in the preseason. That’s a shift from former coach Jon Gruden, who pretty much sat everybody. Some of that has to do with there being more position battles, but even unquestioned starters like Hobbs and Moehrig were on the field.
• With three cornerbacks out, Darius Phillips started the game at outside cornerback opposite Hobbs. Phillips also served as the punt returner while running back Ameer Abdullah handled kickoff return duties.
• Mack Hollins and Tyron Johnson started at outside receiver with Keelan Cole working from the slot. In the second quarter, Demarcus Robinson started to work into the rotation. Cole turned a deflected pass into a 31-yard gain and Johnson made a nice 25-yard grab of his own, but no one really separated themselves from the pack.
• Coming off playing their first preseason game, the Raiders are taking Friday and Saturday off. The expectation is for them to return to practice at their facility in Henderson, Nev., on Sunday as they start preparing for their home preseason opener against the Vikings next Sunday.
(Top photo: Kirk Irwin / Associated Press)