Care/Don't Care: The Raiders finally have an identity. It's this guy

Five Things I Care About

The Raiders have instantly reversed their identity

Aimless wanders, a directionless map, a ship without a plan; all of these phrases could have rightly described the 2022 and 2023 Las Vegas Raiders.

All is not perfectly well in the land of the Raiders but they’re 2-0 since banishing all remnants of the Josh McDaniels head coaching disaster beyond the shadows. The best part is that interim head coach Antonio Pierce has made a sharp turn to alter the team’s identity.

The 2023 Raiders under McDaniels were attempting to be a pass-first team that spread the ball to all areas of the field. It didn’t work and it sure didn’t threaten the opposition. Opponents knew if they had just the current version of Jimmy Garoppolo running an old-school dropback offense, he’d give them the game. He so often obliged even in favorable looks. Defensive fronts pushed the Raiders around in the run game and up-front in general because of the lack of intimidation.

Pierce made it plain his version of the team would be running the ball with authority and make Josh Jacobs the heartbeat of the offense. Mission accomplished on that front.

Jacobs went over 100 yards against a tough Jets front and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. He lost a late fumble but was otherwise perfect as the offense’s driving force. He has carried the ball a whopping 53 times the past two games. There’s no reason to expect that to change.

While some will be quick to roll their eyes or throw “meathead” or “football guy” accusations at Pierce for going full “run the damn ball,” there is brilliance in his plan. And it comes from a self-awareness McDaniels never possessed.

This Raiders’ defense is a solid unit. Typically an also-ran, this one has a few signature moments on its résumé. Las Vegas was 18th in EPA per play allowed on the year coming into Week 10; certifiably solid. The Raiders are getting a Defensive Player of the Year type of season out of Maxx Crosby — straight up one of the best players on the planet — along with surprise seasons out of Robert Spillane, Nate Hobbs and Marcus Peters.

Leaning into the ground game within the context of this offense allows the Raiders to be at their best. Pierce has talked about shortening games, limiting possessions and keeping games close enough for wolverines like Crosby to make a game-winning play. It works well together.

Pierce’s heel-turn on the identity of this team has made Jacobs closer to the fantasy RB1 he was drafted to be and solicited a full buy-in from the players:

Everything could not be a deep contrast from the team we knew to start this season. It’s great for the Raiders, Jacobs’ fantasy managers and anyone who rightly wants to praise Crosby for the season he’s having. His special campaign is now coming for a team that matters, not one wasting away under McDaniels.

The Raiders will face tougher challenges when they play non-New York team but the process they’ve taken to get to 2-0 under Pierce has been productive.

C.J. Stroud is a talent elevator

You can put all kinds of other qualifiers out there. You may put any trait on the table you wish. To me, the quick-and-dirty way to spot the mark of a guy at quarterback, a true difference-maker behind center, is when the player is a talent elevator. This passer can make it work without their primary weapon and consistently offer productive pass catchers, even when their receiver résumés are light.

Without a shadow of a doubt, C.J. Stroud has proved he is one of those inner-circle quarterbacks.

On a day without his best wide receiver — make no mistake, X-receiver Nico Collins is the best and most important player in that room — Stroud outdueled Joe Burrow in Cincinnati to end the Bengals’ four-game win streak. Stroud’s leading receiver was Noah Brown, a player who was meant to be the fourth wideout heading into the season. He didn’t always connect with electric rookie Tank Dell, who left some plays on the field, but found him in critical high-leverage moments. He’s putting the ball right on Dalton Schultz working over the middle.

Some of these throws to ancillary players down the depth chart are examples of quarterbacking of the highest degree:

Stroud has moved the Texans into striking distance in the division. He’s not the only reason but he’s the leading cause for the tides turning so abruptly in Houston. This massive leap has caused media members across the industry to usher Stroud past the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation and right into the MVP fray.

Scott Pianowski was not the only one to make this suggestion on Sunday. Yahoo’s own Frank Schwab was making the case Stroud was in the MVP discussion last week and was offering up the best rookie quarterback season we’ve ever seen.

If Frank is early on it, you know it’s a good take.

Stroud elevating talent around him to new heights is the perfect justification for why so many intelligent football observers are putting him in these lofty circles. He has earned it because he’s doing the one thing that all of the great passers in this league do.

