Raiders

Raiders' relentless pass rush hounds Philip Rivers in win vs. Chargers

Raiders' relentless pass rush hounds Philip Rivers in win vs. Chargers

OAKLAND – The Raiders defensive line was woefully thin entering Thursday's game against the Chargers. The rotation was down to seven with Arden Key recently placed on injured reserve and Josh Mauro out with a groin injury. The edge rushers were so depleted the Raiders had linebacker Kyle Wilber rushing in some cases.

Most of the work fell to rookies Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell, and veteran Benson Mayowa.

Those three got after Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers throughout the Raiders' 26-24 victory at Oakland Coliseum.

They brought pressure all game long, from opening snap to a final and failed comeback attempt by the Chargers. While complete pressure numbers won’t come until Friday morning, we do know Raiders sacked Rivers five times and hit him 10 times in total.

“We started getting pressure on him right from the start of the game, and that was it,” Ferrell said. “We knew they were going to be passing the ball and they weren’t going to have much time, so we pinned our ears back and went after it.”

That was a marked difference from most weeks, where the Raiders pass rush showed improvement over last year’s 13-sack disaster but generally lacked production creating havoc in the pocket.

Crosby and Mayowa have been relatively steady but Ferrell had a breakout game. The No. 4 overall draft pick was awesome, totaling eight tackles, 2.5 sacks, two other tackles for loss, three total quarterback hits and a pass defensed.

“He’s a tough, gritty football player who works really hard,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said. “Tonight, he was rewarded.”

So was the entire defense. Rivers is prone to making aggressive mistakes, throwing into tight windows or taking deep shots even while under pressure. Those throws can turn into picks.

That happened several times on Thursday night, with pressure involved in the three interceptions that counted and two others negated by penalties away from the play. Mayowa also forced a fumble, though the Chargers got it back.

“He’s a great quarterback,” Crosby said. “The thing with him is that you have to be in his face all game and try to get him flustered. I thought we did a good job of that. We kept coming all game, until the final whistle blew. It was huge.”

The edge rushers worked over a pair of backup Chargers tackles – starting left tackle Russell Okung got hurt and didn’t return – but that shouldn’t negate an excellent all-around defensive performance. Pressure mostly came from the outside, but interior contributions shouldn’t be ignored. Maurice Hurst had two quarterback hits and Johnathan Hankins had another.

“Any time you face a good quarterback like Rivers or Matt Stafford (on Sunday) and you let them stand there, you’re in trouble,” head coach Jon Gruden said. “I thought we had a good rush and great energy.”

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That part was impressive considering this was the second game in five days and the Raiders were down two defensive ends.

“It was a lot of heart,” Crosby said. “It was hard, especially with the quick turnaround, but we just had to keep going and keep coming after him. Their offensive line was out there a ton, too, but we feel like we’re in better shape. We just kept bringing it until the game was over.”

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Darren Waller used to hate football. With a passion.

That fact contrasts with the joy exuded while playing now as an elite NFL tight end. He loved every minute of a breakout Raiders season where he had 90 catches for 1,145 yards, but he's most proud of being consistent and, for the first time in forever, being someone you can count on.

Waller has been clean and sober more than two years now. That change has brought happiness back to his life and the game he once despised.

“I hated football from high school up until I got suspended [in 2017],” Waller said. “The sport was just a means to impress people and seem cool and cover up all these voids. I thought that, if I was successful, I could be happy. It wasn’t doing the trick, so there was a huge void in me I thought I could fill with drugs and alcohol.

“It took me having a near-death experience to question the things I was doing in my life. I stepped away from the game for a bit. If it was God’s plan for me to come back to the game, it’s now clear that it was. I came back with a new perspective and started enjoying it. I was open to coaches and have relationships with these people.”

The near-death experience came from a bad batch of pills two months after his yearlong suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy while with the Baltimore Ravens, when he sat in his car fighting to stay awake while thinking he might not make it out alive. Waller went to rehab shortly after that, a life choice he considers the foundation of all the good that has come since.

