There are a few tell tale signs of a struggling team. Two come to mind and almost always accompany losing records. One is turnover differential. Plainly put, if you take the ball away more than you turn it over, you usually win. The other is starting field position.
The Raiders currently have a -2 turnover differential this season, with one takeaway and three turnovers. And their field position has been just plain awful. They have started just ONE drive this season in the opponent’s territory. Not surprisingly it came against the Broncos in their win to open the season. It led to a field goal.
Starting field position is often tied to takeaways because you are far more likely to start in the opponent’s side of the field if you take the ball away. But field position is about much more than that. If the offense moves the ball and the defense makes a stop, the opposing team’s punt may be fielded or returned inside their territory. But it usually requires all three phases to perform well for it to happen. The Raiders just haven’t had that consistency.
“I think we’ve had one in two years since I’ve been here,” Gruden said of starting drives opponent’s territory. “I mean it’s really been, more than anything field position...I used to sit in meetings as a young coach and Johnny Majors would talk about nothing but field position. That’s the area of hitting yardage and the winning edge is field position, and until we start drives at midfield and the plus side of the 50, it’s going to be hard to go 85, 80 yards every single time. So, we got to do a much better job getting turnovers, forcing three-and-outs, reducing penalties in the kicking game, getting some return yardage. We got to get better field position to be a good offensive team.”
Gruden jokes about it happening just once in his 19 games since returning to the sideline. That’s obviously an exaggeration, but it took the team until week four of last season to get even their first starting field position in plus territory. Not coincidentally it was also their first win of the season. They had three drives start in Cleveland territory to beat the Browns in week four. Two of those came off takeaways.
Then they didn’t have another until week 11 against the Cardinals. It too came off a takeaway. And, yet again, it was the next time they won a game. They had five losses in between without a drive starting in plus field position.
In every one of their four wins last season, they had a drive start in the opposing team’s side of the field. And only one of their 12 losses (Ravens) did they have a drive start in plus field position. They had a total of 8 drives start in plus field position for a total of 9 in 19 games under Gruden — 8 of which came in their five wins.
It’s obviously no small thing. They play the Colts on Sunday in major need of winning the field position battle, not to mention the turnover battle. They played the Colts last season with no takeaways and no drives in their territory. The Colts have turned the ball over just twice this season and boast a turnover differential of +1. Which means both teams must do something out of character for the Raiders to have their best chance to win.