As many questions as there has been with this Raiders team this training camp, some of them surrounded the roster status of second-year defensive end Jack Crawford. He was the team's fifth round pick last year out of Penn State but rarely saw the field as a rookie.
Even with the dearth of pass rush on this Raiders team last season, the 280 pound Crawford spent much of the year on the inactive list. Near the end of last season, his coaches asked him to try working inside some.
"Since the end of last year and OTA's I've kinda been taking reps inside a lot, especially on passing downs," said Crawford. "We're moving smaller linebackers sometimes in a pass rush, trying to get a different look inside, so I've just been working on that and really just trying to make a place on this team. Just trying to get better every day and doing my job.
"I played defensive end my whole career. Defensive line, it's similar. It's not that hard making the adjustment. It's just a lot quicker on the inside. I didn't see it but coach asked me and I had no trouble making the adjustment and just trying to adjust my game and my habits to going inside."
Coming into camp this year, he was again buried on the depth chart. Then a string of injuries plagued the Raiders interior defensive line and those reps he had taken at defensive tackle opened a door for him to see more reps.
Those extra reps and his experience working inside and outside showed up on the field last week when the Raiders played the Saints in their second preseason game. The moment he came out with the second team defense in the second half, he began making plays. He made the tackle in the kick return, sacked the quarterback, and made the tackle on third down.
"It just comes from hustling, really," said Crawford. "Just kind of knowing your assignments and trying to make a play, you know. Any play it could be any one of us eleven on the field so you have to be able to rely on your teammates especially in the defensive game and just do your job and that's how it happened. I just happened to get in on every play that series."
It was a coming out party for Crawford. He hadn't shown up like that at any point last season or in the first preseason opener. It's a culmination of the work he has put in and the progress he sees himself making in practice.
"I've definitely been making strides and that just comes within practice, within the Dline meeting room. It's like confidence. Friday just happens to be a game where I made back to back plays and certain things were just going my way. But I think experience wise and just making plays, it was a big stride for me. I know I can go out there on Friday and still make plays and getting that feeling off your chest because I hadn't really made a lot of plays back to back like that before. That's a good feeling but now I have to concentrate on getting better at what I do."
As he says, the biggest difference in his play is not thinking too much.
"When you're in the game, you have to take all the thinking out of it and you really have to react and play your game and if you make a mistake, you just let it go and just go to the next play."
"I know the defense now and I know the coaches and their philosophy so that kinda helps to go out there and, you know, less thinking and just go and try and play football, make a play. That's really it. Definitely a big difference from last year."
The next game is critical for Crawford and the rest of the Raiders' defensive line. As great as Crawford's play was last week, it didn't kick in until the second half. Crawford admits the entire defensive line was incredibly frustrated through the first half with the lack of pressure on Drew Brees. Friday, they will again face a pocket passer with a big arm in Jay Cutler when the host the Chicago Bears.
The starters will play through probably three quarters which leaves little time for Crawford to try and show once again that he is a playmaker. His duties as a defensive tackle in nickel packages as well as his special teams abilities will get him on the field in those first three quarters and allow him most plays to show his worth to this roster.
They need him to live up to his potential as they are desperate for any kind of help they can get along the defensive line. It's a great opportunity for him to carve out a niche and get on the field this season.