LAS VEGAS — Predictably, most of the Las Vegas Raiders’ starters didn’t play in their preseason opener against the 49ers on Sunday. Those players saw plenty of action across two joint practices with San Francisco earlier this week, so they opted to give the depth of the roster some run.
Considering the Raiders have such a young roster — 45 players on the team have three or fewer years of NFL experience — there was still a lot to glean from the contest. Here are five takeaways from the Raiders’ 34-7 preseason win over the 49ers.
1. Aidan O’Connell played well in his first significant action
O’Connell has been the team’s third quarterback through OTAs and training camp, but he got the start over Brian Hoyer on Sunday. He took advantage of his opportunity, completing 15 of 18 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. And considering two of his three incompletions were on-target drops, he was even more accurate than his stat line indicates.
“Brian and (starter) Jimmy (Garoppolo) really got a lot of work this week,” coach Josh McDaniels said when asked about O’Connell getting the start. “This was really the vision that I had to try to get those guys a lot of work in practice against some guys that probably weren’t going to play on their side of the ball in the game, and then let Aidan have an opportunity to experience this for the first time. …
“I thought he generally handled himself well for the first opportunity. He’s going to learn a lot from some of the things that we might’ve been able to do a little bit better that would’ve helped us maybe sustain a few drives, but that’s why he was in here.”
In addition to most of his passes being on the money, the rookie quarterback also got the ball out quickly, navigated the pocket well and didn’t show any signs of being flustered when pressured. He took just one sack — left tackle Justin Herron was beaten on a play-action pass — and didn’t commit any turnovers.
“There’s still a long way to go,” O’Connell said of his play. “It’s a preseason game, so it’s somewhat abbreviated. It was a good first time, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Yes, O’Connell was largely going against the 49ers’ backup defense, but he was also playing mostly with the Raiders’ second-string offense. However you look at it, the rookie was impressive.
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) August 13, 2023
2. Zamir White had a heavy workload in an up-and-down performance
With running back Josh Jacobs still away from the team, White has been taking the first-string running back snaps for several months. Still, Sunday’s contest was significant in that it was his first sustained action with live contact since last preseason. Even with Jacobs’ status up in the air, the Raiders coaching staff didn’t hold White back.
White took 13 carries for 43 yards and one touchdown on his three offensive series. The offense essentially ran through him on the opening drive as he took seven carries for 28 yards and a score.
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) August 13, 2023
After the strong start, though, White hit a lull and gained just 15 yards across his next six carries. On his final play of the game, he was stuffed for a loss while trying to run up the middle on fourth-and-1. Altogether, he averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and wasn’t targeted as a receiver.
“I felt great,” White said. “(I performed) all right, but we could’ve done better.”
White was running behind an offensive line with two backups in Herron and center Hroniss Grasu, so take his numbers with a grain of salt. Still, the difference between him and Jacobs is clear. White is a bigger and more powerful runner, but he’s also stiffer, slower, less evasive and more limited in the passing game. That doesn’t mean he’s not a starting-caliber back, but there will be a significant drop-off if Jacobs doesn’t return this season.
3. The pass rush and secondary impressed
The defensive line set the tone early with defensive tackle John Jenkins sacking 49ers quarterback Trey Lance on the first play of the game. Then, Isaac Rochell and Jordan Willis combined for another sack two plays later to force a punt. Defensive tackle Adam Butler ended another drive with a third-down sack late in the first quarter. And in the second quarter, linebacker Amari Burney notched the Raiders’ fourth sack of the half on a blitz.
“We’ve just been feeding off each other, man,” Jenkins said. “Training camp is all about building that bond and that brotherhood and being able to rely on one another. So once you accomplish that, then you just go out there and let it rip.”
Besides the sacks, the Raiders were consistently pressuring Lance and forcing him into quick decisions. Las Vegas started a D-line of all backups in defensive end Malcolm Koonce, defensive tackle Byron Young, Jenkins and Willis, which makes the havoc they wreaked even more impressive.
“It just shows there’s a lot of competition, right?” Rochell said. “Not every NFL team is like that. … It’s just a testament to the depth and the good players in this room.”
Although the Raiders’ defensive front deserves credit for getting the better of the 49ers’ O-line, it also benefited from sticky coverage downfield. Jakorian Bennett and Duke Shelley started at cornerback, Amik Robertson was at nickelback and Roderic Teamer and Jaquan Johnson started at safety. They didn’t make any plays on the ball, but they were disciplined, played tight coverage and didn’t have many significant breakdowns. With the pass rush and secondary working in unison, the Raiders defense forced stops on five of six possessions in the first half.
