Downing: Raiders offense found groove, overcame growing pains


Downing: Raiders offense found groove, overcame growing pains

ALAMEDA – Amari Cooper lined up in the slot on 2nd-down-and-7, preparing to run five yards before breaking across the field to his right. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr believed his top receiver would be isolated in Kansas City’s zone coverage.

Pre-snap, he already knew where to go.

Cooper ran the route perfectly. Carr waited until he reached a hole in the zone before delivering a 15-yard strike. Cooper caught in stride, turn on the jets and blew through the Chiefs secondary.

Touchdooown, Rrrraaaaaiders.

Offensive coordinator Todd Downing reached a fist toward the sky, hopped a few times in celebration.

“Watching Coop light up when he took that (crossing route) and scored while outrunning three defenders,” Downing said Wednesday on the Raiders Insider Podcast, “with good transition by blockers on the perimeter as well, that play kind of fired us up.”

It wasn’t just about a score or an early lead Thursday over Kansas City.

That’s how the Raiders offense is supposed to look. Cooper’s touchdown was a perfect play, from scheme to call to execution. Design created a favorable matchup. Protection provided time. Quarterback capitalized on defensive vulnerability. Playmaker turned and burned.

It was a signature moment for Downing and the Raiders offense. They were Clark Kent a long time, scoring 13.1 points per game during a four-game losing streak. That was a Superman play.

The Raiders stayed in costume during a 31-30 victory over the rival Chiefs, showing their true offensive identity in a crucial Week 7 win.

The offense rolls when four things happen: Protection holds. Backs run hard. Receivers “light up” with ball in hand. Carr comes through in the clutch.

That happened against K.C. Carr pushed the ball downfield at times. Receivers created yards after the catch at others. The rushing attack wasn’t overpowering, but holes were available and backs ran hard. The Raiders took calculated risks, and consistently grabbed yards in chunks. Downing’s scheme helped facilitate those actions. He hopes that’s the end of an offensive slump cause by some early-season growing pains, and that good times will continue Sunday against Buffalo.

“Anytime you’re putting a new player or coach in a prominent position, whether it’s play calling or play making, you’re going to have some bumps in the road,” Downing said. “It’s a matter of how you respond to them. We’ve have far too many bumps the previous four weeks, but we started to find our groove on Thursday night and we were able to highlight some strengths and weaknesses better than we have in the past.”

The Raiders gained 505 yards, averaging 6.9 per play. Carr threw for 417 and led a heroic comeback. The ground game averaged 4.2 yards per carry. They were solid on third and fourth down combined.

Another stat was most important. The Raiders ran 71, after averaging 54 the previous six games. That allowed Downing to find rhythm as a play caller.

“One of the things hindering us the most over our little slump was that we weren’t able to get enough plays,” Downing said. “We weren’t able to sustain drives. It’s hard to stay on schedule with first and second down calls and stay with things you’re trying to set up, whether it’s play-actions or repeating runs you’ve adjusted on the sideline. We were able to run 70-plus plays Thursday, which allowed us to repeat some run adjustments hit some play action that we set up.”

This breakthrough came because Downing didn’t waver. Sure, he made some schematic adjustments. His process didn’t change. He didn’t flip the script, and remained confident improvement would come.

“There was no difference in him,” Carr said. “When we did well, he celebrated with us, when we did bad, he coached it. He didn’t come and demean people or anything like that. He was him. That says a lot about his character and it’s so encouraging going forward knowing that we went through some adversity, but when that good day came we were still the same. We were like, ‘Hey, that was awesome but now we have to move on.’ To see that it didn’t change was really cool.”

Watch Antonio Brown mic'd up at Raiders mandatory minicamp practice

Watch Antonio Brown mic'd up at Raiders mandatory minicamp practice

"Let's put a show on today."

Raiders wide receiver Antonio Brown was chatting with quarterback Derek Carr during a recent mandatory minicamp and we were able to hear it all during an installment of "Mic'd Up."

The two went out on to the practice field and it was apparent Brown hasn't slowed down since being acquired by the Silver and Black.

He makes it look effortless as he grabs everything within reach all while receiving compliments from his quarterback.

As the team stood around on the sidelines, coach Jon Gruden added to the nice words saying AB was "killing it." And Brown responded in the most Brown-like way by saying he's going to kill it every day for Gruden.

[RELATED: AB sets a new standard during Raiders offseason]

AB has been truly dominating in his role being called the hardest worker Gruden has ever seen. The receiver came into his new digs fully prepared, and is not afraid to shy away on giving the team feedback while receiving advice from others as well.

This season will be an interesting one. 

Raiders offseason program observations: Antonio Brown sets new standard

Raiders offseason program observations: Antonio Brown sets new standard

The Raiders have a number of second-year players key to the 2019 season. That group includes the obvious guys like Maurice Hurst, Kolton Miller and Arden Key looking to follow up rookie seasons with something better.

There’s another subset of second-year players created by the Raiders coaching staff, and it has nothing to do with professional time served.

