Welcome to the 10th season of Ballers & Busters. The series began in the preseason in 2008 and continues with the Raiders preseason opener against the Cardinals.
First preseason games are always really about seeing what kind of depth the team has and to give those guys hoping to crack the roster their first test in live game action. For that, a look at the individual performances both positive and negative is uniquely appropriate.
It wasn’t a pretty game. Certainly not on the defensive side of the ball. But the Raiders sat most of their starters, so the overall team performance should be taken with a grain of salt.
When asked prior to camp of which undrafted players have stood out, I cheated a little bit. I said Shalom Luani. He was drafted, but the ‘football playin’ Jessie’ was a seventh round pick, so he was not far off. The playmaking he has shown in offseason practices and training camp showed up in the preseason opener.
The first tackle of the day was Luani. It came on the opening kick return. When the team drafted him, it was immediately apparent he was destined to be a special teams maven. Later in the game, his showed this off again, when he recovered a fumble by Jaydon Mickens on a kick return. But wait, there’s more. He was a contributor as a safety as well.
The injuries to Obi Melifonwu and Keith McGill got him on the field early and he fit right in. He made the tackle on the first play of the Cardinals’ second drive to stuff a run for one yard. Two plays later, he came over to offer help in coverage on a deep pass that fell incomplete.
Midway through the second quarter, he nearly had an interception in the end zone. He was in perfect position, leaping in the air, but just couldn’t quite keep ahold of the ball on his way down. A few plays later, he made the tackle to keep a pass a five yards and help hold the Cardinals to a field goal and allow the Raiders offense some time to drive to put their first points on the board before halftime.
The first third down of the second half for the Cardinals, Luani made the stop on a 7-yard run to force three-and-out. He would add two more run stops to finish third on the team with 5 tackles (4 solo) with a pass defended, special teams tackle, and fumble recovery.
Another guy who has drawn praise for his performance in training camp and saw it translate onto the playing field. And his fine performance began while facing the Cardinals’ starters. The first play from scrimmage, Cowser cut off the edge to force a run inside where Mario Edwards Jr made the tackle for a 2-yard gain. He did it again later on the drive, forcing a run into the waiting arms of Justin Ellis for a loss.
Early in the second quarter, he sliced through blockers to stuff a run that had spread out left and make the tackle for a 2-yard loss. Later in the same drive, he stuffed another run for no gain. What were NFL teams thinking not taking a chance on Cowser in the draft? He is relentless both as a pass rusher and a run stopper. And yet he always seems like he’s sneaking up on opponents.
Even with the Raiders’ star defenders not taking the field, it was clear the Raiders weren’t giving their porous secondary the same preferential treatment. The second year safety is in need of proving he has improved and that the secondary as a whole can figure out their communication problems. While there wasn’t a lot to prove the secondary is cured of its issues, Joseph certainly showed he is back to the thumper he was coming out of West Virginia.
On the first drive, he flew in a couple times to put a hurting on a running back. First one was right up the gut after All Pro running back David Johnson who had gotten past the first line of defense only to get smacked in the mouth by Joseph. That drive looked to be held to a field goal, only to have a penalty for illegal formation give the Cardinals new life. The first play afterward, Joseph again came up to lay the wood, taking down Chris Johnson out right for a loss of two yards.
Joseph would add one more run stuff for three yards on the next drive. His work against the pass wasn’t as good as his run support, though. He gave up a 12-yard catch on third down in the zone and was covering no one in the back of the end zone while tight end Troy Niklas was catching the Cardinals’ second touchdown. Still, overall, very good signs from the Raiders 2016 top pick off his first full healthy offseason.
James was a tackling machine in this game. He quickly jumped out to the team lead with four tackles on the Cardinals first drive alone. Remember, that was the drive with the starters still in the game. Only one of those tackles was on a catch he gave up. He also added a pressure on a blitz that resulted in an incompletion.
His flying around continued on the second drive. On the first play he shot into the backfield to help set up a run stuff for a one yard gain. Two plays later, he came in on the blitz to lay a shot on quarterback Drew Stanton and force another bad pass that fell incomplete. A couple more tackles in the first half and finished as the game’s leading tackler with 7 combined tackles, all solo.
