Raiders

Role reversal? Alex Smith currently more of a gunslinger than Derek Carr

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AP

Role reversal? Alex Smith currently more of a gunslinger than Derek Carr

OAKLAND -- Derek Carr is going through a rough patch. The beloved Raiders quarterback is being criticized for his part in this prolonged losing skid, a rarity since his rookie year.

Carr is supposedly playing it safe, getting rid of the ball quick, throwing short and avoiding potentially risky deep shots downfield.

That doesn’t sound like someone who wears No. 4 as homage to Brett Favre. Alex Smith comes to mind instead.

The Kansas City signal caller is notoriously known as a game manager, a cautious leader who rarely lets it rip.

Not this year. The former 49ers No. 1 overall pick is killing it in K.C., with career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. The early MVP candidate has 12 touchdowns and no picks despite the fact he’s throwing deep more than ever.

Now that sounds like the Derek Carr we knew last year.

These quarterbacks seem to have reversed roles heading into Thursday’s clash between AFC West rivals. The Raiders are 2-4 and in desperate need of win against the AFC West-leading Chiefs.

Smith and Carr can be truly dynamic downfield. Only one guy’s found that rhythm lately.

That’s crystal clear when examining their deep throws.

Nobody’s better going yard this year than Smith, per analytics site Pro Football Focus – wrap your head around that – who is 13-of-23 for 526 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions on throws beyond 20 yards in the air. Carr is 17th, completing 3-of-10 deep shots – no starter has fewer attempts -- for 109 yards, three touchdowns and a pick.

Last year, Carr ranked fifth in passes over 20 yards in the air, again, using PFF stats, with a 46-percent completion rate, 858 yards and a 117.6 passer rating. Smith was 20th in that category, completing less than a third of his attempt with a 72.8 passer rating.

The Raiders certainly want to push the ball downfield more. Carr has but four explosive plays in nearly three games of the Raiders’ four game losing streak – he missed the Baltimore loss with a fractured in his back – and hasn’t worked short passes consistently enough to score often.

“We definitely want to be able to (create explosive plays),” Carr said. “Now does that mean we’re going to do anything differently or trying to force things? Absolutely not. That’s where you get in trouble. That’s something that I’ve learned in my career. You can’t force it. You just have to work hard and let it happen.”

Some think Smith is letting it fly with a stoked competitive fire because the Chiefs traded up to draft Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City head coach Andy Reid believes a strong supporting cast led by Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and rookie running back Kareem Hunt allows him to do big things Carr typically does.

There is, however, one constant heading into Thursday’s matchup. Smith has owned the Raiders. The Chiefs have had Carr’s number.

Smith is 9-1 against Oakland. Carr’s 1-5 against K.C.

Smith has 8.3 yards per attempt, 19 touchdowns and just four picks against the Raiders. Carr averages 4.92 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and five interceptions versus the Chiefs.

“These are big games in the division,” Smith said. “You know they’re going to be four quarters. You know they’re going to come down to the end. You just try to go out there every single play and execute. They’re all hard fought and have been close.”

Carr knows Kansas City stands in the way of his ultimate goals. This year, he has to get past them to get the Raiders back on track. That won’t be easy.

“They do a good job of rushing the passer. They do a good job of stopping the run. They do a good job on the coverage end,” Carr said. “They’re sound. They’re really well-coached. (Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton) is a great coach. All the respect for him. So much respect that he even texted me when I got hurt last year. He’s just a good dude. But this week I don’t like him too much. He does a really good job of making sure everyone is locked in. They’re really smart. They’re really smart players. They don’t do a lot so they can see route concepts. They can visualize things and get used to seeing those kind of things.”

Why firing Ken Norton Jr. won't solve the Raiders' bigger, deeper problems

Why firing Ken Norton Jr. won't solve the Raiders' bigger, deeper problems

ALAMEDA – Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio was twice asked about making in-season changes at his Monday press conference.

He wouldn’t rule it out. Del Rio said he would do anything necessary to help the team “win now.”

He fired Ken Norton Jr. the next day, hoping the dismissal will do exactly that.

It might. More likely, it might not do enough.

New play caller John Pagano has a unique style in that he knows how to bring creative pressure and exploit weak links, but he won’t be using his system. He’ll still be working within Norton/Del Rio’s existing scheme and, more importantly, he’s still playing chess with existing, often inferior pieces.

