GLENDALE, Ariz. — A rookie left tackle and rookie right tackle, both of whom briefly exited Sunday with injuries, stood in protection. Two rookie wide receivers, both making their NFL debuts, ran routes against two-deep coverage as the Raiders scrambled with no timeouts late in the fourth quarter.
Marcell Ateman, a seventh-round pick, had the matchup he desired.
“No. 23 can’t cover me,” he told teammates earlier.
Ateman ran a “go” route that hugged the home sideline to avoid the nearest safety. True to his word, he sprinted past Arizona Cardinals cornerback Bene’ Benwikere on a pass that Raiders quarterback Derek Carr dropped in stride for a 32-yard gain.
This set up a game-winning field goal.
Rookie long snapper. Rookie holder. Rookie kicker.
“That was actually my first real game-winner,” kicker Daniel Carlson said. “It was everything I dreamed of.”
The Raiders relied on their youth to overcome their recurring experience with adversity. Carlson converted a 35-yard field goal as time expired, sending teammates sprinting to celebrate a 23-21 win at State Farm Stadium that damaged the 2019 draft outlook but healed recent wounds.
This was a long time coming.
Not since Sept. 30 had the Raiders won, a 45-42 overtime result over the Cleveland Browns. The seven weeks since had seen the club trade Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper during a practice, heard players gripe about roles, and altogether felt — between injuries, bad football and even reports of locker-room dysfunction — that no respite would come in 2018.
Such hits seemed to reach a new height.
Due to poor air quality in the Bay Area amid the deadliest wildfire in California history, the team canceled its Thursday and Friday practices. Those sessions were switched to indoor walkthroughs at a converted ice rink whose field featured no football hash marks, no numbers and no goal posts. Wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant also were unavailable Sunday because of knee injuries.
In the second quarter, running back Doug Martin exited with an ankle injury. In the third quarter, wide receiver Brandon LaFell exited with an Achilles’ tendon injury that the Raiders believe will end his season. On the same drive, left tackle Kolton Miller (knee) and right tackle Brandon Parker briefly exited.
“You look up at the skies and say, ‘When is it going to end?’” said Raiders coach Jon Gruden. “But we had so many guys step up today, from Marcell Ateman to (running backs) Jalen (Richard) and DeAndre (Washington). (Offensive tackle) David Sharpe came in and played some critical snaps for us. … We overcame a lot of adversity, maybe as much adversity as I’ve seen a team overcome with the injuries and lack of practice.
“I really credit our guys for finishing a football game and finding a way to win.”
The game itself was not pretty.
The Raiders entered 1-8, the Cardinals 2-7. At times, their reputations preceded themselves. In the third quarter, for example, Oakland committed false start penalties on third-and-1 and first-and-goal from the 2. It failed to convert a third-and-goal from the 1. Gruden afterward called the team’s short-yardage and goal-line offense “a tragedy.”
Late in the second quarter, the offense struggled with communication and substitutions. It called consecutive timeouts, the second of which was prohibited and resulted in a 5-yard penalty.
But the team overcame.
In the process, 12 of the Raiders’ 46 players in uniform were rookies. They were part of a raucous celebration in the locker room during which Gruden presented game balls to Ateman, Carlson and defensive end Frostee Rucker, a co-captain and ex-Cardinal who’s served as a mentor to rookie defenders.
“We gained a lot of experience from this one game,” Carlson said. “We learn a lot from mistakes, but something like this builds confidence, I think, for a lot of us younger guys. … I think this is going to be a good stepping stone for the future.”