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Oakland Raiders need to go back to 2016 blueprint before it’s too late

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At 2-3 through five games, it’s not too late for the Oakland Raiders to make the playoffs but it they need to go back to more of what they did in 2016.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Oakland Raiders Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland Raiders came into the 2017 football season with huge expectations. They were supposed to be the biggest threat to the New England Patriots’ throne this year.

All they had to do is improve their defense, right?

Well, they haven’t and the Kansas City Chiefs have taken the throne atop the NFL ranks. They’ve already blown out the Patriots and so far they’re running away with the AFC West.

Meanwhile, the Raiders don’t even look like a threat to make the playoff this season. Their Week 4 loss to the Baltimore Ravens could be a major blow to the cause.

The Raiders looked okay in the first two weeks against the Titans and Jets to jump out to 2-0, but have looked horrible ever since, losing three straight. There have been some injuries but even aside from health, things aren’t coming together. More than anything, it seems like stubbornness is costing the Raiders the most so far. The coaching staff and personnel department are dug in on what they’re doing even thought it’s clearly not working.

The offense

Offensive coordinator Todd Downing is making the mistake of going away from what worked for the team last season in order to make the offense his own. The Raiders are built and had the identity of power running and the vertical passing game.

Until quarterback Derek Carr injured his finger last year, the Raiders ran straight at the defense out of the ‘I’ and used play action to go deep off of it. But now, Downing is continuing to run out of the Shotgun as if Carr’s finger is still injured.

Despite having the NFL’s biggest, best offensive line made for coming off the ball and mauling defenders, Downing is using the zone-stretch system.

Downing’s strategy of not using a fullback as much is costing the Raiders in the run game. Opposing linebackers attack downhill as soon as they see the double-team on the nose tackle. Once he gets there there’s no fullback in his way, so Marshawn Lynch as well as the other running back are getting met at the line of scrimmage more often than not. If Lynch couldn’t run over defensive linemen and LB’s the way he has this year, his production would be worse than it is. Lynch still has it, but the Raiders need to give him a running start to get those incredible runs again.

All the Raiders are getting out of their running game now is an occasional big play from Jalen Richard and that’s only when opposing defenses don’t expect the run.

The vertical game was back in Oakland when receiver Amari Cooper was drafted in 2015. Yes, he needs to catch the ball whenever and wherever it’s thrown to him. But most of the time these days, we see Cooper on short routes or over the middle. The Raiders need to go back to deep routes and double-moves with him.

They should make defenses choose between stopping Cooper and Lynch. But opposing defenses are stopping the run and short pass with the same defense these days. Downing hasn’t even used play action on a regular basis so far. So far in 2017, he’s simply going sideways with an offense that’s made to go forward.

The defense

A lot of the issues with scheme, communication, and getting the calls in on time have subsided this year for the Raiders defense. There’s also more blitzing and Cover-2 man so assistant head coach John Pagano must be involved.

A defense that doesn’t have their best two cornerbacks is seriously compromised. Along with that, the Raiders may not have the best two safeties they can put out there.

Every time free safety Reggie Nelson arrives late on deep balls, I can’t help but think of what it would be like if second-round pick Obi Melifonwu were at strong safety allowing Karl Joseph to use his superior instincts at FS. Due to Melifonwu’s knee surgery, the earliest we could possibly see that is Week 9. Until then, there really isn’t much the Raiders can do about their porous secondary.

Also see: Raiders defense desperately missing timely takeaways of 2016

The defensive line and edge rushers are actually the one strength of the defense. Khalil Mack is Khalil Mack, Mario Edwards Jr. is healthy, Eddie Vanderdoes is coming around and Bruce Irvin occasionally shows up.

Where GM Reggie McKenzie has failed the Raiders is at the linebacker position, where they are hurting. They are getting gashed against the run and still having problems with good tight ends.

At this time last year, the Raiders picked up Perry Riley Jr. and he made a huge difference. They were giving up an historically bad 450 yards per game until Riley had them playing at top-10 level, giving up just 338 yards per game. But instead of offering the 30-year-old a contract, McKenzie opted to make fifth-round pick Marquel Lee the starting MIKE while Riley is still unsigned.

It’s time to recognize the LB position isn’t working out with Lee and Corey James inside. The D-line is solid and there isn’t much the Raiders can do about the injuries in the secondary.

The offense needs to go back to the power run and the vertical game, using the I formation and play action too.

You don’t make a 12-4 team better by changing too many things. So before the Chiefs pull completely away and the Raiders can’t get in the playoffs as a wildcard, they need to go back to their 2016 blueprint.