The Grove is alive to the sound of rap music. Jon Gruden stands around the 50 yard line, master of all he surveys. Behind him, Daniel Carlson is kicking field goals for fun. In front of him, the rest of the Oakland Raiders team run sprints, then stretches, then an impromptu dance-off.
The Raiders are getting ready for today’s game against the Chicago Bears. After last year’s debacle at the hands of Seattle, they’re preparing a little differently this time around. Are they truly ready?
“It’s been wonderful. We’ve had a great acclimation here to the time zone. The hotel set up is great, the practice field is sensational, and we’re not going to have any negative impact on our performance because of the time zone.”
Gruden looks straight at the questioner and says:
“We’ll be ready to go.”
The game in London is another stop on a brutal schedule of games away from Oakland. However, rather than hindering the Raiders, Gruden feels this is helping the team, on and off the field.
“The beautiful thing about not having home games for 8 weeks, we get a chance to be together, to spend time together. I’ve always thought that the only way you get a relationship is to spend time with someone.”
The Raiders face a familiar face in London tonight
One relationship that didn’t blossom last year, was the one between Khalil Mack and the Raiders organisation. After a summer of lengthy contract negotiations, the star pass rusher was traded away to the Bears. The treasure chest of draft picks that the Raiders received has helped begin the rebuild of the organisation.
Naturally, reporters throughout the week have pressed for comment on the showdown between Mack and the Raiders on Sunday night.
However, by Friday’s media availability, Gruden was noticeably avoiding Mack-specific questions and even refusing to put a name to the prolific pass rusher.
“It’s going to be a great challenge. We’re anxious to compete and we’ll see where we are. We’ve had some good protection snaps, and they’ve had some great rushes. That’s why we play the game.”
The Bears have a formidable defense
As much as Gruden refused to mention Mack by name, there’s no escaping that the Raiders are coming up against a formidable defense on Sunday night.
The Bears rank 5th in total defense, giving up under 300 points per game. They’re second in terms of points allowed, allowing just 11.3 PPG on average.
Where the focus has been on Mack and the pass rush, that isn’t actually the strength of the Bears defense. They rank just 12th in pass defense. Where they excel is in the run game defense, a fact not lost on Gruden.
“They have a great rusher everybody talks about. The reason they’re great rushers is because no-one’s been able to run the ball. Goldman, no-one even talks about him, like he’s not on the defense. He’s the best inside run defender I’ve seen this year.”
Gruden was clearly enjoying getting to talk about something other than Khalil Mack as he continued.
“Hicks! Goodness gracious! I don’t know who this 95 is, but they have a rotation in there that is very good and their linebackers….Trevathan is a world champion, every down, buzz-saw. He’s got great instincts. If you get a hole, he recovers and makes the tackle immediately. Roquan Smith, he’s a top 10 pick also. So, good luck!”
Darren Waller excited by the matchup
Darren Waller will be one of the guys going up against that lauded Bears defense. The former Baltimore Ravens tight end, has had a breakout year for the Raiders. He leads the teams in receptions (33) and receiving yards (320).
Looking relaxed and ready to go, he spoke about the challenge the Raiders face on Sunday night.
“The Bears, their defense is loaded. They have stars everywhere. Up front, linebacker position, secondary. They’ve got exciting players on offense as well. It’s a team that could easily go to the Super Bowl. and as far as we’re concerned, who would you rather play? You want to play against the best teams, the best talent, some of the best players in the league at their position that I’ll be matching up against. These are the things I dreamed about growing up.”
Waller had a difficult introduction in to the league. Whilst at Baltimore, he battled problems with addiction which led to him being suspended by the NFL. Ultimately, it cost him his job with the Ravens. Now settled with the Raiders, he spoke briefly about using his experiences to help others.
“There’s been a lot of people reach out to me and relating. That’s what makes me feel good the most. I can help put things in perspective. We have abilities as athletes but at the end of the day we’re humans. My life was rough for a while, and a lot of people may have it rough for a while at certain times, but that situation is only temporary. If I can use my voice to communicate that to them then I feel like that’s a purpose of mine theses days.”
Unpredictability the key to Raiders offense
Waller has been the focal point, intentionally or not, for the Raiders passing offense this year. With concerns over the fitness of wide receivers, Tyrell Williams and JJ Nelson, who Gruden described as being “questionable” on Friday, it would be a fair assumption that Waller, alongside rookie tight end Foster Moreau, would pick up the slack.
Given that the Bears rushing defense is so tight, the passing game being prominent is a fair expectation. Or maybe not.
“It’ll be a real challenge running the ball. But we’re a good running team and we get a chance to see where we stack up. We’re going to try and have balance. We had balance against Indianapolis last week, we won the game. We had balance against the Broncos, we won that game. So we’re gonna try to run and pass, and try and be a little unpredictable at times and see what happens.”
“We just want to win the game. We’ve worked hard. We’ll leave it at that.”
Feature Image Credit: Tony Gonzales (Oakland Raiders)