Even the most casual of football observers can notice one thing about the 2013 Oakland Raiders: they are an extremely young team that is being held back by a paper-thin offensive line. While many would just assume that this is the same old Raiders, this team actually has quality offensive linemen. Unfortunately, they’re all hurt. The starting line has potential to be wonderful, but injuries have decimated the line and forced the Raiders to patch it together week in and week out. Compare the projected starters to the line that took the field against the Eagles:
2013 Projected Offensive Line:
Left Tackle: Jared Veldheer
Right Tackle: Menelik Watson
Left Guard: Tony Bergstrom
Center: Steven Wisniewski
Right Guard: Mike Brisiel
Raiders Starting Offensive Line – Week 9:
Left Tackle: Khalif Barnes
Right Tackle: Matt McCants* (left game in second quarter, replaced by Watson)
Left Guard: Lucas Nix
Center: Steven Wisniewski
Right Guard: Mike Brisiel
Just for clearing this up: the backup right tackle is starting at left tackle, the third-string right tackle (an undrafted rookie) got injured and was replaced by Menelik Watson, and the interior of the line played through various minor injuries. The interior of the line has been in flux all season and has severely underperformed, but the team doesn’t really have any other options at the moment. The lack of health in the team’s weakest area has been simply astounding. Even the backups haven’t been immune from the injury bug: Andre Gurode (backup center/guard) and Tony Pashos (first-string right tackle and backup swing tackle) missed the Eagles game after injuries sustained against Kansas City and still have yet to practice. Offensive line coach Tony Sparano has admitted that this is the most difficult job that he has been faced with in the NFL, stating that this is the “most moving pieces” that any of his offensive lines have ever had.
It is very hard to disagree with him, and credit him for fielding anything with the quality of players he has been given. It seems like the team has lined up with a different offensive line every game, which is a huge deal in developing long-term chemistry and understanding teammates’ strengths and weaknesses. The best offensive lines in the league play together on virtually every snap, learning how to compensate for each other’s weaknesses, and constantly tweaking that makes it virtually impossible to have a quality offensive line. The inexperienced players have stepped up far beyond expectations, but it is safe to say that it still has been something of a disaster this season. Scarily enough, it could be much worse if Pryor wasn’t so good at avoiding pressure. The line, simply put, has held back this team from reaching its true potential.
Fortunately, the Raiders may be in for string of good luck soon. Menelik Watson looked okay in limited action against the Eagles despite practicing all week as a backup left tackle, and he should only increase his skills with each week. He is a remarkably raw player, but he has shown signs of solid offensive line play despite very limited game action and could develop into a special player given enough time and practice. Note that he has practiced for all of about a week since being drafted (after playing at right tackle in college for a year and never seeing a snap at left tackle throughout his career until the fourth preseason game with the Raiders); I personally am very excited by his potential, but he needs to stay healthy. Jared Veldheer’s recovery from injury has gone well, suggesting that he could start practicing soon.
While he will be very unlikely to see game action against the Giants this week, Veldheer has said that his recovery is “on track” and he will be likely to start practicing and playing within the next few weeks. The guard situation is still something of a disaster zone, but with recovered health, it is likely that the team could utilize Watson as a guard rather than a tackle once Pashos and Gurode come back. Pashos in particular has played incredibly well, especially seeing as how he wasn’t on the team until Watson’s injury after the Seahawks game. He was regularly rated as one of the top offensive tackles in the league before suffering his injury, so it will be nice to have solid protection on the outside. This solid protection on the outside could push some of the more versatile linemen that we have (Watson, Brisiel, and Gurode) inside, giving the line an added boost and very, very much-needed depth.
With three starter-quality players returning within the next few weeks and the game experience gained by backup and swing tackles, the line could actually be of NFL quality sooner than many expect. After being sacked a ridiculous fifteen times in the past three games, casual observers may assume that Pryor takes sacks simply because he runs around a lot. While his scrambles have caused a few sacks that weren’t likely to happen with a more traditional quarterback, the amount of pressures he has avoided from scrambling has FAR outweighed the sacks he has taken. Pryor has rarely seen a pocket last for longer than a few seconds, which makes it hard to take advantage of the Raiders’ receivers’ speed and route-running abilities. A line that could protect Pryor at all could result in a huge boost to the offense, which is encouraging after the team put up the most yards since 1961 in a blowout loss to the Eagles (560) and is looking like it is improving with each passing week.
The Raiders are about to face a slew of some of the best pass rushing teams in the league within the past few seasons, so the timing of the offensive line health couldn’t be better. A healthy line will also help dispel the rumors that Pryor isn’t an accurate QB; he has looked incredibly smooth whenever he is actually given a pocket, and his game can turn lethal when his running turns into a secondary option. Stay tuned, Raiders fans. You haven’t seen this team pull it all together in a solid win yet, but that may be coming soon if the team can even have an NFL-level offensive line.