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Derek Carr finding himself and his tight ends for suddenly formidable Raiders team

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Oakland Raiders Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Less than a month ago, the Raiders were coming off a stretch where they had lost five straight games by 14 points or more. They were lost in every sense. Derek Carr was lost, he had lost three of his top four wide receivers, and the team was lost along with it. If you watched them the past two weeks, it appears they have found something.

Derek Carr seems to have found himself and in the process — or perhaps as a byproduct of that discovery — the tight ends have become his saving grace.

Sunday Carr used the tight ends perfectly in order to put away a tough Steelers team 24-21.

The first pass of the game was Carr finding his number one receiver — tight end Jared Cook — for 30 yards. The very next play, he found Cook again for 19 yards to put the Raiders in the red zone. A 9-yard catch by Seth Roberts and three one-yard runs by Doug Martin at the goal line yielded an opening drive touchdown.

That 7-0 score would hold throughout the first quarter. With the start of the second quarter came a drive to tie it.

An answer was needed and Carr went back to the tight ends for it. Cook caught a 12-yard pass to give him 62 yards in the game, which gave him a new career high for a single season. He would have another 12-yard catch on that drive and the Raiders would re-take the lead on a 44-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson to go up 10-7.

On the final drive of the first half, Roethlisberger would injure his rib and come the third quarter was sidelined in favor of Josh Dobbs.

Despite Dobbs doing nothing, the Raiders were unable to take advantage in the third quarter.

With 13:10 left in the game, things finally started moving. On this drive, Carr actually found some of his wide receivers with Marcell Ateman catching a perfectly thrown ball despite tight coverage for a 28-yard gain and and equally impressive pass and catch between Carr and Jordy Nelson to put them in first and goal. From there, it was tight end time again and for a second week in a row, Carr found Lee Smith for a one-yard touchdown catch. Even with this being Smith’s second TD in two weeks, he deferred to Cook for the credit.

“Jared’s our bell cow so Jared just dragged everybody with him,” said Smith on the play. “Nobody was paying attention to me, I don’t exactly scorch people in the passing game very much, so they just lost me. Jared demands so much attention, Derek Carrier was in with me so I was the least receiving threat, right? . . They have an 87 jersey on one of their tight ends all week, so the defensive players they’ve been told all week ‘watch 87, watch 87, watch 87’. Jared goes one way, I go the other, I pretty sure they didn’t have an 86 jersey on anybody. They’re not worried about me, so I just got lost again.”

The touchdown put the Raiders up 17-14 with 5:20 left in the game. And it brought Ben Roethlisberger back into the game to try to play hero for the Steelers. He carved up the Raiders defense, completing all six of his passes to go 75 yards for the touchdown; his second to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

The Raiders don’t have any receivers like Smith-Schuster or his All Pro teammate, Antonio Brown. The closest they had was Amari Cooper who was traded to the Cowboys after week six and is enjoying a revival in Dallas including catching 10 passes for 217 yards and 3 touchdowns today.

The Raiders have to do what they can with what they have. It’s why Cook has been heralded as the team’s number one target, even before Cooper was traded, and especially since then. But up to now, his play wasn’t nearly enough.

That Steelers touchdown drive to take the lead was so quick, it left 2:55 on the clock for the Raiders to attempt a game-winning drive.

The third play of the drive, Carr found Cook for 14 yards and they would set up in Steelers territory out of the 2-minute warning. The next play Carr saw the coverage he wanted against Seth Roberts and made the throw, Roberts got behind the defense and Carr put it right where it needed to be for a clutch 39-yard catch to the 7-yard-line. But even then, the play had the tight end’s fingerprints all over it.

“That was a play designed for Jared [Cook],” said Jon Gruden. “Derek threw it to Seth on the practice field against that coverage. I thought to myself ‘ I can’t believe he threw that.’ That play is not designed for him. He is an alert. But Derek sees the field and I have been saying that form the beginning. If we can protect him and give him some good looks, he will make the throws. Seth made one heck of a play on that. What can I say, our guys made some clutch plays when they had to make them.”

On third and goal from the six, Carr looked to his guy Cook only to have Morgan Burnett make a great play to knock it down. That meant fourth and goal from the six with :25 seconds on the clock, the game was on the line. Cook was over 100 yards (116) and Lee Smith had already caught a touchdown. So, who would get the ball this time? Door number three. Carr found Derek Carrier for his first touchdown as a Raider and just the second touchdown of his career.

What could have been the game-winner seemed for a moment like it would simply lead to overtime. With :15 seconds left, Roethlisberger found James Washington on a short pass, he lateraled the ball to Smith-Schuster and 48 yards later, the Steelers were in line for a game-tying 40-yard field goal.

Chris Boswell would slip on the his plant foot and the attempt would barely get off the ground, hitting the line and the game was over.

Derek Carr threw for 322 yards and 2 touchdowns. This after throwing 3 touchdowns in a hard-fought loss to the Chiefs last week and making it eight straight games without an interception. No one is more excited to see Carr right the ship than one of his staunchest defenders, Lee Smith.

“It’s exciting to watch him play and continue to grow and grow,” Smith said of Carr. “I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it; I truly believe he’s the future at the quarterback position in our league. He’s the young quarterback that’s going to be kind of the face.”

Two straight games with a touchdown catch for Smith along with Jared Cook having his second straight 100-yard game, and Derek Carrier made an appearance in the offense was a primary factor in the Raiders’ competitive loss to the Chiefs last week and now leading to their third win of the season — their first against a winning team.