“That’s what we’re looking for this year, man: the pass rush getting to the quarterback and forcing some bad throws,” Robertson said. “That and tight coverage is always going to be successful.”
The Raiders went to their next line of reserves to start the second half, but life didn’t get any easier for the 49ers. San Francisco quarterback Sam Darnold, who replaced Lance, struggled and didn’t manage to engineer any scoring drives. Linebacker Curtis Bolton forced a fumble, cornerback Sam Webb picked off a pass and both turnovers led to Las Vegas touchdowns. Overall, the Raiders defense was dominant.
4. Tre Tucker has to shore up his drops
Tucker’s talent is clear. The rookie out of Cincinnati is fast and a smooth route runner. He can line up both inside and outside, has explosive athleticism and is elusive with the ball in his hands. That combination could make him a useful rotational receiver right away.
But Tucker has been plagued by drops since OTAs. His receiving has improved in training camp, but the preseason opener represented a setback.
On the Raiders’ opening possession, Tucker made a 15-yard catch to convert a third-and-1 and kept what became a touchdown drive going. On the following possession, however, he dropped an easy catch on a slant on third-and-7. Later, on a third-and-1 on the team’s fourth possession, Tucker sped past his man, got open on a go route and O’Connell threw him a catchable pass. Tucker left his feet to reach for the ball and got both hands on it, but it slipped through his grasp and hit the ground when he landed. It would’ve been a 34-yard gain, but it was ruled incomplete on review.
Both drops were learning moments for Tucker, who played the entire first half and finished with one catch on three targets. With the start of the regular season just under a month away, he has plenty of time to continue to progress.
5. The right side of the offensive line remains in flux
Greg Van Roten started at right guard and Jermaine Eluemunor got the start at right tackle. Thayer Munford initially worked as the jumbo tight end before replacing Eluemunor on the third series of the game. Interestingly, Alex Bars was fully suited up but didn’t play. Bars has been competing with Van Roten for the starting right guard job, but it was Jordan Meredith who replaced Van Roten late in the first quarter. Bars is listed as the starting right guard on the unofficial depth chart, but it feels unlikely that he has already locked up that job over Van Roten. That’ll be something to monitor in the joint practices and preseason game with the Rams this week.
In terms of performance, Eluemunor, Van Roten and Munford all played well. They left room for improvement in the run game, but they didn’t give up any sacks and rarely allowed pressure. It’s hard to say where Bars stands in his competition with Van Roten since only the latter played, but there isn’t much separating Eluemunor and Munford.
• The Raiders had 10 players on the active roster who didn’t dress Sunday: running back Brittain Brown, receivers Davante Adams, Hunter Renfrow and Chris Lacy, tight ends Michael Mayer and Jesper Horsted, offensive tackle Brandon Parker, defensive end Chandler Jones and cornerbacks David Long Jr. and Brandon Facyson.
Adams suffered a leg injury that forced him to leave practice early Friday. When he walked onto the field at Allegiant Stadium wearing street clothes, he had a sleeve on his right leg. He wouldn’t have played Sunday even if he were healthy, and the undisclosed injury is minor according to a league source, but it’s unclear when he’ll return to practice.
• Defensive end Tyree Wilson (foot) is still on the non-football injury list. There’s no set timeline for his return, but the Raiders don’t expect their 2023 first-round pick to be out much longer.
• Left guard Dylan Parham, who was one of the few projected starters to play Sunday, was shaken up early in the second quarter. He stayed down on one knee for several moments while being attended to by the training staff. He eventually got to his feet and walked off the field under his own power but appeared to be dazed. He went into the injury tent before going to the locker room. He wasn’t on the sideline again for the rest of the game.
• The following players dressed and warmed up but didn’t play: quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back Brandon Bolden, fullback Jakob Johnson, receivers DeAndre Carter and Jakobi Meyers, center Andre James, the aforementioned Bars, offensive tackle Kolton Miller, defensive tackles Jerry Tillery and Bilal Nichols, defensive end Maxx Crosby, linebackers Divine Deablo and Robert Spillane, cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Nate Hobbs and safeties Marcus Epps and Tre’von Moehrig.
(Top photo of Aidan O’Connell: Ian Maule / Getty Images)
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