Three & Out: Raiders choke up golden opportunity in KC

For nearly two months, the Kansas City Chiefs have been a shell of their first-half selves — unable to get out of their own way in losing six of seven and letting the Raiders back into the AFC West race.

Apparently, all it took for the Chiefs (7-6) to rediscover their way was a visit from an onrushing Oakland.

Kansas City got a massive assist from the lackluster Raiders (6-7), whose offense was unable to find the scoreboard until the final nine minutes, riding rookie running back Kareem Hunt‘s best performance since early October to a 26-15 victory delivering a damning blow to Oakland’s playoff aspirations.

Head coach Jack Del Rio acknowledged his team’s inability to complete its climb to the peak of the division standings, according to Matt Kawahara of the San Francisco Chronicle

“We obviously came in with high hopes. Everything we wanted to accomplish in our season was in front of us. It was a big day and a big moment, and we did not play well.”

Quarterback Derek Carr was a bit more blunt, according to Around the NFL’s Gregg Rosenthal:

“There is no easy way to put this one. We sucked.”

First Down: Offense continues to shortchange Beast Mode

Prior to this season, Marshawn Lynch had not carried the football in an NFL game since Jan. 17, 2016, so it would have been foolish to enter the campaign with the expectation that he could provide the role of workhorse, toting the rock 20-plus times per week. But he has proven the improbable ability to do exactly that, and there is a direct correlation between his doing so and the Raiders winning.

In games in which Lynch has been handed the ball more than 12 times the Raiders are 4-1, including Oakland wins the last three games. When “Beast Mode” has been fed 12 or fewer times the Raiders are 2-5 — the wins coming against the Jets in Week 2 (12 carries) and at home against the Chiefs in Week 7 (2) when he was ejected in the first half.

Lynch has been the metronome of Oakland’s success on offense, yet offensive coordinator Todd Downing seems more than happy to play piggy in the middle with his All-Pro running back chasing fly-over play calling. Even in games like Sunday’s when Carr is struggling to find rhythm — he completed 24 of 41 passes for 211 yards and one touchdown, also matching a season-high with two interceptions.

The Raider offense averaged 373.3 total yards (6th-most in the NFL) and 25.7 points (7th) per game last season under OC Bill Musgrave. That group, which was bolstered with additional weapons in the offseason, is now 19th in yards (329.4) and tied for 21st in points per game (20.3).

The falloff in unit success has already costed defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. his job. If Oakland is unable to finish 3-0 and make the playoffs it is highly unlikely Downing will be a part of next season’s coaching staff.

Second down: Helping Kansas City find its swagger

During its eight-week scuffle the Chief defense, always a source of strength, continued to keep Kansas City in games. On Sunday, the unit trimmed some fat off its already lean 354 yards and 23.5 points allowed per games during its now-halted four-game losing skid. The one shortcoming of the past month, however, had been the turnover differential, which fell from plus-10 to plus-six during the slide — scoring a single takeaway and handing over possession five times.

That is where the Oakland offense helped its rival get its groove back. Carr’s two interceptions — one a flutter ball the product of his arm being hit mid-throwing motion, the other a late, necessary aggressive down-the-field throw — was compounded by a fumble given away by Johnny Holton.

Carr took complete credit for his team’s tough loss, telling the Chronicle:

“It sucked. It wasn’t good enough, and you can put it all on me — don’t you blame one coach, one player.”

The franchise signal called may be more than willing to fall on the sword, but this issue was aided with Downing’s continued unwillingness to let his productive running game, which averages 4.1 yards per carry but has been given the ball just 291 times (22.4 times per game, second-fewest in the league), shoulder a greater load.

The Raider defense did its best to keep things together for Carr and the offense, holding KC to two scored despite its ability to move the ball freely between the 20’s. Hunt, who shot out of the season’s gate seizing an early strangle hold on the AFC Rookie of the Year race, tallied his first game of 100-plus scrimmage yards since Week 7 — after going over the century mark in each of his first seven NFL games.

Hunt piled up 116 yards and one score on 25 carries, adding three catches for 22 yards.

As the Chiefs look to cinch their second-straight AFC West title, now needing to hold off the Chargers (7-6) who have won four in a row, they get the slingshot of momentum offered their defense and running game by a horrendous Raider effort.

Third down: putting together the pass rush

Safety Karl Joseph did record his first interception of the season, giving the Raiders a league-worst two on the season. The pick, as has been the case with most of Oakland’s positives on the defense this season, came courtesy of a rejuvenated pass rush.

Through the first 10 games of the season, Khalil Mack and Co. had recorded just 14 sacks. In the past three games they have nearly matched that number, getting home 12 times. The Raider rush got to Alex Smith four times, once apiece by Mack and NaVorro Bowman. It has been Bruce Irvin, though, who has erupted during this recent run of pass-rush success.

Irvin, who had recorded 2.5 sacks through Week 11, has brought down the opposing quarterback five times in the past three games. Two on Sunday.

Mack has logged sacks in four consecutive contests giving him 8.5 on the season, while Denico Autry has stacked three of his own in three weeks for a season-total of four.

The Raiders are in need at the cornerback position, lacking anyone who can consistently stay with wide receivers on the outside. This puts added onus on Mack, Irvin, Autry, et al. Moving forward, on into next season, the Raider front has to maintain consistency with this level of quarterback pressure to take the stress off of its secondary. That is the clear key to its success.

Fourth down: Must-win games start at the star

To keep their quickly fading playoff hopes alive, the Raiders must win out — mathematically they can afford one more loss, but needing to jump two teams (including the Chargers, who they’ll face in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve) relying on the opponent to lose is not wise.

The first game up in Oakland’s three-week must-win schedule is a Sunday night home showdown with the Dallas Cowboys (7-6). The positive for the Raiders is that All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott will miss one more game before returning from a six-game suspension. Dallas is 2-3 absent its leading rusher, with Alfred Morris taking the lion’s share of the carries.

Morris’ 73.8 yards per game as the starter will be much easier to deal with than the 97.9 provided by Elliott whose running style is very similar to that of Hunt.

Slowing Morris and putting pressure on quarterback Dak Prescott will be the obvious key on the defensive end. The offense’s success will be entirely dependent upon Downing’s unit’s ability to get out of its own way, both on the field and in the play calling.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Raiders beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.