Downing will make subtle changes to Raiders offense, looking for greater efficiency

Downing will make subtle changes to Raiders offense, looking for greater efficiency

New Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing  has been given the keys to a Corvette, not a clunker.

He understands that fact. That’s why he won’t start from scratch in his first season running the show.

He doesn't see a reason to change much from a Raiders attack that scored 26 points per game last season and was productive on the ground and through the air.

“I believe in efficiency. And if we’re efficient in a concept, I am not going to go changing it just for change’s sake," Downing said Wednesday afternoon in a conference call. "If we’re inefficient or we failed to live up to expectations in a certain concept, then I am going to figure out a way to tinker with it and make it work. If I can’t make it work, we simply won’t do it anymore.”

Downing is currently evaluating what worked in 2016, and what didn’t. He’ll search for ways to improve a talented unit without losing the continuity key to offensive progress with a personnel group expected to remain largely the same heading into the 2017 season.

Franchise quarterback Derek Carr and a hulking offensive line led last year’s efforts and will do so again next season. Carr will continue having freedom at the line of scrimmage and will have input in the game plan. Downing says there will be differences from last year’s offense, but they won’t be major.

“It will be very subtle,” Downing said. “We’re going to keep the same system terminology. There’s no reason to change any of that stuff. All we’re doing right now is finding the ways that we can all individually do our jobs better, prepare our positions better and how we can just quarter turn a couple things to make the offense as efficient as possible.”

Efficiency doesn’t always mean high yards per play. At times it’s about getting first downs and vital yards, areas where head coach Jack Del Rio was critical of his offense. He wanted to play “big boy ball” at times, using old school tactics in the run game to pick up important yards.

The running game was productive as a whole with 120 yards per game, but it could be consistently better and Downing said it might need some tweaks.

Del Rio thought his offensive staff needed some tweaks as well. That's why he let Bill Musgrave leave on an expired contract. He wanted to keep Downing in silver and black, especially as his young offensive mind drew interest from other clubs. Downing had a year left on his contract, which included a clause allowing him to interview for offensive coordinator jobs outside the organization. 

The Raiders didn't want Downing to leave, especially considering his strong relationship with Carr. Del Rio made a switch shortly after a playoff loss at Houston that caught some off guard. 

"I wouldn’t characterize it as a surprise because I’m ready for anything that comes my way in this profession, but I was looking forward to the opportunity to run an offense somewhere in the NFL in 2017," Downing said. "I just feel really fortunate that Coach Del Rio has the trust in me, moving forward, to have that opportunity be here.”

 

Downing’s transition from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator has been smooth thus far. The offensive staff remains intact save Musgrave – he’s now Denver’s quarterbacks coach – which has helped Downing hit the offseason evaluation hard.

“It’s an incredible blessing to have my first opportunity come this way,” Downing said. “I know everyone on the staff very well. I know how to communicate with them and what makes them tick, which gives me a great head start in that vein. We’re going through offseason cut-ups from last year, and we’ll able to have real and honest conversations about that without them feeling like I’m taking shots at their position. They know I was in the trenches with them.”

Scott Linehan isn’t in the trenches with Downing anymore, but his teachings certainly are. Dallas’ offensive coordinator was Downing’s mentor during stints in Minnesota and Detroit, and helped shape his philosophy in regard to game planning and play calling.

“He’s really my mentor in this profession,” Downing said. “He raised me, taught me how to coach quarterbacks. He taught me how to put together a game plan, so I certainly will use a lot of what he taught me.

“I think what’s unique about the situation here is I’m not installing an offense from the ground up. There is already a system in place and there is a lot about this system, to use a phrase before, that’s not broke. So, there will be things that we do a little differently than I did in my time with Scott, but he certainly is probably the biggest shaping influence in terms of how I will play out as an offensive coordinator.”

Penn still haunted by only sack allowed in 2016; 'That play sticks with me'

Penn still haunted by only sack allowed in 2016; 'That play sticks with me'

Editor's Note: The above video is from Dec. 24, 2016.

Donald Penn was nothing short of awesome last season. The veteran Raiders left tackle proved impenetrable, allowing just one sack and 27 quarterback pressures in 676 pass-blocking snaps.

He ranked high among the NFL’s best left tackles at 33, engulfed a career renaissance that began after joining the Raiders three years ago. Penn made the Pro Bowl. He was a vital piece of a 12-4 team that helped the Raiders reach the playoffs.

He hasn’t reveled much in that. Penn’s driven by opportunities missed, and one mishap that haunts him still.

