HENDERSON, Nev. — Was it really less than two weeks ago when a frustrated Josh Jacobs, off to the slowest start of his three-year NFL career, could only shake his head while watching film of him running the ball?
Excuse me, trying to run the ball?
“Sometimes on plays I’m like, ‘S—, I don’t know what y’all want me to do.’ Honestly,” the Las Vegas Raiders’ Pro Bowl running back said after the loss to the Chicago Bears on Oct. 10.
Such was the case with a reimagined offense line that was being held together by duct tape.
But after the running game had a breakthrough, of sorts, in Sunday’s win at the Denver Broncos, where Jacobs rushed for a season-high 53 yards, he felt like he was watching a different, well, team on the flight back home.
“Yeah, so they’re creating lanes and stuff, so now it’s more on me to trust and believe in the guys that they’re going to do their job, and not try to overcorrect and then when they do mess up from time to time, make them right,” Jacobs said Wednesday.
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“I know it’s hard to be perfect in the game at any position.”
Now, before we go crowning the Raiders (4-2) as having figured out how to run the ball in Week 6, they still have only the No. 30-ranked rushing attack in the NFL, averaging 79.8 yards per game. And they are last in the league in yards per carry, with a 3.3 average, entering Sunday’s game with the Philadelphia Eagles (2-4) at Allegiant Stadium (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox).
Plus, Jacobs, as mentioned above, has already missed two games with toe and ankle injuries. He has rushed for just 175 yards on 54 carries, compared to the 307 and 300 yards he ran for in his first four games of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, respectively.
So what gives? Why haven’t the Raiders been able to run the ball … at least until this past week, when they rushed for 86 yards as a team, their second-highest total of the season (Las Vegas rushed for 140 yards in the Week 3 OT win against the Miami Dolphins, one of two games Jacobs missed)?
“We came off the ball, I thought, with better pad level and had our hands in better places,” said interim coach Rich Bisaccia. “It’s a work in progress, still.”
Indeed, because as backup running back Kenyan Drake noted, the O-line was only bringing back two starters from last season at their original position. Then left guard Richie Incognito went down with a right calf injury in a joint practice with the Los Angeles Rams on Aug. 19. Denzelle Good then went down with a torn ACL in his left knee in the season opener. Then first-round draft pick Alex Leatherwood was moved from right tackle to right guard before the Bears loss.
After the whirlwind that resulted from the Jon Gruden email controversy and resignation, left tackle Kolton Miller, left guard John Simpson, center Andre James, Leatherwood and right tackle Brandon Parker appeared to jell.
And Jacobs and Drake benefitted.
“It was just going to take time for them to kind of come together as a cohesive unit,” said Drake, who scored his first two TDs of the season in Denver, one by air (a 31-yard strike from Derek Carr) and one by land (an 18-yard gallop).
“And it’s a long season. I feel like they’re doing that in stride right now and getting better each and every week. So, I look forward to continue being behind those guys. They make the offense go.”
After signing Drake to a two-year contract worth up to $14.5 million, with $11 million guaranteed, the Raiders are the only team in the NFL to have two running backs scheduled to make at least $10 million this season. Jacobs was scheduled to make more than $11.9 million.
Until Sunday in Denver, the Raiders received little, if anything, in return for the investment.
“I just try to make the most of my opportunities, you know what I mean?” said Drake, who has 91 rushing yards on 28 carries, and 15 catches for 177 yards. “Whenever my number is called, whether it’s in the return game, pass game, running game, that’s what I’m here for — I came here to make plays. So that’s what I hope to continue to do as the season goes on.
“I’ve just got a nose for the end zone. If I get there, I’m hungry for it. I’m starving for it.”
A new playcaller in offensive coordinator Greg Olson seemed to open things up for Drake.
Or maybe, it was a suggestion from Jacobs?
“That’s really my dog,” Jacobs said of Drake, a fellow Alabama product with whom he has worked out in the offseason. “I tell them, I don’t want this to be a one-man show. My body don’t want this to be a one-man show, you feel me? So I tell them, Incorporate him. Just to see him have success and have him kind of coming into his role on the team has been huge.”
The benefit of being able to run the ball, then?
“When we have the run game going, it only makes the weapons on the outside that much scarier,” said receiver Henry Ruggs III, who is averaging a league-leading 22.3 yards per catch on his 20 receptions.
And this from Carr, whose 1,946 passing yards rank second in the NFL: “It’s going to be vital to us doing what we want to do.”
Simple enough. But the Raiders have been on the decline running the ball, going from the No. 13-ranked rushing game in 2019 to No. 24 last season to the current No. 30 ranking.
Inevitably, it comes back to those guys Jacobs is watching on his iPad, the same guys who moved and played faster in Denver.
“Just seeing that they actually got that effort and the want-to to get better and the dog [mentality],” Jacobs said. “I like when we get into it and it’s a dog pile and then we get to barking back and forth with other teams and you see one of the big guys step up and they defend you and things like that, that means more to me than a lot of things.”