If any NFL-viable pass catcher runs a full complement of routes in C.J. Stroud’s offense, they will be on the fantasy football radar. How many other quarterbacks can you say that about with a straight face? It’s not a large group. It’s a select pack of special players. Stroud belongs in that tier just a little more than halfway through his rookie season.

The Steelers’ run game

Not many folks are going to take any sort of effort to get you excited about the Pittsburgh Steelers. Especially when we’re talking about their offense. But don’t look now: they have something cooking on the ground.

I said it on the “Yahoo Fantasy Football Show” — though I could muster only a whisper to get it out — Najee Harris looked good last week against the Titans. He scored a touchdown and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. His backfield mate Jaylen Warren also ripped off huge runs and totaled 88 yards on the ground against a tough Titans run defense. It would be easy to call it a fluke, but Pittsburgh took that word off the map when it offered an encore in Week 10.

Warren went for 101 yards and a score against the Packers and Harris wasn’t too far behind with 82 yards and a TD on 16 carries. The duo combined for 6.2 average yards per carry. They’re stacking big weeks now.

Despite the chasm in their draft position, the Steelers have been better when they’ve split touches between Warren and Harris. It took them some time to get here, but ultimately Pittsburgh found its way to what good organizations do; a merit-based rotation. Warren has juice and commands more work. Harris has been more efficient when he hasn’t been overloaded with grinder carries. They don’t execute the same type of run concepts. The offense needs and is better with both active.

The Steelers have a strong defensive unit but have craved an identity on offense. Despite the talent in the wide receivers room, nothing from this season has hinted that would come from the passing game. Getting a run game going between these two capable backs would go a long way to this playoff hopeful reaching its desired destination.

The Jameis effect in New Orleans

The Saints have been one of my least favorite offenses on film and to discuss this season. So even if the play behind center is not the only issue across the unit, it is only natural to be intrigued by some kind of alternative at quarterback, especially when the guy for this specific team is a deeply flawed but a verifiable fire show.

We got the complete Jameis Winston experience when Derek Carr left for the game with a shoulder injury.

Winston averaged a whopping 15.4 air yards per attempt, which, of course, was the most for any Week 10 quarterback. Carr has frustrated receivers all season by taking checkdowns too early in the play instead of letting downfield routes develop. That couldn’t be further from Winston’s M.O. There was an immediate bump for the wide receivers, most notably their best player in Chris Olave.

Winston even threw a touchdown to intriguing X-receiver rookie A.T. Perry, who was in the game for an injured Michael Thomas. It may have been the most Jameis play of all time:

Perry is an intriguing prospect. This team is full of intrigue and possibility. That’s what has made some of the miscues by Carr, Olave and several other players so frustrating this season. Winston isn’t perfect but he pumps production to and can bring out the best of his pass catchers.

The Winston experience is destined to be short-lived. Not only will Carr reportedly be back after the bye week, but coaches won’t want to roll with Winston forever. He threw two “it didn’t have to be this way” arm-punt interceptions in the comeback attempt.

As fun as it is for us and the pass catchers, coaches don’t want to operate in this “live by the sword, die by the sword” world.

Jacksonville gets blown out

My tone around Jacksonville was optimistic because it was 6-2 heading into its bye while clearly not playing its best football.

I have to admit, that confidence is shaken after Week 10.

Outclassed doesn’t even describe what happened to the Jaguars against the 49ers. They were outgained 437 total yards to 221. They were held to 4.4 yards per pass attempt and allowed 9.8 to San Francisco. It never felt like it would be a game between these two squads. Jacksonville’s first-half offensive drive results were as follows: three plays to punt, three plays to punt, six plays to punt, four plays to fumble and 14 plays to a field goal.

To make matters worse, this was the effort they offered up coming off a bye week and at home. Nothing could be more discouraging than that.

I’m trying not to overreact here. The 49ers are a really good opponent that was also coming in fresh and healthy off its bye with a new pass rusher added to the mix (more on that later). It’s hard not to be wildly concerned by such a disastrous failure.

In the end, I still believe Jacksonville will be fine. But that’s the keyword: fine.

When we look back at the end-of-season numbers, most of the players will look fine. Trevor Lawrence will be fine. Calvin Ridley will be fine. Travis Etienne and the run game will be fine. But this team was supposed to be more than that. There was supposed to be a leap to something closer to elite made here. That is where my faith is draining the fastest.