Waller’s personal life improved quickly, but his career didn’t really take off until the Raiders signed him off the Ravens practice squad late in 2018 and he started working with tight ends coach Frank Smith.

Smith challenged Waller to be great, a goal achieved in a shockingly short span. Waller’s now considered among the NFL’s elite tight ends and has become a role model for so many struggling with addiction by telling his story to anyone who will listen.

Waller believes that Smith unlocked true potential by caring about the person over the player, helping him in recovery and on the football field. That’s why Waller honored Smith at this year’s Coaching Corps’ Game Changer Awards, where athletes from different Bay Area professional sports teams honor coaches special in their lives.

Waller honored Smith at a Thursday ceremony in San Francisco, which will be broadcast Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I never had a relationship with a coach like I do with Frank,” Waller said. “I honestly text him more than I text my friends. We laugh every day at practice, but I seriously respect him as a teacher and a coach and an authority figure you can talk to as a friend. Nothing’s off limits. We can be real and honest with each other about everything. That’s so important to me, having him in my life.”

Smith values his relationship with Waller, which has grown over their two years working together.

“He’s an extremely intelligent person who is athletic,” Smith said. “But, if you don’t love football and give it everything you’ve got, you won’t progress. He’d be the first to tell you he wouldn’t sacrifice for the game. We weren’t seeing the best version of him. We were seeing a clouded version of himself blurred by his substance abuse. Then football was taken away, and he learned what he wanted to do.

"Now we’re seeing the full commitment, the full potential be realized.”

Smith admits that coaching Waller is different. His commitment to recovery mandates more involvement in Waller’s personal life, making sure his support system is in place. Smith took on that responsibility without hesitation, balancing his personal and professional duties while remaining an authority figure. He recognized Waller as a special case right away, that he was working with someone who could be great.

“He was humble. He was hungry to learn and hungry to work,” Smith said. “With his story, you can see every day how he cherishes life and embraces every obstacle. He never makes an excuse for anything, even with things that somebody else does. He’s the type of person who really has an effect on you, especially if you let him show you his transformative process.”

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

Waller let Smith in right away. He’s an open book about his struggles with drugs and alcohol and could tell that his position coach would help him in all aspects and stoke his passion for the game he thought he’d lost forever.

“Frank helped so much with my transition to the Raiders,” Waller said. “He has a friend that was in recovery like I am, who worked the 12-step program and went to rehab. He was able to understand me by understanding his friend. We learned a lot from each other, and he was able to welcome me in without putting too much pressure on me. But he wasn’t allowing me to be someone just happy to be there. He had me set goals, something I never did before that.

"He really opened my eyes to the fact that I could be great. I never really thought I could be great. I was too worried about all the pressure and the negative things. I never saw the game in a positive light. He helped me see that football can be so much fun if you’re not worried about things outside of what you can control.”

“Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards” presented by Levi’s airs Tuesday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

For 14 seasons, the Raiders and Philip Rivers have been rivals. Rivers' first NFL start fittingly came against the Raiders in 2006, his third professional season. 

That rivalry might be done, though. The Athletic's Jay Glazer said Monday on FS1's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" that the Los Angeles Chargers have "moved on" from Rivers. 

Rivers, 38, will become a free agent this upcoming offseason. The 16-year veteran has spent his entire career for the Chargers, but it's unknown if he will continue playing in 2020. He already has moved his large family to Florida this offseason. 

The gunslinger was the No. 4 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. He has an 18-9 career record against the Raiders with 47 touchdown passes -- his most against any opponent -- and 22 interceptions.

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

If the Chargers do move on from Rivers, they could try to grab a QB early in the 2020 draft. The Bolts own the No. 6 pick, and our own Josh Schrock has them taking Oregon's Justin Herbert in the first round. 

As the Raiders move to Las Vegas, it could be the end of an era with their Philip Rivers rivalry.