ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — The Oakland Raiders spent almost all of training camp and the week leading up to the season opener without star receiver Antonio Brown on the practice field.
So while most outsiders figured his release two days before the opener would be as costly as last year's trade of pass rusher Khalil Mack, the Raiders believed they had a much-improved team capable of competing and showed that in a 24-16 victory Monday night over Denver.
"We tried to tell everybody all offseason, we weren't just blowing smoke," quarterback Derek Carr said. "We had a good football team even when (Brown) wasn't there. We knew if we had him, my goodness, that could be crazy because he's so good as a football player. But he's not here. And when it happened, honestly, it wasn't the same feeling as when Khalil Mack got traded. I'll just put it as that. It was not the same feeling. It was like OK, at least the question was answered. At least we have answers."
For one night at least, the answers looked to be good ones. Carr played with much more confidence, showing needed growth in year two under coach Jon Gruden. The rookie class had a big impact from running back Josh Jacobs to defensive end Clelin Ferrell and safety Johnathan Abram.
Perhaps most importantly, free agent receiver Tyrell Williams and tight end Darren Waller showed Oakland still has some capable pass catchers even with Brown in New England.
Carr finished 22 for 26 for 259 yards, with an 8-yard TD pass to Williams on the opening drive.
Jacobs was brought in to be the bell-cow back despite carrying the ball 20 times in a game just once in three seasons at Alabama. He thrived under a heavy load in the opener. He ran 23 times for 85 yards and two touchdowns and also caught a 28-yard pass that set up a touchdown. Jacobs became the first player since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001 to gain at least 100 yards from scrimmage and run for two TDs in an NFL debut.
"This man wasn't really the feature back at Alabama. He's not drawing from a lot of experience," Gruden said. "I'm anxious to see how he feels today after 24 touches because we'd like to get him 24 more next week."
WHAT NEEDS HELP
After a strong first half when Denver was limited to 87 yards and no points, Oakland's defense wasn't nearly as effective in the final two quarters. The Broncos scored on four of five second-half drives as the Raiders appeared to wear down. The one positive for Oakland was that three of those scoring drives ended in field goals, thanks to a pair of third-down sacks and a dropped pass in the end zone.
LT Kolton Miller. The 2018 first-round pick struggled mightily in his rookie season as he dealt with various injuries and the transition to the NFL. Miller allowed an NFL-worst 14 sacks last year, according to Sports Info Solutions, contributing to the 52 allowed as a team by the Raiders.
Miller got tested in the opener going up mostly against Denver's Bradley Chubb, who had 12 sacks as a rookie. But Miller was part of a line that didn't allow Carr to get hit or sacked even once, the first time that has happened since Week 2 in 2017.
"We see a lot of progress," Gruden said. "He's stronger, he's more experienced and he's healthy. Those three things added to his improvement."
Rookie CB Trayvon Mullen. Forced into action in the second half after Gareon Conley went down with a neck injury, Mullen was targeted repeatedly by Joe Flacco down the stretch. Mullen took a bad gamble, leading to a 22-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders on Denver's last drive that was capped by Flacco's 1-yard TD throw to Sanders against Mullen.
"He has to play better," Gruden said. "He had some moments where he struggled."
The Raiders got good news on Conley, who was taken off the field on a stretcher after a scary injury in the second half. Conley said on Twitter that the injury wasn't severe and he was "good to go."
Three. After being limited to an NFL-worst 13 sacks last year after trading Mack before the start of the season, the Raiders knew they needed a more consistent pass rush to be successful this year. The early results were encouraging with free agent acquisition Benson Mayowa recording two sacks and No. 4 overall draft pick Ferrell adding one. The three sacks were the most for the Raiders since they also had three on Dec. 10, 2017, against Kansas City.
The degree of difficulty ramps up this week when the Raiders host Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City in a second straight division matchup. The Chiefs have won eight of the past nine games in the series. Oakland has started 2-0 just once since the 2002 AFC title year, winning the first two games in 2017 before stumbling to a 6-10 record.