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Jon Gruden’s old-school rebuild of the Raiders looks like it’s working after all

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The Raiders are playing smashmouth offense and they’re improving on defense faster than expected.

Oakland Raiders v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Jon Gruden sounded a little out of touch when he was hired by the Oakland Raiders in January 2018. His days as the NFL’s boy-wonder coach were two decades in the past, and — after nine years in ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth — he appeared more interested in recreating that prior success than adapting with the changes of the sport.

“I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998,” Gruden told reporters at the NFL Combine last year.

Gruden said he wasn’t going to “rely on GPSes and all the modern technology”; he was going to have a fullback on the team, and he planned on “doing things the old-fashioned way.” The comments drew chuckles, but they turned to laughs at his expense when Oakland went 4-12 in his first season back.

Now, Gruden’s vision is starting to pay off. His throwback approach has created a team that’s winning in the trenches — and now winning games.

The Raiders have found their identity with Josh Jacobs

Oakland already had a lot of beef on the interior of its offensive line when Gruden arrived, with Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson. The Raiders didn’t need a dramatic offensive line makeover, but they still spent a 2018 first-round pick on left tackle Kolton Miller and signed free agents Trent Brown and Richie Incognito in 2019.

The Raiders invested up front hoping to win at the line of scrimmage. The cherry on top was 2019 first-round pick Josh Jacobs, a running back with a bruising blend of explosion and power.

The result of those acquisitions is a running game opposing defenses are having a hard time stopping.

The Chicago Bears entered Week 5 with a defense that was allowing 11.25 points per game and 2.96 yards per rushing attempt — both second-best in the NFL. Those averages were hurt by the Raiders rumbling their way to 169 rushing yards in a 24-21 win.

Leading the way for Oakland was Jacobs, who had 123 rushing yards and two touchdowns on just 26 attempts. Brown summed up the performance by the rookie better than I can.

A week before, the Raiders bulldozed their way to 188 rushing yards in a 31-24 win over the Colts.

An integral part of those two impressive rushing performances was the fullback position that Gruden loves so much. Rookie Alec Ingold only saw five snaps in Week 2 and seven in Week 3, but his involvement spiked in the last two games. He was on the field for 25 plays against the Colts and played an even bigger role in the win against the Bears.

Ingold dove into Bears defenders to clear the way for Jacobs to dive in himself on one touchdown:

It wasn’t the only time Ingold imposed his will against the vaunted Bears defense.

In an era of football when linebackers are dropping weight in favor of speed, a fullback that can blaze a trail for running backs is becoming an increasingly effective tool. And with the Raiders’ defense much better than it was in 2018, the running game has the team in the hunt for a spot in the playoffs.

Oakland’s defense isn’t the worst in the NFL anymore

The biggest problem when Gruden took over for the Raiders wasn’t quarterback Derek Carr, the offensive line, or the lack of receiving talent. It was a defense that finished 2018 with only 13 sacks and allowed an NFL-worst 29.2 points per game.

In year two of the Gruden era, the Raiders are far from a defensive juggernaut, but they have improved dramatically.

The defense is allowing a slightly below average 24.6 points per game and already has nine sacks through five games. Defensive end Benson Mayowa, who was signed in the offseason to a one-year, $1.7 million contract, has 4.5 sacks. That’s more than any player on the Raiders had in the entire 2018 season.

The run defense has taken a significant step forward too. Last year, it allowed 4.7 yards per carry; so far in 2019, opponents are averaging just 3.7 yards per rushing attempt.

Oakland’s defensive stats probably aren’t good enough to make the team a Super Bowl contender, but they were enough to slow the Colts and Bears down.

In Week 5, the Raiders’ defense held Chicago to just 236 yards and forced two turnovers. It was the first time Oakland kept a team under 280 yards since the 2017 season. It helped that the Bears started backup quarterback Chase Daniel, who threw two awful interceptions. But the Raiders were carved up by quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill and Nick Mullens in 2018, so even a good performance against a backup shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The win against the Colts looks even better — especially after Indianapolis handed the Chiefs a loss in Week 5. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett completed a season-low 52.2 percent of his passes against the Raiders, while Colts running back Marlon Mack managed just 39 rushing yards on 11 attempts.

Oakland’s combination of smashmouth offense and decent defense has put the team just one game behind the Chiefs in the division and right in the middle of the AFC Wild Card race.

The Raiders are set up to get even better

Oakland isn’t quite there yet, though. While the back-to-back wins against the Colts and Bears were impressive, catching the Chiefs in the AFC West will be an uphill climb. Kansas City already traveled to beat the Raiders, 28-10, in Oakland in Week 2.

For all their improvement, the Raiders are still 18th in points scored and 22nd in points allowed. That could change soon, however.

Trading Khalil Mack in 2018 was probably a mistake, but it did set up the team with draft capital aplenty. The Raiders had three first-round picks earlier this year and now have two first-round picks in 2020. Also, by not giving Mack a huge contract, the team has over $70 million in projected cap space.

The Raiders’ chances at keeping an upward trajectory will depend on their ability to continue to add talent. Signing Antonio Brown and Vontaze Burfict were missteps, but the additions of Trent Brown, Mayowa, and wide receiver Tyrell Williams have all helped. Ultimately, finding good players in the draft like Jacobs matters much more. The jury is still out on the other two first-round rookies, with safety Johnathan Abram out for the year with a shoulder injury and defensive end Clelin Ferrell dealing with a concussion.

But the early success of the 2019 season is indication that Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock may actually know what they’re doing.