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Raiders’ offensive problems start on early downs

The Raiders have faced a season-long struggle to unlock an offense that appeared to be among the NFL’s best at the start of the season.

Despite having one of the league’s best running backs (Josh Jacobs) and wide receivers (Davante Adams) and talented complementary pieces in receivers Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Renfrow and tight end Michael Mayer, the Raiders rank 26th in scoring at 16.8 points per game and have cracked the 20-point threshold just once. The result is a 5-6 record.

The problem is multilayered, beginning with a collective quarterback performance from Jimmy Garoppolo, Aidan O’Connell and Brian Hoyer that ranks among the worst in the league and the second-worst rushing attack.

The numbers have improved slightly since Antonio Pierce took over coaching duties from Josh McDaniels and Bo Hardegree assumed the offensive coordinator job. But the 19.6 ppg the Raiders have averaged in the past three games is still out of the top 20, and since hanging 30 points on the Giants three weeks ago, they slipped to 16 against the Jets and 13 against the Dolphins.

Finding answers to the problems has been an elusive proposition, but the Raiders can provide immediate help to themselves by doing better on early downs.

The Raiders’ 4.7 yards per play on first down ranks 29th, and their 5.2 yards on second down is 16th. Their inability to produce more yards on those downs creates far too many unfavorable issues on third down, and they compound that by producing the league’s 29th-best yards per play average on third down at 3.9.

No surprise that their third-down conversion rate of 32.58 ranks 29th or that the 17.1 first downs they average per game is 28th.

“(We need to help) ourselves out on first and second down and not being behind the sticks,” said O’Connell, who took over for Garoppolo as the starting quarterback three weeks ago.

“Second and long is hard to play from. Trying to stay ahead of the sticks and manage the game better is something I’m trying to do, trying to learn just how to put ourselves in good situations.”

The Raiders have done better on early downs since the coaching change, especially on second down, when their average has jumped from 4.5 yards per play under McDaniels (25th in the NFL) to 6.9 yards under Hardegree, which ranks third.

The problem is — this was particularly true in the loss to the Dolphins on Sunday — the Raiders fell to 3.1 yards per play on third down. As a result, they converted just 4 of 14 third-down plays into first downs and finished with 12 first downs to the Dolphins’ 21.

It also didn’t help that penalties wiped away two positive first-down plays. Dylan Parham’s holding call negated a 7-yard run by Jacobs on the Raiders’ second offensive play, resulting in a first and 20 yards from their 32 rather than a second and 3 from their 49. Later, an offensive pass interference call on Mayer pushed the Raiders to the Dolphins’ 25, where they faced first and 20 rather than second and 7 from the 11.

In each case, the Raiders could not overcome the penalties and failed to pick up a first down.

The Raiders have done an admirable job cutting down their penalties, but in Sunday’s case, the timing of the ones they did commit proved costly.

“We want to keep it at three and under,” Pierce said. “But when it happens, especially on the explosive plays, that’s tough, and that obviously extended drives for the offense or defense.”

It also eventually led to problematic third and longs. And for a team that averages the 29th fewest yards on third down, that is a big issue.

“Third down, those are hard downs to win,” O’Connell said. “The pressure is amped up, and execution is at a premium.”

One thing the Raiders could look to do is throw more on first down. Their 50.5 run rate percentage on first down ranks 17th. Teams always look for balance, but the Raiders are averaging 3.9 yards per run compared with 6.7 yards per pass.

“Simply put, the more you can make big plays makes it a lot less third downs you got to convert,” Adams said. “It’s just a lot less room for error.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on X.

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