With superstar edge rusher Khalil Mack gone, the Oakland Raiders defense is worse than bad and head coach Jon Gruden is looking for someone to build the defense around. Punter Marquette King is gone and the Raiders have had the worst field position in the NFL this year because they haven’t had a punter that can flip the field.
But in the Raiders’ 20-6 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday, the defense actually had a decent game while getting no help from the offense. Helping matters was the punting game giving the Chargers poor field position to start drives. Much credit goes to the Raiders two 5th-round rookies; defensive tackle Maurice Hurst and punter Johnny Townsend.
Hurst notched his team-high third sack of the season, forcing the Chargers to settle for a field goal on the drive. For the game, He added four tackles (all solo). Hurst started the season with 2.0 sacks in the first four games but went his previous four games without a sack. Sunday’s performance has the rookie believing his unit is getting things together.
“I think we’re extremely close, but it’s hard to say much without results,” Hurst said after Sunday’s game. “We’re just going to keep believing in this team and believing in each other. We’re focused on what we can control.”
Townsend’s career day started with a bang as he took a fake punt 42 yards on fourth-and-4 of the opening drive. The run set a franchise record for the longest carry by a punter, the longest carry by a rookie punter in the NFL and ranks fourth among punters in NFL history.
As for his real job, Townsend punted three times for 162 yards and a career-best 54.0 average, And that included a 57-yarder that pinned the Chargers inside the 20-yard line. Raider Nation has been waiting to see Townsend flip the field with that big leg he showed in college and he finally delivered.
“I have always said that I really believe in that kid,” Gruden told the media Sunday about his punter. “In that fake punt you can see that he is one of our fastest players. He is a tremendous athlete. He took his medicine for awhile like a lot of us, but he is going to be a really good punter for us.”
Hurst and Townsend shined brightest but the Raiders are playing a lot of rookies these days. Left tackle Kolton Miller (Round 1), defensive tackle P.J. Hall (Round 2) and defensive end Arden Key (Round 3) are all playing prominent roles on the defense. Cornerback Nick Nelson (Round 4) and linebacker Jason Cabinda (undrafted) got plenty of run themselves Sunday and Gruden liked what he saw.
“I felt pretty good. I thought we had a lot of rookies play and play well,” Gruden said. ”I thought Jason Cabinda had extended action and made plays. I thought Nick Nelson made some plays. We had pass rushes at times. So we did make improvement, but we have a lot of improvement to make. And it starts with me.”
The rookies now have something to build on.