The Jaguars can still be fine without that leap but where does fine get you in the AFC? Is fine still enough to run away with the AFC South while C.J. Stroud has the Texans surging? Can there still be multiple fantasy difference-makers on a fine offense? I’m not sure about any of that and I didn’t think I’d be pondering these questions following Jacksonville’s bye.

Five Things I Don’t Care About

The Jets’ offense

NFL Network’s Dan Hanzus, a big Jets fan, perfectly summed up the Jets’ offense. They’re beyond lost at sea — they’ve sunk. And it happened long ago:

By the way, the currency number is up to 36 possessions without a touchdown. That is so far past hapless it’s hard to describe, even with a backup quarterback and a bad offensive line. So many other parts of this Jets offense are intact — and that is the problem.

Having Allen Lazard as your set-it-and-forget-it WR2 is a cute thing you can get away with when Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback. Now? It’s profoundly unserious. No credible slot player on the offense because Rodgers’ pal Randall Cobb wasn’t in consideration for 31 other teams. Horrendous. Rodgers can make you right on the offensive line when it’s below standard because he’s a future Hall of Famer. With Zach Wilson, all his worst tendencies will come to light.

Don’t even get me started on Nathaniel Hackett, the architect of this nightmare.

Wilson is obviously a massive part of the problem. I’d give him blame for the current offense’s struggles north of 50%. While no one wanted to imagine a world where this fever dream of a Jets offense was captained by anyone other than Rodgers, that doomsday plan should have been accounted for. The fact that the simple, “What if?” wasn’t posed has left this team to rot.

Head coach Robert Saleh will offer up no answers in his next few dejected pressers. I’m not sure what he can even say. Benching Wilson should be an option. Even if he isn’t the only problem at least some sort of change just for the hell of trying things is in order. We know what this reality looks like. The results won’t change. Removing Wilson is not the answer to their problems but at least it’s not nothing, which is what the Jets’ brass has done every week.

If the Jets cannot admit defeat with this fairy tale and reverse course on this offense, they’ll remain stuck at the bottom of the sea. In that scenario, it won’t matter whether Rodgers’ next dream of returning in mid-December is even possible.

Any more whining about the Lions’ RBs

Detroit head coach Dan Campbell referenced the 2017 Saints backfield this past week in discussions about how the Lions would split the work between Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery. He’s not the first or only person to mention Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara in relation to his backs but his vision was on full display in Week 10.

The Lions’ backs scored three combined touchdowns and ripped off chunk plays all day against the Chargers. Gibbs averaged 5.5 yards per carry and Montgomery gashed the Chargers with a 75-yard scamper. Even if you do the “take away his best play” nonsense, he still had a strong day on the ground and moved the chains. Gibbs also made noise in the passing game, averaging 11.7 yards per catch.

Gibbs’ breakout while Montgomery was injured was indeed a “can’t put the genie back in the bottle” moment. He fully arrived and made himself a critical player. The ideal version of the player Detroit wanted when it took him high in the draft was fully expressed. That doesn’t mean Montgomery goes away. His tough approach and chain-moving grinder runs matter so much to the identity of this team.

The Lions led the league in Week 10 by a healthy gap with 0.44 EPA per rush. The Steelers were second with 0.17. The Lions were the No. 1 offense in success rate. The Lions have a foundation to build on with this ground game and the impact they can both have in the passing game.

Austin Ekeler’s eyebrows may be in trouble:

With the way the Lions operate and lean into their best players, I see no reason why this level of production won’t continue out of the backfield. This is one of the most dynamic running backs duos going right now.

For fantasy managers, there’s no whining about one needing more touches allowed anymore. Sure, they won’t reach the level of touches that Montgomery reached when Gibbs was still green or the rookie’s workload when the veteran was hurt.

Oh well. Most running backs don’t operate at that level because of the injury risk. Working together allows them both to be healthy, explosive and efficient. It makes them both fantasy must-starts the rest of the way.

The 49ers’ 0-3 record before the bye

Stuff happens (you know what I really want to say). That’s all that needs to be offered up in response to any faux concerns about the 49ers’ three-game skid heading into their bye week. The 49ers emphatically put any concerns to rest when they demolished a Jaguars team that has played good football this season.

