Derek Carr, Maxx Crosby have Raiders thriving: A Las Vegas bye week progress report

HENDERSON, Nev. -- The Las Vegas Raiders are riding a two-game winning streak. They are 5-2, first place in the AFC West, would be the No. 2 seed in the AFC if the playoffs began today and, well, they have momentum on their side.

All this after enduring the ugliness that enveloped the team in the wake of Jon Gruden's abrupt resignation on Oct. 11 in the wake of his email controversy.

So is this actually a bad time for the Raiders to enjoy their bye week?

"Yeah, I would say it's a good time for us," countered quarterback Derek Carr, referencing how fast everything has happened over the past two weeks.

"I think with the injuries, with everything our team has been through, this bye week couldn't come at a better time ... we've got to get healthy this week. It's not just a week off where we just lay on the couch -- guys have to work to get healthy, guys have to work to get better. We do that and take care of business that way, we should be able to go on a run, take care of business when it comes."

While it is the third straight season the Raiders enter their bye week over .500 (they were 3-2 in both 2020 and 2019), their current record of 5-2 is their best mark at their break since being 7-2 in 2016. That's also the last time the Raiders went to the playoffs.

"This is the time they gave us for the bye week, so we're going to do exactly what we need to do to get ourselves prepared for the next game," said interim coach Rich Bisaccia, referencing a road trip to the New York Giants on Nov. 7.

"The message for the bye week for the players is get rest, be really smart and run. What they do when they're alone is really going to show up the most when we come back together. They understand the schedule for when they come back next Monday and what it's going to look like when they start practice again on Wednesday."

Las Vegas arriving at its bye at 5-2 -- after a short week, a cross-country trip to Pittsburgh and weathering the Gruden storm -- is cause to pause for reflection. As well as a reason to issue a progress report for all involved ...

Offense

The Raiders begin and end with Carr, who, after a two-game dip, is again playing at a sublime level. Or did you miss him completing 91.2% of his passes (31 of 34) against the Philadelphia Eagles, the second-best such completion rate in a game for a QB attempting at least 30 passes in NFL history? But without a rebuilt offensive line, often held together by duct tape and prayer, giving him time to make plays, none of it would matter, right?

So first-round draft pick Alex Leatherwood being moved from right tackle to right guard in Week 5 might have stung at first, but maybe that was the right move ... for the time. And left guard Richie Incognito, who has not practiced since injuring his right calf in a joint practice with the Los Angeles Rams on Aug. 19, could be on his way back. Left tackle Kolton Miller is quietly putting together a Pro Bowl-type season while young receivers Henry Ruggs III (all four of his career TDs have been at least 46 yards) and Bryan Edwards (19.2 yards per catch) are maturing with every snap. Hunter "Third-and-" Renfrow (a team-high 38 catches) is as dependable as it comes for Carr.

The Raiders' two Pro Bowlers from last season are scuffling a tad and will use the break to heal as tight end Darren Waller (33 catches, 378 yards, 2 TDs) injured an ankle late in practice on Friday and running back Josh Jacobs (204 rushing yards on 60 carries but 5 TDs) suffered a chest contusion against Philadelphia. Waller, who set a franchise record with 107 catches in 2020, is on pace for 75 catches and Jacobs, who has authored a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons to begin his NFL career, is on pace for ... 495 rushing yards. Yikes.

Enter Kenyan Drake, left on the scrap heap under Gruden. Carr and new playcaller/offensive coordinator Greg Olson have found new and exciting uses for the dual-threat running back, who has three TDs in the last two games. Carr, though, is key. And there is something strangely familiar in how Carr, who is on pace to pass for a mind-boggling 5,510 yards and 29 TDs (granted, in 17 games) has responded on the field with Gruden's departure.

Many longtime observers saw how Rich Gannon played his way to league MVP honors the year after Gruden was traded to Tampa Bay in 2002, what with the keys to the offense being turned over to Gannon by a new coach and OC in Bill Callahan and Marc Trestman. Paging Bisaccia and Olson.

"When Coach Gruden would walk a room, all eyes are on him," Carr said. "When we lost that, someone has to fill that void. It's not only me, but obviously as the quarterback and leader and I've been here awhile, I was like, 'I got to take that part of what I do to another level' ... I'm just trying to do everything I can to encourage, uplift and motivate the guys to keep going in every situation."

Progress report standing: Keep up the good work, and have fun!

Defense

Gus Bradley for NFL assistant coach of the year, with a shout out to secondary coach Ron Milus! Too much? Not enough. Not when you recall how atrocious the Raiders defense was last season in turning wins into losses against the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers and Miami Dolphins, changing a possible 11-5 record into an 8-8 mark.

The Raiders defense has been playing out of its minds for about ¾ of the season thus far, mirroring what it's been doing in the first three quarters of games. Defensive end Maxx Crosby is leading the NFL in QB hits (19) and pressures (40) and has a team-high five sacks. Is it too soon to start throwing his name around for NFL defensive player of the year consideration? Stay tuned. His running mate, Yannick Ngakoue, is coming off his best game as a Raider, with two sacks and two passes defensed against the Eagles, while the interior of the D-line is also causing problems with Solomon Thomas (2.5 sacks), Darius Philon (2.0) and Quinton Jefferson (2.0).

Training camp injuries to Nicholas Morrow and Javin White actually helped the Raiders get better at linebacker, as they acquired Denzel Perryman (a league-high 81 tackles) and K.J. Wright, but the major improvement has been in the secondary.

Rookie Nate Hobbs has been a revelation in the slot while veteran free-agent signee cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. has been playing at an All-Pro level. He turned the first reception he surrendered this season into a safety in Week 3. Meanwhile, recent cornerback signee Brandon Facyson has helped ease the losses to injury of starter Trayvon Mullen and former first-rounder Damon Arnette. Second-rounder Tre'von Moehrig is an old soul at center field and fellow safety Johnathan Abram has slowed down a bit and is playing his best football yet. Mullen, Moehrig, Abram and Facyson all have one interception for the Raiders.

The defense was dominant in recent wins against the Broncos and Eagles, even with the garbage-time points surrendered. A No. 13-ranked total defense at the bye is nice, but it also leaves room for improvement. Pressure and coverage work hand in hand, so if the Raiders' front four can continue to affect the QB, the secondary can feast ... and vice versa. Obviously.

Progress report standing: Better than expected. Impressive. Keep it up.

Special teams

Am I the only one bothered more by Daniel Carlson missing two PATs than I am impressed by him converting three of his four field-goal attempts from at least 50 yards, including a clutch career-long 55-yarder to send the opener against the Baltimore Ravens into overtime? Yes? So be it. Carlson was tied for the league’s scoring lead last season with 144 points and much of that was because of the Raiders' red zone struggles. Las Vegas doesn't need him to do that again, because the Raiders would prefer TDs.

AJ Cole, meanwhile, is averaging an NFL-high 52.6 yards per punt, with a long of 71 yards in Denver, and a net of 44.3 yards, which is second in the league. And the man behind the curtain, long snapper Trent Sieg, is blissfully anonymous. Perfect.

Progress report standing: Good work. Keep it up, but don't lose focus.