MIAMI -- The Raiders have held second-half leads twice in as many games, without a victory to show for it. Jon Gruden’s consequently off to an 0-2 start running a team that can’t seem to finish well enough.
Game plans have been good, but the competition has been tough. The L.A. Rams surged using superior talent and force in the regular-season opener. The Broncos, though…Raiders had several opportunities to close that one out and couldn’t. There’s plenty of blame to go around for those second-half letdowns.
The pass rush is took a beating this week for failing to pressure well enough, which consequently extends the life of Khalil Mack trade talk. Penalties and a key dropped pass – nobody feels worse than fullback Keith Smith – came into play against the Broncos.
Quarterback Derek Carr said on this week’s Raiders Insider Podcast, “taking away two boneheaded plays by me,” and maybe the Rams game goes different.
Those results are etched in stone. All the Raiders can do is perform better Sunday here in Miami, where heat, humidity and a chance of thunderstorms await a team forced to wear black jerseys.
Here are four Raiders to watch as the Silver and Black try to avoid an 0-3 start.
The Raiders’ best edge rusher hasn’t started the season particularly well. He has a strip sack and a quarterback hit and…no other pressures in two games. Those two plays made an impact, and no much else beyond it. He hurt the team’s chances against Denver with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty extending a Broncos scoring drive after the Raiders stopped it on third down.
The Raiders are looking to him to step up and not fill Mack’s shoes – few, if any, could do that – but generate steady pressure off the edge. That hasn’t happened yet but needs to here in Miami. He’ll have a tough task against Miami left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who has allowed but one quarterback pressure all year.
“We need to get more out of our captain,” Gruden said. “He’s been put in some tough spots, certainly. He’s a good player and has played some good snaps. We need more and more from him. I know he’s giving us everything he has. It’s tough on him because we have a lot of new guys around him up front, but we’re happy he’s here.”
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Tight end Jared Cook exploded for a franchise record (for a tight end) 180 receiving yards in the opener. Amari Cooper roared after a less-than-impactful opening game, totaling 10 catches for 116 yards on as many targets against Denver.
Nelson has been relatively quiet in both games, with just five catches and 53 yards to his credit. Could this be Nelson’s first big game in Silver and Black. If the matchups dictate, as they did for Cook and Cooper in consecutive weeks. The Raiders need Nelson as a steadying presence, especially on third down. He will find a rhythm in this offense eventually. Starting Sunday could help his team get on the right track.
“There was improvement from Week 1 to Week 2 individually and as a whole,” Nelson said. “It’s all about matchups and opportunities. Jared had a great game in Week 1 and Cooper had one in Week 2, so maybe I’m next up this week. We’ll see.”
The rangy safety hasn’t played much defense in his NFL career. He was labeled a special teams player before 2018 but Gruden’s staff saw more in him starting with the offseason. He failed to secure a starting spot over Reggie Nelson and/or Marcus Gilchrist to begin the year, but he played 26 defensive snaps in Denver after playing two since his Raiders tenure started in 2017.
Harris looked good working in, with a few one-on-one, open-field tackles that impressed many. He allowed just one four-yard catch on the day, and could earn more playing time as the season carries forward.
That’s especially true if Reggie Nelson struggles in coverage. Coaches love Nelson’s smarts and assistance getting the team lined up properly, but Harris provide long speed, range and sure tackling that could prove helpful against the Dolphins.
“He has been playing good,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “He’s real smart. He understands the ins and outs of the defense. He earned his right to play. Like I’ve been saying in the past, I’m going to utilize all the personnel I have. I think you’ll see some more of that on Sunday.”
The Raiders don’t have a proven defensive closer now that Khalil Mack works in Chicago. They have one, however, on offense. Lynch can go full BeastMode late in games and grind out tough yards that continually move the chains. He was on a roll late in that Denver game, but Cook’s false start took them off schedule and messed up Lynch’s flow.
He had great rhythm last time the Raiders were in Miami, rumbling for 57 yards on 14 carries, notching two touchdowns and four first downs in the process.
He’s only averaging 3.7 yards per carry thus far, though penalties have negated some big runs and coaches believe he’s in great shape and has a big game on the immediate horizon.
“I know this, he’s extremely hard to tackle still,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. “He almost popped out a big one last week again. He’s a dangerous guy to deal with. He’s a big man that does not like to touch the ground. I’ve seen him way too much it seems like.”
Gase might see him a lot on Sunday.
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