There was only one game this season in which either Amari Cooper or Michael Crabtree did not lead the Raiders in receiving yards – and it might offer some comfort to those worried about how quickly quarterback Connor Cook can establish a rapport with his top receivers this week.
In Mexico City in Week 11, Cooper and Crabtree combined for just 62 yards on seven catches in the Raiders’ 27-20 win over the Houston Texans – their opponent in Saturday’s AFC wild-card round. Quarterback Derek Carr threw for 295 yards in the game, 199 of which were amassed by running backs.
The Raiders sidestepped a season-low rushing total (30 yards) by incorporating their backs into the passing game to great effect against a Houston defense that allowed the second-fewest yards against the pass in the NFL this season.
Latavius Murray (five catches, 59 yards), Jalen Richard (three catches, 50 yards) and fullback Jamize Olawale (three catches, 90 yards) all contributed, with Olawale hauling in a 75-yard touchdown pass from Carr early in the fourth quarter that tied the score 20-20.
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All of which adds a wrinkle to the Raiders’ game planning this week. The Texans surely will be more prepared for throws to the running backs Saturday. Yet those are also the types of throws – quicker and requiring fewer downfield reads – that might help ease the rookie Cook into his first NFL start.
“They don’t demand too much of pass protection, those types of routes, where you get it out of your hand and get it to the backs,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “They can catch and run.”
How might the Texans adjust?
“A lot of teams want to bring in extra (defensive backs), go dime or quarter, instead of just nickel, so they can put DBs on our backs instead of linebackers,” Musgrave said. “We’ll anticipate that, just like we have the past few weeks.”
In fact, the Houston Chronicle reported Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel saying he might do just that – assign defensive backs to the Raiders’ running backs Saturday after Houston’s linebackers struggled in coverage in Week 11 – though anything said about strategy this week by either team should be taken with skepticism.
“We feel, really against any defense, that we’re a threat out of the backfield against any linebackers or anyone that comes out … to try to cover us,” Murray said. “We’re always trying to attack that weakness.”
The backs also could help take pressure off Cook in a more traditional manner, and the Raiders this week made re-establishing the run sound like a priority, especially after last Sunday’s loss at Denver.
The Raiders tallied a season-low 16 rushing attempts in their 24-6 loss to the Broncos. That included just five for Murray, their leading rusher, prompting coach Jack Del Rio to wonder Monday in his news conference, “How’s that happen?” Playing a full game without Carr for the first time this season, the offense posted lows in net yards (221) and points.
“Obviously last game everybody knew we were going to try to run the ball, and we just couldn’t,” Richard said. “Denver knew we wanted to run the ball and they had a good game plan, and we just couldn’t connect on some of the passes to free up some running lanes.
“Like coach Jack said, we’ve got to be able to run when everybody knows we’re looking to run. And right now, that’s what we have to rely on to help our quarterback situation.”
Unlike last week, when an injury to backup Matt McGloin thrust Cook into his first NFL action, the Raiders have formed their game plan this week around knowing Cook will be under center. Whether it includes a dose of running backs in the passing game remains to be seen Saturday.
“You have to give and take on offense and defense when you make adjustments,” Musgrave said. “We’ll hope we can play the chess game with them and come out on top.”