In their first season under Josh McDaniels, the Las Vegas Raiders have a chance to compete for a championship...in the preseason that is.
The Raiders moved to 3-0 this month with their 15-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Saturday, and now they have a chance to be the NFL’s only 4-0 team during the preseason with one more win on Friday. But before the team sits on the iron throne, head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Zeigler have some roster decisions to make with the NFL’s second round of cuts coming on Tuesday.
That makes landing on the right side of the winners and losers list even more important as the calendar starts to turn to September.
WINNER: Johnathan Abram
Abram hasn’t played much during the preseason, only 18 defensive snaps in the first two weeks combined, but he got quite a bit of run this weekend with 23 snaps against the Dolphins. He made the most of the extra opportunities, posting an 89.7 overall PFF grade that ranked third among all safeties for the week.
Coverage has always been the hard-hitting defensive back’s weakness, but he put together a strong performance against the Dolphins with a 78.6 coverage grade, a pass break up and a 39.6 passer rating when targeted. Those figures were tied for the seventh-highest, tied for the second-most and tied for the second-lowest, respectively, at his position for the week (minimum one target).
When Patrick Graham took over as defensive coordinator, Abram’s role in the defense became a bit of a question mark. Graham likes to use multiple versatile safeties and Abram’s run-first play style might not be a great fit. However, performances like Saturday’s should inspire some confidence in him from the coaching staff and fan base.
Also, the four-year pro mixed in two pressures as a pass rusher, on three rushes, which is something that had to catch Graham’s eye as Abram was able to make an impact on all three levels of the defense.
LOSER: Alex Leatherwood
If there’s one major ominous sign stemming from Las Vegas’ preseason, it’s their right tackle situation. Every week fans and the media — and I’m sure the coaching staff, too — keep waiting for someone to step up and take control of the position, but nobody does.
This week it was Leatherwood’s turn to deliver a poor performance, allowing five pressures — one sack, one QB hit and three hurries — with an 88.5 pass-blocking efficiency rating that was the fourth-lowest among offensive tackles for the week. That brings his pressure count up to eight and efficiency rating down to 92.2 for the month, tied for the second-most and 12th-worst out of the qualifying 196 tackles during the preseason.
Granted, the extra game plays a factor in the former, but he’s only registered the 16th-most snaps in pass protection (62) at his position, so it’s not like he’s had that many more opportunities to fail than his peers. Also, the competition he’s been facing isn’t exactly the elite of the elites.
To Leatherwood’s credit, he did turn in a solid run-blocking grade (71.1), but pass protection has always been his biggest issue and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
WINNER: Tashawn Bower
Bower was arguably the most active defender on the field for the Silver and Black. He tied for third on the team with five total tackles, had the most TFL with two and ranked second with three pressures, adding a sack into the mix. That’s a busy evening and he probably stood out the most against the run.
The former Patriot and Viking earned an 80.5 run defense grade from PFF which ranks fifth among edge defenders for the week. He led the position with four run stops and tied for the third-best run stop rate (33.3 percent), in addition to posting a 0.3-yard average depth of tackle. For someone who’s fighting for a roster spot, you can’t ask for a much better outing.
Especially with the unfortunate news about Jordan Jenkins’ injury, the Raiders could use another defensive end to step up and fill out the depth chart. While the fourth guy on the chart might not have the biggest role on the team over the next several months, Bower has proven that the team can rely on him in a pinch with his preseason performance.
LOSER: Sam Webb
Heading into the weekend, I had a lot of hope for Webb. He had a matchup against Erik Ezukanma that pitted two physical freaks against each other, and it was an opportunity for the undrafted free agent to make a statement against a fourth-round pick. However, the latter got the better of the former.
Ezukanma was targeted three times with Webb on him and came down with two catches for 37 yards and a first down. Now, that’s not the end of the world, especially seeing as the wideout went off with six catches for 114 yards in total on the night, but it certainly was an opportunity missed for Webb.
Also, it doesn’t help that the corner struggled to force incompletions in Miami beyond that one-on-one matchup. He ended up drawing six targets and surrendered five completions for 83 yards and three firsts.
Again, it wasn’t a completely miserable outing as his slightly above average 63.3 coverage grade is nothing to scoff at, but he probably would have liked to generate some more momentum heading into next week. It didn’t help that he got robbed of a fumble return touchdown, either.
Webb has built a solid case to make the 53-man roster at the end of the month, but he could use a couple of pass breakups on Friday to help strengthen his case. He only has one on 11 targets so far in the preseason.
WINNER: Jarrett Stidham
Truth be told, Stidham primarily lands on the winners' list this week because of the news that broke on Monday morning. The Raiders trading Nick Mullens to the Vikings for a conditional seventh-round pick means the former Patriot has won the backup job in Las Vegas. That was one of the biggest position battles heading into training camp, and he likely won’t even have to suit up this week against his former team.
As far as the Dolphins game goes, Stidham was a solid 7-10 for 80 yards, but what stood out the most is how he was able to manage and operate from the pocket. In the previous preseason bouts, he was holding onto the ball for too long and scrambling too much. However, he dropped his average time to throw down by nearly a whole second from last week — 3.35 to 2.47 — and didn’t scramble on any of his 11 dropbacks.
That growth is likely all McDaniels needed to see to give the third-year veteran the backup job.
LOSER: Isaiah Pola-Mao
Much like Webb, I had high expectations for Pola-Mao during Saturday’s game. The trade of Tyree Gillespie opened up an opportunity for him, but his tackling became an issue.
The former Trojan had two missed tackles on five opportunities against the Dolphins, and that’s coming off a week where he whiffed on his only chance. That brings his total up to three misses on just 46 defensive snaps in the past two weeks, which is not ideal for someone who is fighting for a roster spot.
One of Palo-Mao’s missed tackles came in coverage against running back ZaQuandre White. The pass only was only thrown about five yards past the line of scrimmage, but White cut back and left Palo-Mao grasping at air and high-stepped into the endzone for a 19-yard touchdown. While that was the only time the defensive back was targeted all night, it goes to show how much his poor tackling can impact the game.
Of course, not all is lost for the undrafted free agent as he, and the rest of the bubble guys, have one more opportunity to prove themselves to the coaching staff this week. But, time is certainly a tickin’.