Great organizations don’t rest on their laurels and just hope things will work out. They actively find ways, turning over every stone, to get better.

Despite over-focusing on the offense and the quarterback by the public, the 49ers’ defense was the most troublesome unit during the 0-3 run. The 49ers hit that side hard over their bye. They traded a third-round draft pick for Chase Young, reuniting him with college teammate Nick Bosa. Make no mistake, that last part matters for a guy who has had Young’s career; it’s not just some cute narrative. Young’s impact was felt immediately:

Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ move from the booth to the sideline was met with typical cynicism from some media circles. I think it matters. This is a 49ers defense that has fed off the energy of previous coordinators Robert Saleh and especially DeMeco Ryans. Wilks has been a high-energy guy in previous stops and San Francisco’s defense was flying around Sunday.

The 49ers’ best days are still ahead of them as long as the defense is playing like it did in Week 10. It allows the offense to play in positive game scripts and keep the quarterback on schedule.

The Seahawks throw on Washington

Geno Smith and the Seattle Seahawks hit the layup. Smith threw all over the Commanders’ undermanned secondary and was sacked just once by their depleted pass rush. It’s been one of the friendliest matchups for quarterbacks all season long, and Smith delivered a turnover-free day with 369 yards and a pair of scores.

That’s great but it was not a wire-to-wire domination of a cake-walk matchup. That’s the type of performance that would have moved me off some of the concerns for this passing game. We didn’t get that out of Seattle, as the Seahawks didn’t get rolling until late in the affair.

Even in this game, Smith and Co. couldn’t really push the ball down the field. Smith’s average completion traveled just 3.7 yards in the air, per Next Gen Stats. This is a group that threw heat in the vertical passing game in 2022. Smith was electric pushing the ball on big-boy routes to Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. I still can’t get some of those tight-window 2022 post routes out of my head.

The 2023 Seahawks have looked best working underneath and setting up receivers for YAC chances. Lockett and Metcalf have looked good in space. Even Jaxon Smith-Njigba has worked zone coverages well underneath. Smith’s biggest competition came on a dump-off catch-and-run via Kenneth Walker:

So yes, the Seahawks hit this layup. If they hadn’t we would have been in a justified full-on panic. We can avoid that for the time being. However, despite some of the big numbers coming out of this, I’m still avoiding getting back to full optimism — which is where I was heading into the season. We’ll know much more about the ceiling of this unit during their three-game stretch where they play San Francisco twice and the Cowboys sandwiched between.

Christian Watson’s yards per route run mark from his rookie year

The Packers had a chance late in the game to win in Pittsburgh. Instead, they left with a loss and more frustrations around their young offense.

Second-year receiver Christian Watson has been emblematic of the team’s offensive issues as he’s done anything but make the leap in Year 2. Both of Love’s fourth-quarter interceptions came on throws to Watson. The first was the more troubling infraction:

I’m not suggesting the blame for Watson’s unproductive season is all on the receiver’s plate. Love and the entire offense have struggled to find consistency. However, I will suggest that Watson was a fundamentally misunderstood player entering the season.

Watson’s rookie year yards per route run was a historically significant indicator of future success. This made the rounds plenty over the offseason — the problem is that Watson is the outlier on this list based on his individual play. It was a false flag:

Watson is the only receiver not to clear 70% success rate vs. man coverage in Reception Perception. The other six players averaged a 75.6% success rate vs. man coverage as rookies. Watson checked in with 64.4%, a 33rd-percentile mark. All those other guys looked like slam-dunk No. 1 wide receivers in their first years. Watson made big plays but he profiled as more of a volatile No. 2 receiver who benefitted from playing with an aggressive, future Hall of Fame passer.

That difference is massive for the 2023 Packers.

If the Packers had a true No. 1 wideout, they could get by surrounding that player and their inexperienced starting quarterback with another second-year receiver, two more rookie wideouts and a rookie tight end across the rest of the offense. The type of player that A.J. Brown, Tyreek Hill, Justin Jefferson, etc. became can give you a huge margin for error that allows you to live with the inexperience of the other players.

So far, we’ve seen plenty of evidence that the Packers do not have a true No. 1 wideout on the roster. It’s one of the biggest reasons their offense is stuck in the mud.

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