Penn locked horns with Indianapolis linebacker Trent Cole off the left edge during a Week 16 contest against the Colts, and slipped as he was tracking his man away from the pocket. Penn’s feet got tangled and the big man fell. Cole remained upright, darted in and sacked quarterback Derek Carr.

It was Penn’s only sack allowed all season. And Carr got hurt. He suffered a broken fibula that ended his season and realistic hopes of a Raiders playoff run.

Nearly five months have passed since that fluke play. Carr is healthy and a full participant in the Raiders offseason program. The Raiders offensive line might be better after allowing a league-low 18 sacks last season.

There’s plenty to be excited about as the Raiders enter OTAs and a mandatory minicamp. Penn can’t help but lament that isolated incident when Carr went down.

“You have to be an athlete. You try not to think about it too much,” Penn said Tuesday. “You wish you could go back and get it back. I’ve taken that same set I don’t know how many times, on the same field and never just slipped out of nowhere. I’m not going to put it on myself. I should have been able to do something better. You know me, I’m never going to blame the slip for happening. I should have blocked him and held on to him and taken him down with me. That play sticks with me.”

That isn’t all bad. It fuels Penn to continue growing as a player, even at 34 coming off an excellent Pro Bowl season.

“I’m going to try to do what I can do better and make sure it never happens again,” Penn said. “I’ve never gotten a quarterback hurt in my life since I’ve been playing. That was a first. That’s something I take pride in. I’m going to try my hardest to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Penn wants a different ending to this season. Last year the Raiders lost the AFC West crown and a shot to win the team’s first playoff game. Penn suffered a knee injury the following week that kept him from playing in the postseason.

The goal is to realize vast potential now that the Raiders offense is back healthy again.

“I’m all about karma and stuff like that,” Penn said. “Maybe (God is) trying to tell us that this is our year. We have to put in the work to get it. I know D.C. is happy, I’m dang sure happy to get him back. We’re growing and masterminding this offense trying to make it as explosive as possible.”

 

Raiders OTA observations: Conley, rookies must earn their stripes

Raiders OTA observations: Conley, rookies must earn their stripes

ALAMEDA – Rookies have been immersed in the Raiders system most of this month, but still have a lot to learn before training camp begins this summer.

There’s significant work ahead this spring during OTAs and mid-June’s mandatory minicamp, and young players will do so from the second and third teams. Even the highly touted ones.

First-round draft pick Gareon Conley played slot cornerback with the second unit and outside cornerback on the third during Tuesday’s OTA open to the media. It’s a position the slick, speedy cover man will vacate posthaste, but the Raiders prefer rookies earn their stripes.

“All of our young guys are going to earn their way,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “We have a good football team. We’re going to let them earn their way. We’ll let them compete. We’re early in the competition, so we’ll just go through the offseason and continue to get (Conley) involved and get him reps. These guys will ascend and take their positions as they earn it. We’re really happy with the way he’s started.”

The Raiders didn’t feature a single rookie on their first units Tuesday. Second-round safety Obi Melifonwu, fourth-round offensive tackle David Sharpe and middle linebacker Marquel Lee were featured on the second unit.

Here are some other observations from Tuesday’s OTA sessions.

-- Del Rio said Marshall Newhouse had the inside track to be the team’s starting right tackle. The versatile veteran worked there with the first team, joining a front five otherwise intact from a season ago.

-- Second-year pro Connor Cook, who switched from No. 8 to No. 18 this offseason, ran the second offensive unit. E.J. Manuel worked with the third team.

-- Inside linebacker Ben Heeney worked on a side field with a trainer during Tuesday’s practice, as he continues to rehab from surgery to repair an ankle broken early last season. Jelani Jenkins also did side work after practicing on Monday.

Cory James and Tyrell Adams worked with the first unit at inside linebacker.

-- Veteran running back Marshawn Lynch was limited to individual drills for a second straight day as the Raiders ease him back into football activity.

-- Offensive lineman Austin Howard is working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery, and only practice during individual drills.

-- Cornerback Sean Smith had offseason surgery, but was a full participant in Tuesday’s session.

-- Third-round defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes remains away from the Raiders complex due to an NFL rule preventing players from schools still in session to work with their teams. He won’t re-join the squad until training camp. Undrafted rookie Nicholas Morrow is in a similar spot, but will return next week.

-- Edge rusher Shilique Calhoun played last season at 250 pounds, but looks decidedly bigger now. He told the team website he’s up to 270 pounds.