A funny thing happened, though, on the way to an anticipated loss against the favored Ravens.
Las Vegas won the game, 33-27, in large part thanks to several players Gruden and Mayock brought in and developed. That group included pass rushers who combined for three sacks and two forced fumbles, making life miserable for Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson even without any contributions from Ferrell.
Now the Raiders have a chance to move to 2-0 if they can get a win Sunday at Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are themselves coming off a somewhat surprising win over Buffalo.
To do that, Las Vegas probably will have to bring as much heat against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as it did against Jackson, who was pressured 18 times on 39 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF credited Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby with a Week 1-leading 13 pressures, and his 93.1 pass rushing grade also topped the NFL. Crosby’s two sacks, four quarterback hits and six total tackles earned him AFC defensive player of the week honors for the second time in his career.
“It’s one game,” Crosby told reporters this week. “We’ve got to bring it this week and do the same thing but be even better.”
Crosby wasn’t the only Raider who finished well in PFF’s pass rushing grades for Week 1. Fellow defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and Carl Nassib were fourth and seventh, respectively. All told, the efforts of the unit — which held the Ravens to a 25 percent success rate on third downs — helped put Las Vegas in the week’s top 10 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). That amounted to a welcome development after the Raiders were 28th in that metric for the 2020 season and 29th in the league in sacks.
Even after signing Ngakoue — a Maryland product with at least eight sacks in each of his previous five seasons — Nassib and several other defensive linemen in the offseason, the Raiders were not expected to make a major improvement on that side of the ball. That, combined with questions about the team’s offensive line, led to forecasts of another season without a playoff appearance for a franchise that went 4-12, 7-9 and 8-8 the past three years under Gruden.
In his second go-round coaching the Raiders following a Super Bowl-winning stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and nine years as a “Monday Night Football” analyst, Gruden appeared to be acting very much like someone whose massive contract insulated him from second-guessing. The pick of Ferrell, meant to fill a glaring need for a pass rusher, came after Gruden had several months to assess his stunning trade of 2016 defensive player of the year Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears shortly before the 2018 season. Later that season, the Raiders dealt Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys and signaled they were in the midst of a comprehensive rebuild.
Those deals, which netted the Raiders three first-round picks, have been mixed at best. Two of the first-rounders were used on a pair of defensive backs, safety Jonathan Abram and cornerback Damon Arnette, who have not paid off. Another first-rounder, running back Josh Jacobs, has been a solid contributor but has been not been used in an every-down role, and wide receiver Bryan Edwards, drafted last year with a third-round pick received from the Bears, was largely invisible during an injury-marred rookie season.
Other Gruden draft picks made headlines for how short their stays were with his team. Wide receiver Lynn Bowden, selected one pick ahead of Edwards, was traded to the Miami Dolphins without seeing a snap for Las Vegas. Another third-rounder last year, safety Tanner Muse, sat out his rookie season with a toe injury before getting cut — on his birthday, no less — this month.
Then there is Henry Ruggs III, whom the Raiders surprisingly picked 12th overall last year as the first wide receiver off the board, ahead of Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, Tee Higgins and Chase Claypool. Ruggs’s spotty deployment in 2020 raised questions about whether Gruden had a fully realized vision of how to use the speedy Alabama product.
Through three quarters Monday, those questions remained, but Ruggs made a pair of key receptions to help the Raiders stage a comeback from deficits of 14-0 and 24-17. Edwards made even greater late-game contributions, particularly during a wild overtime sequence when his remarkable effort nearly produced a game-winning touchdown.
“Both of those kids made big plays in the second half,” Gruden said of Ruggs and Edwards.
No one, however, was as central to the Las Vegas attack as tight end Darren Waller, who had 10 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown on 19 targets. Signed by Gruden off the Ravens’ practice squad in November 2018, Waller has overcome obscurity and substance-abuse issues to become one of the league’s best at his position.
Crosby, drafted three rounds after Ferrell in 2019, and Waller stand as major personnel successes for Gruden. The 58-year-old coach’s track record overall with his roster might not stand up to a blitz of scrutiny, but if his Raiders can continue to rush the passer well in Pittsburgh while mounting an effective aerial attack, they will pass another major test and serve notice in the early going that perhaps there is a method to Gruden’s madness after all.