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Las Vegas Raiders must address two troubling trends for immediate improvement under Josh McDaniels

If you’ve watched the Las Vegas Raiders throughout Derek Carr’s tenure, you’d know the team has multiple issues. While some people point their finger at the quarterback, others choose to focus on the defense. But it’s clear that both sides provide valid criticisms.

You cannot solve a multi-layered problem with a simple fix, and the same applies to the Raiders’ shortcomings. General manager Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels, who has to rethink his play-calling tendencies with double-digit leads, should have two issues atop their offseason agenda in order to get Vegas back into the playoffs.

Let’s start with a big-picture problem.

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Raiders need another defensive overhaul

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Rams
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Carr detractors see the argument for a stout defense as an excuse for the quarterback because he’s been unable to help lead the team to victories even when the Raiders allow 24 or fewer points.

Case in point, against the New Orleans Saints, Vegas failed to cross the 50-yard line with Carr under center. Last Thursday, he finished with the worst passer rating of his career (39.6) in a 17-16 loss to the Aaron Donald-less Los Angeles Rams.

We can also flip the coin to focus on the defense, which ranks 26th in third-down conversions and red-zone touchdowns allowed this season. Now, take a look Vegas’ embarrassing history of defenses throughout Carr’s nine-year tenure:

One can argue that Carr would have a much higher win rate (44.3% ) if he played with a complementary top-12 scoring defense, which means fewer shootouts and a better shot at victories when the offense stalls.

Fair point.

The Raiders have fielded a top-11 scoring offense in two of the last three seasons. Based on common sense, a top-12 or perhaps a top-15 defense could’ve helped Vegas win more games in 2020 and this year.

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Should Las Vegas Raiders retain Patrick Graham?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Las Vegas Raiders
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Before McDaniels compiles a list of draft prospects who can fill holes across the defensive unit, he should re-evaluate his coordinator. Is Patrick Graham the guy to turn the Raiders defense around? We shouldn’t be so sure about that.

Under Graham, cornerback Nate Hobbs and safety Tre’von Moehrig have regressed from their promising rookie seasons.

Last year, Hobbs allowed a 92.1 passer rating in coverage, but that number has ballooned up to 107.2 in seven games this season. In fairness to him, he’s missed six games with a broken bone in his hand, and the second-year cover man has played an increased role, lining up mostly on the perimeter after a full campaign as a slot defender.

Hobbs may just need more time to adjust in an expanded role, but Moehrig has struggled mightily—to the point he’s a liability in coverage at times.

In 2021, Moehrig allowed two touchdowns, 12.9 yards per completion and a 92.5 passer rating in coverage, but this year, he’s surrendered four touchdowns, 15 yards per completion and a 148.4 passer rating in coverage.

If Graham cannot get the best out of two players who looked well on their way to becoming reliable starters under former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, McDaniels has to figure out if he hired the right coordinator to develop young talent. In the event that the Raiders retain him, don’t be surprise by widespread competition in the secondary at training camp next year.

Meanwhile, in the front seven, Denzel Perryman and Jayon Brown will become free agents in 2023. Defensive end Chandler Jones has started to play up his contract over the past few weeks, but Maxx Crosby needs a consistent pass-rushing partner on the interior or a third designated edge-rusher to help him close out games on defense. The coaching staff doesn’t seem to have an interest in Malcolm Koonce, who’s played just five percent of the defensive snaps this season.

If the Raiders trade Carr, that’s not going to fix a bottom-tier defense that’s regressed on the back end and needs a more consistent push up front. Carr’s successor would face the same issues in scoring shootouts, putting the offense under a lot of pressure to score 27-plus points per game.

With that said, Carr has to pull his weight in critical moments as well, and he hasn’t done that consistently in the red zone.

Derek Carr’s red-zone woes are an issue for the Las Vegas Raiders

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Rams
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For the most part, Carr makes good decisions with the football, and he’s fairly accurate, but his career red-zone issues should raise concerns among the quarterback’s most staunch supporters.

Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett and second-year signal-caller Davis Mills, whom the Houston Texans benched for a couple of games, have better completion rates in the red zone than Carr. The quarterback’s completion percentage in the red-zone stands at 39.6%.

Skeptics may question if this is a fluky season for Carr because tight end Darren Waller and wideout Hunter Renfrow have both suited up for fewer than six games. Perhaps he just needs time to adjust to McDaniels’ system.

Well, in short, no. Carr has struggled in the red zone throughout his career. He’s thrown the most interceptions inside the opponent’s 20-yard line since entering the league in 2014, per ESPN Stats & Info:

While some people may excuse Carr for his Week 14 red-zone interception against the Rams because of interior pocket pressure, he’s made a habit out of turning the ball over in the most crucial area of the field. In some cases, that’s a 14-point swing from plus seven (with an extra point) to a minus seven if the opponent scores a touchdown with an extra point on the ensuing possession.

So, when we discuss the Raiders’ red-zone issues, we cannot separate Carr from that conversation. He’s part of the problem.

Sure, at times, Carr’s pass-catchers have let passes bounce off their hands. However, when you consider that his red-zone passer rating is only better than Russell Wilson’s among 33 quarterbacks this season (h/t Josh Dubow of the Associated Press), he deserves a fair amount of criticism:

A change at quarterback or in red-zone philosophy?

Typically, you look for the quarterback who raises the level of talent around him. Carr has done that, most recently with wideout Nelson Agholor and Mack Hollins. Yet even with Adams on the field, Carr’s red-zone numbers rank near the bottom of the league below fringe starting signal-callers and teams with limited pass-catching options.

Case in point, New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, whose best wide receiver is Darius Slayton (35 receptions for 608 yards and two touchdowns), has a far better red-zone completion rate (61.8 percent) and passer rating (99.3) than Carr (39.6 percent and 71.5, respectively) this season.

If the Raiders move into Year 10 with Carr, which seems likely, McDaniels must tweak his play-calling in the red zone to help his quarterback or take the ball out of the signal-caller’s hands.

The top five red-zone scoring teams have one of two things in common. The Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs have a top-11 rushing offense to punch the ball past the goal line on the ground or a high-level quarterback who’s surgical in the red zone. For anyone who questions Joe Burrow, he’s thrown for 17 touchdowns and zero interceptions inside the opponent’s 20-yard line (109.9 passer rating) in 2022.

If McDaniels doesn’t think the return of Waller and Renfrow help elevate Carr’s red-zone passing numbers, he has two other alternatives to fix that issue. He can push Ziegler to re-sign Jacobs, who has scored nine out of his 11 touchdowns on plays that started in the red zone this season, or find a quarterback who can finish drives (with more consistency) in that area of the field.

While the decision to keep Jacobs is the easier option, don’t rule out the Las Vegas Raiders drafting a quarterback regardless of Carr’s status with the team.

Maurice Moton covers the Las Vegas Raiders for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @MoeMoton.

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