Along the Raiders’ road back to relevancy and the playoffs, May 8, 2014, looms as if written in neon.
That evening, the Raiders used the fifth overall pick of the draft to take linebacker Khalil Mack. The next day, they selected quarterback Derek Carr in the second round. Together, the two young players became leaders of their respective units, and helped take a downtrodden franchise to its first postseason appearance in 14 years on Saturday.
Mack will be in uniform for the game. But with Carr sidelined by a broken fibula, it will be rookie Connor Cook running the Raiders’ offense against the Texans.
There is a measure of symmetry in Houston, where quarterback drama has seen embattled starter Brock Osweiler lose his job last month, then regain it entering Saturday. The Texans are also without their star, J.J. Watt, whose loss in Week 3 did not stop their defense from being the stingiest in the league – thanks in part to the player taken first overall, end Jadeveon Clowney, in the draft that brought Carr and Mack to Oakland.
In both cases, circumstances dictate the defenses being the key to Saturday’s AFC wild-card game.
“Our defense needs to step up and play at a high level,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said this week. “We’ve sputtered throughout the year and had our moments, but we have not put together a complete game yet. It’d be real nice to get that starting Saturday.”
That is certainly not the fault of Mack, who in his third NFL season further established himself as one of its best defensive players. Mack was named first-team All Pro again (last year he received the honor at both defensive end and linebacker), while tallying 11 sacks, five forced fumbles and an interception.
Pro Football Focus, the analytics website, rated Mack its top edge defender this season with a league-leading 96 quarterback pressures. His 26 sacks since the start of last season also lead the league, and nobody knows his proclivity for getting to the quarterback better than Osweiler, whom Mack brought down five times in Denver in 2015.
“There’s many things that stand out: his athleticism, his toughness, his ability to pressure the quarterback, his ability to move around in the front,” Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s the type of player that you have to know where he is on every snap.”
Clowney this week recalled talking to Mack only once or twice during the draft process in 2014, but has kept an eye on Mack’s play.
“He has the all-around game, total package,” Clowney told reporters on a conference call. “He can play the run and the pass, no offensive lineman is going to block him one-on-one. You have to have protection, help on the guy. You have to do it for four quarters.”
The more touted player going into the draft, Clowney has been slower to emerge. He was limited to four games by injuries as a rookie and has totaled 72 tackles and 10.5 sacks over 31 career games – both lower totals than Mack had just this season.
Still, Clowney set career-highs in both categories this season and was a primary reason, Del Rio said, that the Raiders struggled to run the ball when these teams met in Mexico City in Week 11, totaling just 30 yards on 20 carries.
“He was very disruptive,” Del Rio said this week. “And so was (Vince) Wilfork.
“There’s a reason (Houston ranks) on top of the league in gross yardage allowed and that they’ve been tough to run against, because they’re not even using an extra man in the box very often. They play with a lighter box and count on those big guys to be disruptive. So they’ve done a nice job up front, and that’s without J.J.”
The Texans allowed the fewest yards (301.3) and just 20.5 per game in the regular season. The Raiders’ defense finished in the bottom third of the league in both categories but thrived on opportunism, ranking second with 30 forced turnovers.
That reliance comes with risk, as trying to strip the ball may have contributed to a rash of missed tackles in last Sunday’s loss in Denver.
“You go after the ball, sometimes you’re going to miss the player,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr., said. “But you know you have to tackle. I think they understand what they have to do. That shouldn’t be a problem anymore.”
The defense could benefit from the return of safety Karl Joseph and tackle Stacy McGee from injuries. At the same time, the offense learned Friday that along with Carr it will be without Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn due to a knee injury – the first game Penn has missed in 10 seasons, and one more reason the Raiders’ fate may lie on the other side of the ball.
“If you want to win in the playoffs, you can’t have 20 missed tackles, you can’t have missed assignments, you can’t have mental errors today,” linebacker Bruce Irvin said.
“That’s how you’re sitting at home next week. I think our guys understood. And I think we’re really going to step it up this week and handle our business.”