DENVER — There were under two minutes remaining in a football game the Raiders had led all Sunday, under two minutes until they could depart with a road victory over a division rival, and this was the scene along their defensive line:
On one side, veteran end Bruce Irvin bent at the waist, hands on his knees, his chest expanding with each breath.
On the other, rookie end Arden Key bent at the waist, arms hanging downward, his chest expanding with each breath, dropping to his knees with each stoppage.
“It was brutal for me, this being my first time in these elements,” Key said. “The veterans warned me about playing (in altitude) beforehand.
“But, hey, we have to keep pushing on.”
But, hey, they’re not getting much push at all.
Now at 0-2 to start the season following a 20-19 loss to Denver before an announced sea of 75,173 orange faithful at Broncos Stadium at Mile High, the Raiders are under some serious pressure to fix a glaring weakness or watch other AFC West teams create even more distance in the standings.
Which isn’t good news, given they can’t apply any to opposing quarterbacks.
I know, it’s a layup. It’s candy to a baby. It’s thanking someone for a good deed.
But until things get a whole lot better up front defensively, the shadow of Khalil Mack will hover above this line.
It’s obvious who the Raiders were missing most Sunday.
The guy who lives in Chicago.
For a second straight week, the Raiders wilted over the final 30 minutes, and yet while the lack of pressure wasn’t to the level of Rams quarterback Jared Goff being protected better than the Queen’s guards do the palace, Case Keenum had ample time to rally Denver from a 12-0 halftime deficit.
His game-winning drive — 10 plays, 62 yards in 1:52 that resulted in a 36-yard field goal with six seconds remaining — was aided just as much by those bent knees and expanding chests as it was Keenum’s timely throws.
Irvin had the Raiders’ lone sack in a 33-13 loss to the Rams and rookie tackle Maurice Hurst the only one Sunday, when Keenum over the second half completed 14-of-24 for 184 yards.
Mix things up?
“We’ve got to do something,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said when asked how his team can create more of a pass rush. “We’ve got to get there. We’ve got to win some of those one-on-one battles and maybe call up some more blitzes. We’ve got to figure something out, and we will.
“Everybody was gassed. Their guys, our guys, everybody’s guys. That’s part of this league. It comes down to conditioning. It comes down to all of that, especially at the end of games.”
Key suggested the Raiders mix things up, perhaps call more of those blitzes Gruden mentioned, not rush straight ahead as much, maybe offer a few gimmicks within first-year coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme.
More likely, it comes down to this: Guys need to be developed.
It’s that simple, which can make things that frustrating.
Of those defensive linemen that played for the Raiders on Sunday, three are rookies and one a second-year pro. So you get them as good as they can be this season and look hard at the 2019 draft, in which the team has two first-round picks.
But the 2018 version of these Raiders could go south fast if some level of pressure doesn’t begin to materialize, because while the talent level of starting quarterbacks might vary from team to team, most will make a defense pay at some point if never made uncomfortable in the pocket.
Well, maybe not anyone in Buffalo, but you get the point.
“It’s the NFL and if you stop someone in the first half, they’re going to adjust and do better in the second, which hats off to the Broncos for doing,” said Raiders linebacker Derrick Johnson. “But we have to find a way to win. That’s what good teams do. It’s not a panic moment for us, but there is a sense of urgency now.
“Bringing pressure is tricky. If you rush more than four, you leave things open on the back end. Whatever you do, you have to do at a high level. If we stay together, this will turn for us. If we don’t, things will get bad.”
If they don’t find a way to reach the quarterback more, the latter is inevitable.
No pressure, no diamonds?
Try no pressure, no winning.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.