Through the first 10 weeks of the season, the 6-3 Las Vegas Raiders looked like a legitimate playoff team despite a poor defense. They ranked ninth in offensive DVOA, clocking in at seventh in passing and 12th in running. Jon Gruden's squad was still a clear tier behind the Chiefs (and who isn't?), but they looked plenty good enough to be a problem in the postseason.
Weeks 11 to 14 have painted a much bleaker picture of the 2020 Raiders. The defense has not gotten any better, which ultimately resulted in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther getting fired after last week's loss. That much was probably to be expected, though. The troubling part is how far Las Vegas' offense has fallen, particularly in the run game. The Raiders went from having a firmly above-average run game to having the worst in the NFL over the past month.
The Raiders' past four games rank in the bottom six of their single-game DVOA ratings on the season. Over that same span, their 3.22 yards per carry ranks fifth-worst in the league. They also hold a league-worst 38% rushing success rate through Weeks 11 to 14, coming in 11% worse than the league average. For comparison, the Raiders were fourth in success rate (55%) through the first 10 weeks. Something has gone dramatically wrong.
It's easy to jump to the conclusion that the Raiders have been down key players. Star running back Josh Jacobs missed the Week 13 nail-biter against the Jets, while right tackle Trent Brown was absent for all but Week 14 over this four-game span. Neither of those explanations hold up under scrutiny, though. The Raiders were still not good in the three games Jacobs played, and Brown had missed Weeks 2 to 4 as well as Weeks 6 to 10 while the run game was still rolling. It has largely been other factors at play -- namely, other players along the offensive line.
One issue is that Las Vegas' guards, particularly left guard Denzelle Good, are not getting to the second level on zone runs as well as they need to. On zone concepts, if a guard does not have a defensive lineman in his play-side gap, he will usually combo the defensive lineman in the opposite gap before climbing to a linebacker. Too often Las Vegas' guards fail to come off the combo and get to the second level in time, leaving linebackers free in the rushing lane. This especially becomes an issue when the defense is in a one-high shell and can load up near the box to get a hat on a hat.
The Raiders are running split zone to the left in the clip below. Between the left guard and center, Chiefs defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi (91) sits across from Good (71) on the offense's left side in a 2i alignment (guard's inside shoulder) as opposed to a more traditional 1-technique (middle of guard and center) or shade alignment outside the center. Admittedly, this alignment is intended in part to make combo blocks difficult since the defensive lineman can more easily take on the play-side guard before getting reached by the center.
That's exactly the problem for the Raiders here. Nnadi gets into Good's chest and keeps a good hold of him without losing ground off the bat. Not only does this allow Nnadi to avoid getting reached by the center and move back into the gap once the guard comes off the block, but it keeps the linebacker clean from an early climb to the second level. By the time Good comes off the block, he is a tick late and stumbles out of it, leaving the Chiefs' play-side linebacker free to scoot over the top and fire into the rushing lane uncontested.
If Good is not going to get meaningful movement on the combo, he needs to ensure he gets to the second level. He accomplishes neither on this play and the Raiders paid for it.
Here is another good example of Good getting tied up on the combo, this time from the back side of the play. Though the play is going away from Good, he still has no player to his play-side gap (right, in this case), so he should be able to combo the 3-technique with the left tackle (Kolton Miller, 74) to help pass him off then climb to the back-side "linebacker" (strong safety Khari Willis, 37). Once again, Good gets held up for a bit too long by the defensive lineman and fails to climb to the linebacker. Willis is able to slide across the formation and fit himself into a free gap, helping keep this run to just a 3-yard gain.
Had Good been able to climb to Willis and get a hand on him, running back Devontae Booker should have been able to bend this run back into that gap a bit and grind out a few more yards. Good has to be both stronger in his initial combo and faster getting out of it in order to hit the second level. What's helpful about this particular play is that right guard Gabe Jackson (66) shows exactly what that should look like. Jackson slams the 1-technique back for the center to seal off, then gets moving and takes out a linebacker.
A potential answer or change-up for having issues on zone concepts such as this could be to lean on gap concepts. In gap concepts (power, counter, etc.), the offense is more or less trying to hit a specific gap, as opposed to a zone concept which allows for a bit more freedom. The ethos of the play is movement at the point of attack. Well, for the Raiders as of late, getting movement at the point of attack has not been working, either.
The Raiders are trying to run counter behind their two-tight end side (the right side of the screen) on this rep. Jason Witten (82), the inside tight end, is responsible for taking on Kansas City defensive end Mike Danna (51) and getting him inside and/or vertical to open up space for the lead and the kickout. That's not what happens. Instead, Witten loses about a yard, which forces the fullback to adjust his angle to be a bit deeper before he can wrap around and get to the second level. Doing so wastes just enough time for safety Daniel Sorensen (49) to fly down as a free fitter, creating a logjam that does not allow the running back anywhere to go.
Had Witten gotten a smidgen of push, or even just held the line of scrimmage, the play would have opened up a bit more. To be fair, the Chiefs also had their MIKE in a strong stack alignment over the 3-technique and their SAM down on the line of scrimmage over the second tight end, thus helping overload that side of the formation. The Raiders are going to have a tough time here just by alignment. Still, Witten getting worked gave this play a much lower chance of hitting.
Against the Colts, specifically, the Raiders tried turning to some toss plays as a means to get away from their traditional zone stuff. The wide receivers and/or tight ends will crack back on the edge defender and play-side linebacker, while the tackle swings out into space. Las Vegas tried calling this from both shotgun and from under center, both to no avail.
Center Rodney Hudson (61) can not lose ground off the snap like this. In allowing the defensive tackle to get movement on him, Hudson allows himself to get taken out by the crackback block on the defensive end, freeing up the defensive tackle to pursue. The rest of this play was blocked quite well, too. If Hudson does not give up ground here, Jacobs can cut this up inside Henry Ruggs (11) and at least get forward for a handful of yards instead of a no-gain.
This time around, it's Darren Waller (83) who is to blame for the failure of the play. Hudson does a better job holding the line of scrimmage, the edge defender runs himself out of the play, and the pulling tackle (Miller, 74) finds his mark out in space. This play is golden … if Waller gets to linebacker Darius Leonard. Waller climbs a bit too high and does not seem to expect Leonard to undercut him, giving Leonard a pretty clean run through to the running back.
It's entirely possible this sudden dysfunction is just a hiccup. After all, three of their past four opponents (the Jets, Falcons, and Colts) all rank top-eight in adjusted line yards and top-12 in run defense DVOA. These are some good run defense units that the Raiders have struggled against, not just scrubs. The Raiders themselves had a good offensive line and run game early on in the year, though, and that version of the team certainly would fare better than looking like the worst run game in the league over the past four months.
In general, yes, the run game is not as important to a team's success as pass offense or even pass defense. However, when said rushing offense is operating at arguably the worst level of any team in the league and the passing offense is merely above-average rather than great, that is not going to be a good offense. Couple that with the Raiders still having a bottom-five defense and it's easy to piece together why the wheels are falling off.
Whether or not the Raiders can get the run game back on track in time to make the playoffs is tough to say. Having Jacobs and Brown back together for another full week should help, but with wide receiver Ruggs now in COVID-19 protocol, defenses probably will feel more comfortable honing in on the run without feeling pressured by vertical passes.