Perry Riley Jr. was signed by the Raiders on Tuesday. He already can lay claim to a key turnover versus a division opponent.
Riley Jr. forced a key fumble against the Chargers on Sunday afternoon, with a monster hit to the strike zone of tight end Antonio Gates forcing the ball forward and into the waiting arms of veteran safety Reggie Nelson.
He was in the mix for a second, which came on a San Diego rushing play — with Melvin Gordon attempting to split the left guard and center, the running back was stuffed and Riley was right there. Rookie safety Karl Joseph fell on the ball for the recovery.
More than that, Riley’s seven tackles were tops for Oakland defenders.
Starting with a new team after only three days of practice is a feat in itself, but making the kind of impact Riley did, is a completely different kind of achievement.
Riley was waived by Washington in August, which surprised at least a few of the Skins’ local beat writers. He was simply a casualty of a team hoping to get younger. That’s not to say Riley is old, he was drafted out of LSU in 2010, the 103rd overall pick, and started 63 of 79 games.
But over his six-year stint in the U.S. capital, Riley only forced two fumbles — the same number of loose balls he mixed in for against the Chargers. Head coach Jack Del Rio said:
“He’s got fire. You can just see the fire in him and his desire to soak up everything he could this week and be prepared to help us today. Malcolm Smith was dressed and available in an emergency but didn’t really want to play him if we didn’t have to.”
Where does the week rank in Riley’s ‘toughest things he’s ever had to do scale?’ He answered:
“It’s up there, I don’t know exactly ranking it, but it was pretty tough. I just hit it hard and a lot of my experience.”
He missed the last few games of 2015, and came to Oakland after the team lost Ben Heeney and tight end Lee Smith for the season with injuries. The Raiders claimed another Washington player off waivers last season and it did wonders for the defense.
Riley is also a friend of off-season addition Bruce Irvin, though the two haven’t played together since their sophomore year in high school. Riley said:
“It’s good to get to see him, and talk to him throughout plays and it makes it easier to settle in here with someone that I consider my brother there to help me.”
David Amerson was not a scheme fit for Washington coach Jay Gruden, and they let him go, with the Raiders licking their chops from week 3 on. Amerson was the best defensive back on the field more often than not, and signed a four-year extension during the offseason.
The Raiders hope Riley can have a similar impact, and his new beginning was an excellent way to start in Silver and Black.
4-1 can get it done
There aren’t many playoff teams that have a losing record through their first five games. And 23 teams have started 4-1 or better, and made the postseason over the last five seasons, when the most recent collective bargaining agreement kicked in.
That’s 38.3 percent of the 60 playoff teams over that span, which means a whopping 61.7 percent had a worse record that the Raiders do currently, and the only Super Bowl winners to start with fewer were the 2014 Patriots, and 2011 Giants.
How does Derek Carr feel about being 4-1?
“It’s nice, but the road still goes to Denver. They’re the Super Bowl champs, division champs. I will always pay respects to them because that’s what they’ve earned. We have earned absolutely nothing yet. We have earned four wins in five games, which is a great feeling. It’s a great feeling, trust me. Don’t twist that. It feels really nice, but we haven’t done anything yet.”
Here are the teams that have made the playoffs since 2011, and their records through the first five games:
Kansas City (1-4), Houston (1-4), Pittsburgh (3-2), Minnesota (3-2), Washington (2-3), Seattle (2-3) and Arizona (4-1). Denver^, Green Bay, Carolina, and New England were undefeated after five weeks.
New England^ (3-2), Pittsburgh (3-2), Cincinnati (3-1-1), Baltimore (3-2), Indianapolis (3-2), Denver (4-1), Arizona (4-1), Seattle (3-2), Carolina (3-2), Detroit (3-2), Green Bay (3-2), Dallas (4-1). No teams had a better record than 4-1.
San Diego (2-3), Indianapolis (4-1), Cincinnati (3-2), New England (4-1), San Francisco (3-2), Seattle^ (4-1), Carolina* (2-3), Green Bay* (3-2), Philadelphia (2-3).
Denver, Kansas City and New Orleans were undefeated.
Denver (2-3), Indianapolis* (2-3), Cincinnati (3-2), Baltimore^ (4-1), New England (3-2), Seattle (3-2), San Francisco (4-1), Minnesota (4-1), Green Bay (2-3), Washington (2-3).
Houston and Atlanta were undefeated.
San Francisco (4-1), Atlanta (2-3), New Orleans (4-1), New York Giants^ (3-2), Houston (3-2), Cincinnati (3-2), Pittsburgh (3-2), Baltimore (4-1), New England (4-1), Denver (1-4).
Detroit and Green Bay were undefeated.
*Bye Week in weeks 4 or 5, ^Super Bowl champion
The list adds to the case that the Raiders are a legitimate hopeful to make the postseason, though their division is the toughest in the NFL.
The Broncos are also 4-1 after taking their first loss of the year. Rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch couldn’t get the offense going against a porous Atlanta defense, and Denver’s defense was also lackluster while facing the Falcons’ elite offense.
Reggie Nelson said:
“As long as we keep winning, it’s good for us. I can’t worry about the Broncos until they show up on our schedule, so my focus right now is on the Kansas City Chiefs and try to get this next division win.”
Kansas City is currently 2-2, and had a Week 5 bye. The Raiders are tied for the best record in the AFC, and the league’s only remaining undefeated team is Minnesota.
