ALAMEDA, Calif. — The Oakland Raiders showed off a new wrinkle in their offense on the opening drive of their second preseason game.
A passing game that had been predicated on getting the ball into the hands of the pair of 1,000-yard receivers on the outside in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree suddenly started using some big options in the middle of the field.
Derek Carr found free agent tight end Jared Cook on his first drop back of the game against the Los Angeles Rams for a 16-yard gain and then capped the drive by threading a 19-yard pass into the hands of blocking tight end Lee Smith for a touchdown.
“Being able to have those guys do everything really helps our team and puts stress on the defense so they can’t just sit and play one coverage and take away everything,” Carr said Tuesday. “I hope it’s a sign of things that continue because that will help those other two outside.”
Throw in Clive Walford’s three catches in the opener and the Raiders have an aspect of the offense that was missing in 2016. Oakland didn’t get much production from the tight end position at all last season, ranking 28th in catches (57) and 30th in yards receiving (580).
The lack of production from that group led to the decision to target Cook in free agency. New offensive coordinator Todd Downing and Carr gave Cook an aggressive recruiting pitch that promised heavy use of tight ends.
“It is a tight end-friendly offense,” Cook said. “The way the quarterback reads the plays, how they line me up, how they use the tight ends. I think it will be important for me to take a big step in my career.”
Cook had only 30 receptions last season in Green Bay but did deliver the biggest catch of the year for the Packers when his acrobatic 36-yard catch set up the game-winning field goal in a playoff win at Dallas.
The Raiders hope to get those kinds of plays from Cook.
“He’s a guy that creates the biggest mismatches because safeties typically aren’t fast enough and good enough to cover guys,” Carr said. “Linebackers are too slow. You can’t put a corner on him because he could just muscle you out of the way. Once we’re all out there and rolling together, that’s going to be fun to see how much of a mismatch he has been.”
With a more capable receiving threat at tight end in Cook, defenses will face the difficult choice of being exposed in the middle of the field if they double team Cooper or Crabtree or being susceptible to big plays on the outside from the receivers.
“We talked about being able to attack the field vertically,” Downing said. “You have to be able to do that on the inside part of the field, too. A lot of times that’s where the tight ends happen to line up. We need their speed. We need their size. Certainly, we’ll give them the opportunity to make plays in the vertical passing game.”
The tight ends also should be much more capable as blockers this season, too, thanks to Smith being healthy. Smith, one of the best blocking tight ends in the game, went down with a broken leg early last season.
That absence forced the Raiders to use six offensive linemen on nearly one-quarter of their offensive plays last season, according to Football Outsiders, far and away the top mark in the league.
While the sixth lineman did help the run game, it also tipped the Raiders’ hand because those players aren’t nearly as capable as receivers as Smith is. Even though Smith has just 38 catches in 75 career games, defenses still must honor him more than they would an extra offensive tackle.
That was evident when he got down the middle of the field for his touchdown against the Rams last week.
“Quit calling him a blocking tight end,” Carr said. “As you see, people just drop him sometimes. That’s one thing we have to take advantage of. We can’t just be limited by a certain personnel group. Lee is one of the guys who has one of the best sets of hands on the team. Being able to run him up the seam and do things like that, people won’t be able to dictate when he comes in the game.”
NOTES: DT Jihad Ward practiced for the first time this summer after being taken off the physically unable to perform list. … First-round CB Gareon Conley (shin) and Pro Bowl LT Donald Penn (holdout) still have not practiced this summer.