Raiders rebound in year 2 under Gruden to become contenders

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              Oakland Raiders wide receiver Hunter Renfrow (13) celebrates with quarterback Derek Carr, right, after they connected on a touchdown pass against the Detroit Lions during the second half of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)
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ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — Not much went right for the Raiders in the first season of coach Jon Gruden’s return to Oakland with stars getting traded, losses mounting, and questions raised about whether Gruden still had it after nine seasons in the broadcast booth.

Things are going much better in year two, with the Raiders (4-4) reaching the midpoint of the season in the middle of the AFC playoff race thanks to big contributions from their rookie class and significant improvement from quarterback Derek Carr and the offense.

“You have to lay a foundation,” Carr said. “I feel like we’ve laid one and then jackhammered it out about 14 times since I’ve been here. This one I hope stays, that’s for sure. … This foundation is pretty good.”

The Raiders are building an especially solid foundation on offense. Carr has taken such a big step forward in his second year in the system that Gruden now calls him a coach on the field. The offensive line has survived several injuries to become one of the better units in the league, and rookie running back Josh Jacobs is emerging as a star.

Even a lack of proven talent at receiver after the release of star wideout Antonio Brown two days before the opener hasn’t hampered the Raiders much.

Over the past six weeks, the Raiders lead the NFL in yards per play (6.56) and rank fifth in points per drive (2.44), a sign of impressive efficiency that will need to continue if Oakland is going to have a shot at making the playoffs in the final season here before a planned move to Las Vegas in 2020.

“We’re only halfway home,” Gruden said. “We’re making progress. We’re excited about that.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Running game. The Raiders’ offense is built around Jacobs and a massive offensive line. Jacobs has already rushed for 740 yards and six TDs, breaking Marcus Allen’s franchise record for yards rushing by a rookie set in the strike-shortened 1982 season. That effective running game has allowed Carr to use play action more effectively, leading to more big plays downfield.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Pass defense. The lack of a consistent pass rush combined with spotty coverage in the secondary has once again plagued the Raiders on defense. Oakland has allowed a league-worst 43 pass plays of at least 20 yards this season, and opposing quarterbacks have a 114.8 passer rating against the Raiders. There have been only seven times a quarterback has posted a passer rating that high for an entire season.

STOCK UP

Carr. After two rough seasons led to questions about whether Carr was still the quarterback of the future for the Raiders, he’s starting to flash some of that 2016 magic that made him one of the more promising young QBs in the league. He has been one of the league’s most efficient passers over his past five games, completing 69.7% of his throws for an average of 8.5 yards per attempt, nine TDs, one interception and a 112.4 rating.

STOCK DOWN

Defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell. The No. 4 overall pick has made little impact on the defense the first half of the season. He had one sack in the opener and hasn’t recorded any since then. He has struggled to generate any consistent pressure on the quarterback when rushing either from the inside or outside.

INJURED

Starting right tackle Trent Brown left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury, and Gruden had no update on his availability for this week. Center Rodney Hudson missed his first game since 2015 with a sprained ankle and his status for Thursday is also in doubt. Gruden said he feared defensive end Arden Key broke his foot, while linebacker Nicholas Morrow (groin) and cornerback Daryl Worley (ankle) are also dealing with injuries. The Raiders did activate rookie cornerback Isaiah Johnson from injured reserve after a facial injury in preseason and released linebacker Brandon Marshall.

KEY NUMBER

11. The Raiders have gotten 11 TDs so far from the rookie class — led by Jacobs with six, followed by Foster Moreau with three and Hunter Renfrow with two. The last time a team had more than that after eight games was in 1983 when the Rams had 16. In Gruden’s first five seasons in Oakland, he got two TDs from rookies in 80 games: a pick-six by Charles Woodson in 1998 and a TD catch by Marcell Ateman last year.

NEXT STEPS

The Raiders start the second half of the season with a Thursday night game at home against the Chargers.