LAS VEGAS — There’s no questioning the Las Vegas Raiders’ effort. Every week since interim head coach Antonio Pierce took over last month, they’ve shown up energized, ready to compete and willing to fight until the end regardless of the opponent they face.
That’s a sign that Pierce has instilled a positive culture to which players and coaches alike have responded well. That tangible shift from the previous regime has given the Raiders renewed confidence in their ability to perform.
In the NFL, though, that’s not enough to consistently overcome a talent-deficient roster. That issue was on display as the Raiders blew a 14-point lead in their 31-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
“You knew, at some point, the world champs and Patrick (Mahomes) and those guys were going to start making plays,” Pierce said. “As the game went on for four quarters, they became the better team.”
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Pierce spoke the truth. The reality is the Chiefs are a Super Bowl-caliber team, while the Raiders simply aren’t that good. But that doesn’t absolve the Raiders for collapsing the way they did.
The Raiders have enough pieces — Maxx Crosby, Davante Adams and Josh Jacobs, among others — to be competitive, but they’re lacking in several key areas. With that in mind, Pierce and his coaching staff can’t afford to be conservative.
In each of the last two weeks, the Raiders’ reluctance to be assertive has cost them dearly. They had legitimate chances to upset two superior opponents, the Chiefs and Miami Dolphins, and left both games with losses. In both cases, their inability to keep their foot on the gas offensively was a major factor in their downfall.
It has come in sharp juxtaposition to how the Pierce-led staff approached its first two games against the New York Giants and Jets. They were fearless in how they managed and called those games — and it paid dividends.
Since then, the aggressive approach has evaporated. Trailing 14-10 against Miami last week, the Raiders got the ball with 2:28 remaining in the second quarter. Instead of trying to score, they ran the ball three times in a row and punted. They quickly got it back after the defense recovered a fumble at the Dolphins’ 32-yard line. They had 58 seconds left and two timeouts remaining but didn’t even try to score a touchdown and settled for a field goal. They proceeded to get held scoreless for the rest of the game and lost 20-13.
In loss to Dolphins, Raiders let prime upset opportunity slip through their grasp
Pierce and interim offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree explained that, against the Dolphins, they were attempting to protect rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell at the end of the first half. That lack of confidence, however, only holds O’Connell back. He’ll make some mistakes, yes. But they have to let him — and the offense collectively — play more freely.
Early against the Chiefs, they had a window to do the same. O’Connell was excellent to start the game and led the Raiders to the first opening-drive touchdown the Chiefs have allowed all season.
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) November 26, 2023
The Las Vegas defense forced a quick three-and-out, and O’Connell continued to cook. He completed six passes for 57 yards and drove the Raiders to the Chiefs’ 12-yard line. Overall, he was 10-of-11 passing for 114 yards.
Adams was marked short of the sticks on third down, so the Raiders faced a fourth-and-1. In that moment, there was no reason to doubt the offense’s ability to convert. Pierce and Hardegree, though, chose to settle for a field goal attempt. Daniel Carlson missed the 30-yard kick, but a field goal there — even if he’d made it — would’ve set a bad tone.
“You learn each and every week the things you would’ve done differently,” Pierce said when asked about the decision. “We were moving the ball, we were doing good and, listen, the defense just had two great stops. Let’s go ahead and get it up to 10-0, and we missed it. I’m not going to second-guess myself. We went into the game with a certain mindset that if we got the opportunity to put up points, let’s put up points.”
On their next drive, the Raiders pushed ahead 14-0 on a 63-yard touchdown run by Jacobs, but that reticence to go for it stuck with them. Later, coming off a Chiefs touchdown, the Raiders got tight.
After a first down and an O’Connell incompletion, the Raiders curiously handed it off to Zamir White on second-and-10. When they went for no gain, they basically gave up with a short dump-off pass to Ameer Abdullah on third down. The Chiefs got the ball back and struck for a quick touchdown to tie the score before halftime.
“You just can’t let a team like this even be close,” Pierce said. “It’s difficult when you have moments like that in a game where we’re missing opportunities.”
The Chiefs scored their third consecutive touchdown to start the third quarter and pushed ahead 21-14, but there was still time for the Raiders to punch back. Instead, they cued up a predictable run-run-pass sequence and punted it away.
The Las Vegas defense gave the offense another chance to redeem itself by forcing a three-and-out. The Raiders were set to break through after O’Connell hit Jakobi Meyers for a 33-yard gain to move the ball to the Chiefs’ 20-yard line. Once again, though, they faltered. After a short pass to Jacobs, a run that went nowhere and an incomplete pass in Adams’ direction, they found themselves settling for a field goal to make it 21-17. They were held scoreless in the fourth quarter and lost.
“You’ve got to sustain. You’ve got to continue to have intensity,” O’Connell said when asked about the Raiders’ aggressive approach falling off. “You can’t worry about what’s on the other side of the ball.”
The defense deserves plenty of blame — it gave up four touchdowns in five drives at one point — but the Raiders knew what the Chiefs were capable of offensively. That should’ve been consistently reflected in how the Raiders called the game, but it wasn’t. Being bold on offense doesn’t guarantee good results — getting stuffed on fourth-and-1 from their own 17-yard line in the fourth quarter is proof — but it’s better to go down swinging than to freeze up and crumble.
The Raiders (5-7) aren’t the type of team that can succeed by playing it safe. If they are going to have any chance of bouncing back after their Week 13 bye and making a push to salvage this season, Pierce and Hardegree have to be more aggressive. They have nothing to lose, and it’s time they start acting like it.
(Top photo of Antonio Pierce: Jeff Bottari / Getty Images)
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