PITTSBURGH – Amari Cooper is becoming a national name just seven games into his NFL career. Michael Crabtree is going through a career renaissance, Latavius Murray is a rising star and Derek Carr has become the face of the Raiders franchise.
Those are guys you know. They will all tell you that success stems from the guys up front. Crediting an offensive line is almost cliché, a tired narrative skill players are obligated to promote.
This season, it’s warranted. The Raiders offensive line has become a dominant, tone-setting force blocking for the run and pass, with a collective athleticism that allows skill players to make the most of their touches.
While Cooper was lauded for a 52-yard touchdown catch and run against San Diego, it wouldn’t have happened without Donald Penn and Rodney Hudson laying wood 25 yards downfield. Murray wouldn’t have run 26 yards on his first carry against the New York Jets without tackle Austin Howard knocking linebackers down downfield.
“We’re utility men,” Howard said. “We’re happy in that role, doing what we’re told to help other guys thrive. Nobody’s going to buy our jersey or know every name across the line, but we’re confident in our ability. Our teammates appreciate our effort. If we win, that’s all that really matters.”
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The Raiders have won two straight games heading into Sunday’s road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with offensive savvy capable with consistency along the offensive line. Those statements are hard to quantify. The lads at analytics site Pro Football Focus provide the best barometer for an offensive line’s success, and they think the Raiders are faring pretty well.
The Raiders rank second in pass blocking efficiency, preventing quarterback pressure on 87 percent of passing snaps. PFF considers the Raiders the sixth-best line blocking for the run and pass. That’s a badge of honor for general manager Reggie McKenzie, who started his rebuilding project with an emphasis on both fronts. He drafted future Pro Bowler Gabe Jackson at left guard and secured tackles Penn and Howard last year in free agency.
The Raiders spent a ton on Hudson, but he’s been worth every penny. Hudson is excellent identifying pressure, and his athleticism frees coordinator Bill Musgrave to use him as a pulling blocker.
He has upgraded and offensive line that has become the pride of this offense that scores 25.4 points per game.
“It starts up front,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “I’ve talked about that since early in the offseason. It starts in the trenches with our big guys. They are the engine. You can have a pretty exterior and wheels and all that, but without that engine, it’s tough to go anywhere, right? It starts up front. We’ve got a great challenge this week against Pittsburgh. Their offensive and defensive lines are very good as well, so we’ve got a big challenge. We’re getting prepared right now to go meet it.”
The Raiders have met several challenges up front, even against physical teams. They have been efficient rushing the football, getting Murray to the second level and protecting Carr.
“That shows that everything we’ve been working on is finally coming together,” Jackson said. “We’re getting more consistent, and that’s been the key. I know for a fact that everybody’s been working hard and has been devoted to playing well. That’s a big thing, to keep trying to make everything better.”
“…Coach (Del Rio) always says that we dictate how the game goes. We have to make sure we dominate up front. That sets the stage for everything else.”