Head coach Jon Gruden calls them second-year system players, who joined up last year when Gruden took over the Raiders franchise. That group is far bigger, and can help new guys assimilate into Gruden’s offense and Paul Guenther’s defense.

New-guy volume is high after yet another offseason with heavy roster turnover, as Gruden continues this radical Raiders reconstruction. Second-year scheme guys are particularly helpful during an offseason program when installation is vital, a luxury unavailable last year when everything was so new.

The Raiders did a good enough job absorbing and executing that Gruden, who regularly laments the dearth of practice time and player access, cut minicamp practices a day early for all and two days for veterans.

The Silver and Black won’t meet again until July 26 in Napa, when the full squad reports for training camp. One thing is clear after watching select sessions of the offseason program: these Raiders are improved over a year ago.

“We’re a better team on paper,” Gruden said. “We’re faster, we collected some really good players, but we got a lot to prove and time will tell.”

He’s right. Question marks remain, but here’s a few things we learned over the offseason program during days open to the press:

AB never stops hustling

Gruden called receiver Antonio Brown the hardest worker in practice he’d ever seen well before the star receiver became his charge. Gruden saw Brown’s legendary work ethic up close in Pittsburgh, watching workouts as Monday Night Football’s color analyst.

He wasn’t wrong. Brown has followed up on promises to set a new standard, practicing hard each day with highlight reel plays and excellent route running, regularly beating even the best Raiders cornerbacks.

Brown would come back to the pack after big catches, and coach the DBs on how best to prevent what had just happened. He speaks to them with expertise, considering he studies his own teammates before practicing against them.

“He has seen a lot of different players and we know that this offseason he actually did a little bit of study on us and just getting ready for practice and stuff like that,” cornerback Daryl Worley said. “He has definitely been able to give us feedback on where he feels as though we can improve, or what he felt is he sees that we covered it well.”

Nobody can play or game plan for months, but Brown has worked to raise intensity even during the spring.

“He’s a guy that plays at a high clip,” Worley said. “If you were to watch him just catch a simple slant, he takes it all the way to the end zone. He wants to score each and every play, so he’s definitely a high level competitor and we talked to him before practice started and everything and the one thing he wanted to say was that we all need to get better.

"Not only is he going to make us better by being one of the best receivers in the league, but we are also going to make him better because we are all different players at the end of the day.”

Raiders prepping Jacobs for heavy workload

The Raiders have an experienced stable of running backs, but it’s crystal clear a rookie will handle most of the workload. No. 24 overall pick Josh Jacobs is being prepped as a true feature back atop a depth chart that includes Doug Martin and Jalen Richard.

While the Raiders running game won’t be truly tested even in practice until the pads come on, Jacobs can see little ways coaches are trying to prepare him for significant action.

“They just push me to finish every play, regardless of if I have the ball or not,” Jacobs said. “Just to get that extra little conditioning in. I might take more reps for me mentally to be prepared, but also physically to be prepared. So, they’re just pushing me every day to be the best that I can be.”

Skill positions significantly upgraded

The Raiders invested heavily in the skill positions, where they were deficient a year ago. This group is faster, especially at receiver, and should be better running and passing the ball.

Brown and Jacobs are obvious highlights, but Tyrell Williams is a legitimate deep threat, and rookies Hunter Renfrow and Keelan Doss have gotten better.

It’s tough to say Darren Waller’s better than 30-plus veteran Jared Cook, but coaches are certainly excited about the young tight end’s potential heading into a season where he could make a significant impact

Major question marks remain along defensive front

The Raiders have drafted six defensive linemen the last two years. Talent has been added in early rounds, middle and late, with plenty of hope for the future of a lackluster pass rush. Presently, however, these guys are going to have to prove they belong and produce steadily.

This young group will be counted on -- this year’s No. 4 pick Clelin Ferrell and second-year end Arden Key, especially -- to play and produce right away without intimidating veterans to lead the way.

Joyner more slot corner than safety

Lamarcus Joyner has the ability and experience to play both safety and slot cornerback, but he had a primary focus during offseason program sessions open to the press.

He played slot cornerback almost exclusively in those practices, and a few Raiders said his focus will be on the inside.

That should leave Karl Joseph and first-round rookie Johnathan Abram as current presumptive starters at safety, with Erik Harris as a knowledgeable and capable reserve.

Vast knowledge in veteran LB corps, but...

The Raiders got older and wiser in the linebacker corps by adding Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall in free agency. They’ll team up with Tahir Whitehead for what could be the season’s starting trip, though strongside ‘backer Marquel Lee might have something to say about that.

Burfict has helped tremendously running Guenther’s scheme after years working in it with the Bengals, though Marshall rarely saw the field in sessions open to the media. Both guys have long, successful resumes, but can they find old form despite recent injuries and advancing age?

[RELATED: Derek Carr ranked as Chris Simms' No. 18 overall QB]

The Raiders have tried to find veteran linebacker help before, with a trail of failed experiments to show for it. They need it to be different this time and avoid last season’s situation that left Whitehead with unproven youth at that spot.