Every time there is a positive mention about Manuel on twitter, the Bills fans chime in trashing him. If you bought into all of the vitriol you’d swear the guy we saw Saturday night was someone else. There’s no need to get into the specifics of their criticisms, because it pretty much covers every possible issue a QB can have.
Manuel began the game 6 for 6 for 51 yards going against the Cardinals starters and finished 10 of 12 for 107 yards. His first incompletion was a deep ball up the right sideline in which there was pressure in his face and appeared to made contact as he released the ball.
His first highlight was a nice 14-yard connection out left with Seth Roberts on the second drive that put the Raiders in Arizona territory and helped set up a field goal attempt. The following drive, featured a first down pass to Cordarrelle Patterson that turned into a 17-yard catch and run. The drive ended on two straight questionable play calls, sending Jalen Richard up the gut in short yardage.
Manuel’s best pass came with seconds left in the first half. He delivered a perfect ball to Clive Walford over his shoulder in stride for 30 yards to set up a field goal to end his day. Manuel proved what I’ve been saying about his performance since OTA’s. That he is deserving of being the team’s primary backup behind Derek Carr. Not to mention a damn sight better than Bills fans and media have made him out to be.
Talk about coming out of nowhere. Lewis had 2.0 sacks in this game after having shown none of this pass rushing prowess in training camp. And they weren’t the cheap variety of sack like a designed blitz or a QB rolling right to him. He earned his sacks the hard way – coming around the edge.
His first sack came on third and 10 to stop the Cardinals’ second series of the third quarter with a three-and-out. His second sack ended the next Cardinals’ drive to hold them to a field goal. He nearly had a third sack on the very next drive, but was held. Unfortunately there were offsetting penalties because the Raiders were also called for holding. But, dude nearly had three sacks on three consecutive drives. That’s come up.
Connor Cook’s first pass went to Holton who had broken wide open in the middle of the field. Unfortunately Cook’s pass sailed over Holton’s head or that would have been a huge play. Holton’s first big play was doing dirty work. Normally last season, he was the guy running end arounds, but first in this game, he was blocking for Jaydon Mickens, helping to clear the way for a 24-yard run. A 5-yard illegal use of hands penalty tacked on put the ball at the one-yard-line and set up the Raiders’ only touchdown.
Holton finally touched the ball on the following drive, catching a pass for 7 yards on third and five. His next pass started the fourth quarter and went for four yards on third and two. The next play, with him establishing as a receiving threat, the Raiders gave him a shot at an end around and he weaved his way for 19 yards. He would be targeted more than any receiver by Cook (6), but half of those passes were off target and another one he made a great leaping back shoulder grab, but came down with one foot touching the sideline.
His 3 catches for 47 yards led the team. 30 yards of that came on one gorgeous over-the-shoulder grab from EJ Manuel. Walford went up the seam and got behind his defender and made the kind of catch you expect from a top flight tight end. It set the Raiders up in scoring position leading to the Raiders’ first score of the day, closing out the first half with a field goal.
Treyvon Hester -- Was credited with a couple sacks in this game. His first sack was brute strength up the middle. His second, he was in position when Blaine Gabbert was flushed from the pocket to force Gabbert out of bounds for a loss of two. Hester did struggle against the run, however, getting blocked on three runs late in the game, including the final 6-yard first down run to end it.
Denico Autry – His pressure on third and four forced an incompletion to set up the Cardinals’ field goal attempt on the opening drive. His two pressures in the third quarter helped set up both of Treyvon Hester’s sacks.
John Crockett – His 29-yard catch and run off a dump pass put the Raiders in scoring position and he finished it off with a nifty cutback run to punch it in from one yard out to give the Raiders their only TD of the game.
Jaydon Mickens – He led the Raiders with 55 yards from scrimmage, catching three passes for 31 yards. But that fumble on the kick return is a black mark on his day. He can’t afford those kinds of mistakes to keep his slim hopes of cracking the roster alive.