There’s no doubt that Las Vegas Raiders players are enjoying life with interim head coach Antonio Pierce
There have been locker room victory cigars, and a general levity and lightness that wasn’t present during the brief and failed reign of head coach Josh McDaniels.
And on the field there have been two wins in two tries, a 30-6 pasting of the Giants in their first game post-McDaniels that marked the first time in 10 games the Raiders had scored more than 21 points, and a 16-12 field-goal fest against the Jets on Sunday night. Now 5-5, they’re up to second place in the AFC West and a half-game out of an AFC wild-card spot.
But at the risk of ticking off Raider Nation, let’s pump the brakes a bit. Just a touch.
It’s true that you can play only who’s on the schedule, but … those wins were against the Giants and Jets, who have six victories between them and aren’t exactly paragons of offensive prowess. The Giants have seemingly been sinking like a stone after last season’s surprising playoff win, and the Jets saw their season go down hard when Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles in the first quarter of their first game.
This week, with Las Vegas playing in Miami against the AFC East-leading Dolphins, will provide a far clearer picture of whether the Raiders are actually better under Pierce and new offensive playcaller Bo Hardegree.
Miami has its own issues, namely that it apparently can’t beat a team with a winning record, but the Dolphins are 4-0 at home and score a league-high 31.6 points a game.
Their losses are to the Bills (in early October, before Buffalo’s wheels started to fall off), the Eagles in Philadelphia and the Chiefs in Germany two weeks.
But they are fast.
“We’re getting our track shoes on,” Pierce said Wednesday. “We’re gonna have our hands full.”
Defensively, containing Tyreek Hill and Jalen Waddle is obviously job No. 1, but Pierce noted that Miami is good “across the board.”
His subtle changes in terms of preparation include helping the team adjust to the three-hour time difference it will experience playing on the East Coast for a 1 p.m. kickoff, which is 10 a.m. Vegas time. Pierce said practices this week will be held a little bit earlier each day, with it starting at 10 on Friday.
“Hopefully their body adjusts to the change. Other than that, we’re not talking about it. I mean, it doesn’t matter where the game is played, we’re gonna have to go play it,” Pierce said. “I’m being a homer, but when I was with the Giants, we won 11 straight on the road [their final seven on the road in 2007, three playoff games that season and the first road game of ’08]. We didn’t talk about it. We took our show on the road.
“Certain things travel: good defense and a run game. Just take it with you. Pack it up.”
The run game, which was almost non-existent at times under McDaniels, has come alive with Pierce and Hardegree thanks to a commitment to that aspect of offense. On Sunday night against the Jets, the Raiders had just 33 yards at halftime on 2.8 yards per carry. But they kept at it, feeding 2022 All-Pro Josh Jacobs 17 times in the second half, with Jacobs picking up 86 yards. He had 116 for the game, his first with over 100 yards since last year in Week 13.
A week earlier against the Giants, Jacobs had 98 yards on 26 carries.
Defensively, coordinator Patrick Graham’s group limited the Giants and Jets to 29 total first downs, 10-of-28 on third down, and allowed one touchdown between the two games.
Again, those teams aren’t quite the Dolphins. And Pierce acknowledge the Raiders were at home, in the comfort of their grand relatively new stadium.
His first real test comes Sunday in Miami. If he passes, team owner Mark Davis would be wise not to repeat the mistake he made in 2021 — when interim head coach Rich Bisaccia led the Raiders to the playoffs and nearly upset eventual AFC champion Cincinnati before being let go for … McDaniels — and start talking longer-term commitment to Pierce on the flight home.