Jon Gruden spent plenty of time watching Antonio Brown on film and in practice this offseason. He studied the elite receiver's skill set, then headed to the dry-erase board – or maybe it's all on an iPad these days – and created some unique ways to capitalize upon it either as a target or decoy to make life easier on others.
Brown was going to be the offensive centerpiece, albeit in a relatively balanced offense incorporating rookie running back Josh Jacobs.
Brown's exit just before the regular season and his replacements' struggles have caused an in-season focus shift, one that has recently centered on a prolific run game.
Jacobs, fullback Alec Ingold and an aggressive, physical offensive line have been excellent running the ball in the team's three victories, including Sunday's 24-21 victory against a stout Chicago defensive front.
"That's just our identity," right tackle Trent Brown said. "We are going to run the ball. It doesn't matter who we play. We are going to assert ourselves and play our game."
Credit goes to the players and to Gruden, offensive line coach Tom Cable and other staffers for creating an effective blocking scheme well executed by all involved.
The Raiders currently rank ninth in rushing offense at 134.4 yards per game and 10th at 4.9 yards per carry. Those numbers include two dominant showings against the Colts and Bears in consecutive weeks.
The Raiders can run inside and out, with zone or power, often extra yards generated by downfield blocks from receivers, tight ends or linemen moving downfield.
"No one talks about our guys up front," Gruden said. "We've got some good tight ends that can a good fullback, great run back and our line is quality stuff."
The Raiders have done a solid job with running even when the whole world knows what's coming. That's a sign that it's going well on the ground.
So is the offensive balance. The Raiders have run more than they've passed three times. It's no surprise they jumped out to early leads and won each game, avoiding the need to play catch-up.
Recent performances and the team's commitment to the run has increased the confidence of all involved in its operation.
"We have a great run game. We really do," tight end Foster Moreau said. "Our play action is effective and we play well off of it. Establishing the run is crucial for us. The more balanced you can be, the better you are. If you can control the tempo, you're going to have some big days."
It can also slow a good pass rush and give Derek Carr more time to work. The run game is the foundation of what they Raiders do right now, a trend that can continue next week against a Green Bay defense that has allowed 136 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry.
Offensive linemen salivate when given the opportunity to assert themselves in the run game, as the Raiders have done in recent weeks. We've seen quality from the guys up front despite both guard spots being in flux.
Center Rodney Hudson is playing as well as ever, Trent Brown's as good as advertised, Kolton Miller looks improved and Richie Incognito has solidified the left guard spot. The Raiders have played several right guards, with Denzelle Good filling in lately until Gabe Jackson gets back.
Those guys want to keep on running, for sure.
"They like it. It's fun to block for a guy like Jacobs," Gruden said. "Their hard work and their effort is rewarded every time we hand this kid the ball. They're gaining confidence. I think we're all seeing that this offense line is pretty good. Hopefully they start getting the credit that they deserve."
How Raiders are building offense around Josh Jacobs, prolific run game originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area