The defense doesn’t have enough talent in the secondary, the interior defensive line or the inside linebacker corps. That’s not on Norton or Pagano.

Pagano can’t do a thing about an offense struggling mightily to catch passes, block consistently and let plays develop downfield.

At its base, Norton’s firing was a shot across the bow that should be felt through the entire roster.

“We played under our talent level,” defensive tackle Justin Ellis said, “Those things come with consequences.”

The Raiders have some major talent problems, with rush and coverage rarely working together as desired. That, and some uninspired schematics, have produced awful statistics.

The Raiders don’t have an interception, and are the first team to go 10 games without a pick. They’re on track to have the second-worst opposing completion percentage (72.3) and passer rating (113.3) in NFL history, per the Associated Press.

They’re also last in sacks for the second straight year, with just 14 this season despite having reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack.

They're thin because last year's second and third round picks, Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun aren't contributing. This year's draft class had to make an immediate impact, but Gareon Conley played two games, Obi Melifonwu spent eight games on IR and Eddie Vanderdoes as underwhelmed after a promising start.

Highly paid free agents haven't performed well enough, and many could be shown the door.

It’s possible roughly half of the starting lineup doesn’t return next season, with Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, Bruce Irvin and NaVorro Bowman likely out the door as free agents or roster cuts.

In sum, this isn’t all Norton’s fault.

He was, however, the easiest cut. You can’t fire players en masse during the year, and Pagano was an easy replacement without disrupting the position coaches. Pagano has extensive experience calling plays. He was the then-San Diego Chargers’ defensive coordinator from 2012-16.

Norton wasn’t an innovative play caller. He was passed over for coordinator jobs while serving as Seattle’s linebackers coach, after Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn were hired as head coaches. Del Rio, who played with Norton in Dallas back from 1989-91, hired Norton shortly after being hired by the Raiders.

The Raiders' defense has never been good under Norton/Del Rio, and Norton was on a hot seat most of last season. It was surprising when Pagano was hired that Norton was retained and allowed to continue despite underwhelming performance.

Norton was immensely popular in the locker room, especially with members of the front seven. Mack and Irvin in particular were Norton guys. Norton and Irvin go way back to Irvin’s Seattle days, where the coach helped players get and stay on the right path.

That’s why this firing was deeply felt on Tuesday. The players were told in a Tuesday meeting, following a walk-through focused on corrections from Sunday’s New England loss.

"The axe came down on everybody," free safety Reggie Nelson said. "Everybody felt it in this building. Players, we love Norton, regardless. Unfortunately, the production wasn't a high standard this year and it's a production league. He's not playing. We are.”

The Raiders are 4-6, and can’t afford to lose many more games. They might need to be perfect down the stretch. That’s a tough ask for a team that’s been woefully inconsistent on both sides. This team was always expected to shoot for the middle and have a potentially great offense score points by the bushel.

The offense has been disappointing, performing far below its pay grade and talent level. There was no movement on that side of the ball. The Raiders hope, with fingers firmly crossed, this change provide the spark necessary to create turnovers and quarterback pressure than has been lacking in a disastrous season to this point.

Raiders fire defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

Raiders fire defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

Ken Norton Jr.'s time with the Raiders is up.

With the team underperforming, Oakland has fired Norton as the defensive coordinator, the team announced Tuesday afternoon. John Pagano will handle the play calling duties when the Raiders take on the Broncos this Sunday.

Head coach Jack Del Rio issued the following statement regarding the news:

“After careful thought, I have made a difficult decision to part ways with Ken Norton, Jr. as defensive coordinator. I have the utmost respect for Ken as a person and as a coach, but I feel that moving John Pagano into the play-calling role will best utilize his wealth of experience. I appreciate Ken’s passion and commitment to the Raiders since coming aboard and wish him the best going forward.”

The Raiders defense under Norton this season ranks 26th in the NFL in yards allow per game (367.0), is allowing 24.7 points per game and has yet to record an interception through 10 games.

"We played under our talent level. Those things come with consequences," defensive lineman Justin Ellis told reporters shortly after the news broke.

"The axe fell on all of us. We love Coach Norton. We didn’t want to see this happen," safety Reggie Nelson said.

Norton joined Del Rio's staff prior to the 2015 season.