ALAMEDA -- The Raiders' offensive line has been the strength of their team so far this season, an impressive feat given the first-team line only has played a handful of snaps together.
The musical chairs on the offensive line likely will continue Sunday in Week 9 when the Raiders welcome the Detroit Lions to the Coliseum. Starting center Rodney Hudson left Oakland's Week 8 loss to the Texans with what the team is calling a high-ankle sprain. Andre James relieved him, but he did not practice Wednesday after also spraining an ankle.
With both centers sidelined and questionable for the tilt with the Lions, the Raiders are looking at shuffling the offensive line for Sunday's game. Richie Incognito, who has been rock solid at left guard over the last five games, will get the call at center should Hudson and James be unable to go.
"Incognito can be the center, he's a great player," head coach Jon Gruden said Wednesday after practice. "Denzelle [Good] can play guard. We just want to get some continuity. The only guy to start every game on the line has been Kolton Miller. We've had three different left guards, three different right guards and three different right tackles and now potentially three different centers. When you combine that with the youth at running back, the youth at tight end and the changing of the guard at wide receiver, it's been tough on Derek [Carr]."
Incognito, who was suspended for the first two games of the season for violating the league's personal conduct policy, hasn't played center in the NFL since doing emergency duty for the Miami Dolphins in 2010. It's a different feel for the natural guard, going from ground soldier to leader of the line, but a challenge he enjoys and is looking forward to should he be called upon.
"It's been a while," Incognito said. "I do like it. I don't mind center. It's something that comes natural to me -- snapping the ball, making the points, being in there one-on-one, getting help from both guards. It's fun going back to center, learning something new.
"Center is a lot more cerebral. You're coming up, you're trying to be clear with the point so everybody else can get lined up. At guard, you're just waiting for the center to make a point and be physical and run off the ball, but at center you've got a lot more going on pre-snap."
Incognito missed the first two games of the season. Right guard Gabe Jackson missed the first five. Right tackle Trent Brown missed the Raiders' Week 7 loss to the Packers with a calf injury. The unit finally was healthy and whole in Week 8 before Hudson went down early in the first quarter with an ankle injury. Backups Good, James and David Sharpe have played well when called upon.
Carr only has been sacked eight times in seven games, a number that ranks second in the NFL behind only the Steelers. The offensive line as a whole takes great pride in keeping Carr upright and in being able to plug and play, no matter who goes down.
"I think the key is just guys being prepared," Incognito said. "Guys being serious about their roles as a backup and then when they get in the game, you know, they excel. They know what to do. We have done a really good job of facing adversity, so it's fun. It's fun to accept a new challenge. I'm 36 years old playing a new position and I love it."
The unit, from top to bottom, takes pride in keeping Carr clean, allowing the talented quarterback time to survey the defense and make plays down the field. It's a different feeling from last year, when Carr spent more time looking at the grass then he did diagnosing opposing defenses. Improved line play coupled with an effective run game has made the quarterback's life a whole lot easier in 2019.
"I definitely feel different this year, I feel fresh as can be," Carr said of his line's ability to protect him. "That's a credit to our offensive line. We joke around all the time, I go around and check on them all the time and they are sore, all these kind of things. They go, 'Well how do you feel?' I feel great actually, thank you for asking.' That's all that matters to them so it's good."
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If Hudson and James are unable to go Sunday against the Lions, the Raiders' offensive line will have to shuffle around yet again.
Incognito will be tasked with keeping one of the NFL's best lines operating at an elite level against a Lions front that is more daunting than the numbers would suggest.
If the Raiders have shown anything this season, it's that the offensive line, no matter who trots out onto the field, will be up to the challenge.