Oakland’s defense was supposed to be elite, and are growing as a unit, but not where they should be. Of their four wins, three came by only a field goal.
Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers went deep on the Raiders early and often, and helped showcase Oakland’s growth when an errant pass was picked off by cornerback Sean Smith, and returned for 27 yards.
That interception didn’t deter Rivers, though, as he kept the downfield attack going, with mixed results. Smith said:
“Rivers is Rivers. He comes out and competes. He did that. He did a great job of recognizing coverages and making the proper adjustments. Gotta give those guys credit, man, they went out and played their tails off. But we still have to come out and do what we got to do.”
Like many who evaluated the Raiders roster in the offseason, Smith thinks the defense has vastly underachieved, saying:
“I feel like we should have won this game easily, especially with the talent we have on defense. It shouldn’t have been close. But if you don’t use proper technique, or have a lapse here or there, you let somebody that shouldn’t be in the game, stay in the game.”
Oakland’s defense allowed 431 yards of total offense, with 359 yards coming through the air. And though Rivers threw two picks, he also threw four touchdowns — Sunday was the fourth time this season that an opposing team gained over 400 yards.
Three things have held the Raiders from dominance so far this season: their inability to stop their opponent from aerial success, a lackluster 3rd down percentage, and some untimely penalties.
Rookie Karl Joseph recorded his first career interception on Sunday, though, and Oakland limited the big plays on defense, and committed only one notable penalty. The growth is there. Just not finished product.
So, what exactly is wrong?
Mack has been held, triple-teamed or grabbed by the facemasks on somewhere around 90 percent of plays this year, and though officials can’t throw their flags on every down, they have certainly gone full bore into keeping their laundry inside their laundry.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Raiders haven’t already sent in video and complaints to Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, including the 100 or so flagrant penalties that crews have not called when Mack is rushing.
Winning football teams can’t point to the officiating as the reason why they lost a game, and the Raiders have only one loss. But there’s also a point where the egregiously illegal holds that Mack battles through need to be flagged.
One pillar of officiating is to not interfere with the outcome of a game. By not flagging tackles, guards, and running backs who are sent to pass protect against Mack, the referees are affecting the outcome of the games.
Soooooooooooo many blatant, trash holding calls on The Chargers not called. I mean seriously. It's bad.
— Darren Carr (@DCarr75) October 9, 2016
What makes matters worse for Oakland, though, is that all of their games have been decided by one score this season.
That’s not far from typical in the NFL, but that’s why officials need to call it. And that’s what could be a major struggle for Oakland, a team whose secondary has been underwhelming, and whose inability to cover tight ends has been incredibly damaging.
Next up for the Raiders are the Kansas City Chiefs, fresh off a bye and with running back Jamaal Charles moving at full speed after an ACL tear preemptively ended his 2015 season.
When all is done, the Chiefs might be the toughest opponent in the division for the Raiders — they have weapons, a strong defense, and veteran savvy.
They also have a young stud cornerback, Marcus Peters, who has quickly become one of the best corners in the league. It’s tough to predict who he’ll cover for the bulk of the game, but it’s a safe bet that throwing into his coverage won’t happen a lot.
Then again, the last time Derek Carr faced Darrelle Revis, one of the best corners in football history, he threw for 333 yards and four touchdowns. Carr hooked up with Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper 12 times on 21 attempts, and recorded a 130.9 quarterback rating.
They also face the Jaguars and Buccaneers in consecutive road games after hosting Kansas City.
Oakland has beat Jacksonville both times the two teams have faced off, in 2012 and 2013, though both teams are dramatically different that they are currently. Jacksonville’s passing attack, despite a stellar 2015 season, has regressed to mediocrity and their running game is equally troublesome.
Tampa is on the other end of the spectrum, with a semi-mobile quarterback, excellent rushing game, and wide out Mike Evans — who can high-point catches with the best receivers.
The difference between the 2016 Raiders so far, and the 2015 Raiders, is the ability to win close games. They lost five games by a touchdown or less last season. They also won five such tests.
So far this season, they have won four by a touchdown or less, and lost one.
That’s mildly troubling on its own — some growing pains were to be expected, but it’s fair to question if the offense can keep such a rabid pace — but a win is a win is a win.
The segment above, which explains some of Mack’s impact, or lack thereof, is important because there’s got to be a point where officials toss yellow nylon like cops serving a search warrant.
Mack recorded five of his 15 sacks last season against the Broncos, late in the year. They had a weak offensive line. And so do the Chiefs. It wouldn’t be shocking for Mack to record 80 percent of his sacks this season in division games.
He didn’t record one against the Chargers, and though he got mauled in every way, he was able to fight through a lot of that in 2015. Making the situation even more unique.
There has been a lot of talk that Derek Carr is on an MVP pace. He’s on target to throw for 4,425 yards, 35 touchdowns, and six interceptions.
That’s extremely efficient, and is what has allowed the team to win despite the defensive struggles — though the Raiders have 10 takeaways on the season now, which sets a 32 turnover pace for opponents — but that will be hard to maintain.
Carr has yet to face an elite defense, and will twice this season against Denver, and possibly at home against Carolina (if the Panthers secondary fix their issues).
Still, though, his yardage totals aren’t far shy from Drew Brees‘ torrid 2015 campaign (4,870 passing yards) and Carr is on pace to throw more touchdowns and half the interceptions.
So the talk is warranted, and there’s plenty of references to back it up. But the season is young. And the injuries are starting to hit. Pump the brakes, if only just a little bit.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Raiders football.