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By wide margin Raiders have fewest play action, fewest deep balls in NFL this season

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This season’s vanilla offense in Oakland is making last season look downright volcanic.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Run it down their throat and then throw it over their heads. That’s what every offense strives to do. Last season the Raiders did both pretty well. This year they aren’t doing much of either.

Of course, those goals are easier said than done. But to accomplish them, you need some trickery to your offensive attack. That’s another element the Raiders offense is lacking this season. They’re predictable.

One of the easier bits of trickery is the play action pass. It’s simply the quarterback making like he’s going to hand the ball off only to pull it back and then look downfield. It’s fairly commonly used in the NFL as a way of getting the defense to think even for an instant about the run. That instant is often the difference between a big play by the offense and a stop by the defense.

Thus far this season, the Raiders have used the play action just 12 times according to numbers compiled by Pro Football Focus. That’s an average of TWO play action dropbacks per game. For some perspective, the next fewest play action passes is 25 by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Not utilizing the play action has drawn Raiders offensive coordinator, Todd Downing a good deal of criticism. And rightfully so. Even with criticisms mounting during the team’s 4-game losing streak, this past week he used play action ONE TIME. That play was on 2nd and 17 and resulted in a 12-yard completion to Seth Roberts.

Downing has been asked about his lack of play action passes in his offense and he has insisted they have them in the call sheet, but with the overall offensive struggles, they just haven’t gotten to them. Naturally after using it just once last week, the questions continue.

“It’s hard to get to some playactions on your call sheet when either the game situation takes you a certain way or you simply don’t have enough plays to get to those,” Downing said Tuesday. “We’ll certainly incorporate them more. We’ve run a decent amount of playaction shots. . . often times we might have a playaction called and a protection assignment takes the back off of his fake or something of that nature. They’re still a part of what we do. They need to be set up to be efficient. We need to be able to sustain drives and run the ball well and then hurt them with playactions.”

The reasoning of needing to run the ball well to set up the play action is not only not true, but the Raiders WERE running the ball well at times against the Chargers.

Marshawn Lynch ran the ball 7 times for 37 yards (5.3 yards per carry) in the first quarter. No play action was used. He ran it 8 times for 49 yards in the first half (6.1 ypc). No play action was used. He was still averaging 5.7 yards per play through the third quarter. Still no play action was used. It wasn’t until the second to last play of the third quarter they finally called play action.

And again, there’s nothing that says you must be running the ball well to use the play action. It’s not like they’re just going to ignore it altogether if the team isn’t running the ball well.

With nothing to attempt to make the safety or the linebackers second guess anything, it could also contribute to why the offense is not testing teams deep.

Derek Carr has attempted just 10 deep passes all season, completing just 3 according to Pro Football Focus. Both his attempts and completions are the fewest in the league. The next fewest is Marcus Mariota with 14 attempts and 6 completions. That’s 4 more attempts and twice as many completions with both QB’s missing a game.

If you add the 5 deep ball attempts and 1 completion by EJ Manuel in just under a game and a half, the Raiders as a team have 15 deep ball attempts and 4 completions. That’s still the fewest deep ball attempts in the league. The only QB close to that with six games played is Blake Bortles with 17 deep ball attempts in 44 fewer passes thrown.

So, despite the Raiders getting the running game back to respectable numbers the past couple weeks, and facing two lesser defenses at home, they are still not utilizing the play action and they aren’t stretching the field.

The deep ball problem falls on the quarterback as much as Downing.

It was noted when EJ Manuel started against the Ravens, he missed two potential big plays when Amari Cooper broke open. One of those would have been a deep ball that should have yielded a 75-yard touchdown.

Carr has made similar mistakes, getting rid of the ball quickly without letting the play develop of going to his reads. Either deciding where he is going with the ball before the snap — as Manuel did in those two instances — of simply going for the first thing he sees which is often dink and dunk stuff.

“It’s a fine line,” Derek Carr said of whether to get rid of the ball quickly or hold onto it longer.

“When you turn the film on, you look at the plays and you know you’re taking check downs and those are going for 10 and 12 [yards]. How can you be mad at that? If that’s what they’re giving you, you have to take it. I could sit back there and force a lot of throws and that’s not something that I’ve ever done.”

It was supposedly the ‘dink and dunk’ of last season’s 6th ranked offense that earned former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave some undue criticism. And yet, every measure shows the offense this season has been more vanilla than we’ve seen it in quite some time.

This stat line comparison of this year and last from Josh Dubow illustrates this perfectly.

This season throws inside 10 yards now make up 58.3% of his offense, up nearly 10% from last season. And deep passes are down 38% from last season.

To sum it up, this offense is a far cry from the dynamic offense of a year ago. Despite new weapons like Marshawn Lynch, Jared Cook, and Cordarrelle Patterson. The only change was the offensive coordinator.

That doesn’t mean it all falls on him. It may be that last season Musgrave wasn’t holding the offense back, but rather masking Carr’s deficiencies and maximizing his strengths. Or, if you’d like to remain optimistic, they could just be going through some growing pains. And at 2-4 with the Chiefs coming to town in two days, there’s sparse hope there’s time to recover.