In The Know is an ongoing series with the opposing team's beat writer. This week, Eddie Paskal, Senior Insider with Raiders.com gives insight on the Texans upcoming opponent.
Let's talk about the first half of the season for the Raiders. At 7-2, they are tied for first in the AFC West with Kansas City. Would you say the Raiders are living up to expectations for this season or have they exceeded them?
Paskal: You know, I think they are living up to expectations. Since head coach Jack Del Rio got here, he's been pretty honest. He goes, 'Our goal coming in to every season is to win the division,' and the team obviously hasn't done that just yet, but they are putting themselves in position to do that as the season goes on.
I think Derek Carr has been taking that step from Year Two to Year Three and he's been as good, if not better, as advertised in 2016. With this insurgent run game too and how the defense is coming along, especially the past month or so, I think the Raiders are about where they would like to be with a lot still ahead of them on the schedule.
Derek Carr is putting up tremendous numbers, 17 touchdowns to 3 interceptions, and showing really good decision-making. What's been different this season that maybe he wasn't able to do in those first two years?**
Paskal: I think he's comfortable. It's been talked about a little bit, but this is his second year now in (offensive coordinator) Bill Musgrave's system. He hasn't learned anything new but he's been able to get comfortable. He's mastered the offense, which I think is evident compared to last year, and all his guys are back. (WR) Michael Crabtree is back, (WR) Amari Cooper is back and then these guys looking a little further down the depth chart. (WR) Seth Roberts, (WR) Andre Holmes, his guys are here. I think day in and day out, it's becoming more evident that these are his guys and he's comfortable with them. I think that what he's been able to do on Sundays is speaking to that.
Latavius Murray rushed for 114 yards and 3 touchdowns in that Sunday night win over Denver. What's been the key to an effective run game for Oakland this year?
Paskal: Well, if you look at the stats, and I think it would be Latavius. The two games where Latavius was out, the run game was obviously not as strong as it has been in weeks past when No. 28 is in the backfield, but I think (general manager) Reggie McKenzie has done a great job in building that backfield. Obviously, at the end of last year, one of the big things going into the offseason was that Latavius needs a little bit of help, and I think that has been more than addressed with (RB) DeAndre Washington and (RB) Jalen Richard. Our two rookies in the backfield there as well. They've been providing a great change of pace for Latavius. They have a very different style than Latavius does. Latavius is a big back. He's 6'4, 223 and change, he's every bit of it. He's a big, strong, powerful runner, big north-to-south guy. Then you throw Jalen and DeAndre as well and they really provide a nice complement.
The Raiders really do have that true complement of backs, a stable one. When all three of those guys are going, and fullback Jamize Olawale too, they can really pound the ball to the ground. I know that's what head coach Del Rio really wants to do. He wants to be strong upfront in the trenches and run behind that big, strong, powerful offensive line, and in the first half of the season, that's exactly what the Raiders have done.
Let's switch gears and talk defense. Defensive end Khalil Mack had one sack in the first five games, but he seems to have more than made up for it now. He's had back-to-back games with multiple sacks. What changed for him in order for him to overcome that slow start this year?**
Paskal: You know, everyone has talked about statistically a slow start for Khalil and he's been asked about it, (defensive coordinator) Ken Norton Jr. has been asked about it and they've all kind of said while the numbers might not have been there, Khalil impacts the game in a way that a lot of times doesn't show up on the stat sheet. But you're right. Over the past month or so, he's really gotten going. He's got 6 sacks now in the four games and two multi-sack games, and I think Khalil is just a matter of learning to play with the guys next to him, really becoming comfortable.
I think that's kind of what you can say on the defense as a whole. They are getting comfortable. They are comfortable with what Ken Norton is asking of them to do, and they are really just starting to put the pieces together. Over the past month, they've been a much improved unit.
Head coach Bill O'Brien said that the Raiders are one of the best teams in the league right now. They are sitting at 7-2. What are some of the key things that Jack Del Rio wants the team to improve now here in the back-half of the season.
Paskal: The one thing Jack has been really good about with the success of the team starting early on, he's done a great job making sure the team doesn't look ahead. He's not looking past any opponents. The team isn't looking toward the post-season right now. They are looking right at the Houston Texans. That's what the next team on the agenda, and that's the next chance they have to go out there and earn a victory.
With the things he would like to see going forward, obviously the defensive improvement is one. The team had a much stronger past 3, 4, 5 games, and I think he'd like to see them trending in that direction still as well. And offensively, just keep clicking. Derek's obviously just kind of thrown himself into this MVP race in 2016, and while he doesn't like the individual accolades, it's certainly something that's out there. I think they want to see him kind of keep improving, keep producing at a high rate as he is, and keep the run game going as well. Keep this ball rolling, keep this positive energy and momentum going forward now in this second half of the season now.
OLB Whitney Mercilus had a whirlwind Friday in Mexico City. He appeared on ESPN Deportes and took a tour of the city's landmarks with Televisa.