The Grove Hotel in Watford, England, describes itself as a 5-star grand estate, with luxe rooms, golf, spa, and fine dining. For this week alone, it’s also home to a full-size NFL practice field, as the Oakland Raiders use it as their base for this weekend’s game against the Chicago Bears.
The Raiders are playing in London for the second straight year as part of the NFL’s International Series. Last year, they flew in and out, with a beating at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks sandwiched in between. This year, they’re making a full week of it.
It only seems sensible, given that they last played an actual home game, in Oakland, mid-way through September. Their schedule over eight weeks is about as brutal as it gets. The Raiders won’t play at home again until they host the Detroit Lions in November. It’s a fact that’s not lost on head coach Jon Gruden, as he addressed the media on Friday:
“I don’t mind playing over here. We played in Winnipeg, Canada, we’re playing here in London, all our home games are all over the world. We’re a global franchise”
He finishes off the sentence with a smirk, and a small ripple of laughter fills the media room where I’m sat. Gruden wasn’t all laughs and jokes through the press conference, as I’ll detail below with my three takeaways from the Raiders media availability.
Gruden’s had enough of talking about Burfict
After Sunday’s win over the Indianapolis Colts, attention should have been focused on the result of the game. However, after Vontaze Burfict was ejected from the game for a dangerous hit, talk turned to that instead. At the time, the focus was on Burfict and his history of violations of the NFL rulebook. Talk turned to rumor on how the league would deal with the hit. On Monday, the NFL announced that Burfict would be suspended for the year. It’s an unprecedented suspension.
Understandably, everyone and anyone have asked about the Burfict situation this week. It’s the hot topic of conversation. By Friday, it’s fair to say that Gruden had had enough.
After being asked about Tyrell Williams status for Sunday as the opening question, which I’ll touch on later, the second question was about how Burfict’s suspension may galvanize the team. The deep breath and sigh from the head coach could have been heard in Oakland.
“I’m not going to comment on Burfict right now, you know how I feel.”
He elaborated very briefly:
“Hopefully the league is going to look at every aspect of the situation and we’ll get it resolved. He leaves big shoes that need to be filled”
Raiders wide receiver woes don’t concern Gruden
It’s not just Burfict that leaves big shoes to be filled. Antonio Brown‘s brief dalliance with the team has left a hole in the wide receiver room. Williams has stepped up to be the WR1, but despite leading the team in touchdowns has had his share of drops. Now, he is fighting an injury.
“I don’t know, he’s questionable.”
Gruden responded to the question on Williams’ availability for Sunday. He wasn’t much more effusive when asked a similar question about JJ Nelson:
“He’s questionable also. Got a leg injury. He’s up and down, as you know, throughout the last several weeks.”
With the issues in the wide receiver room, tight end Darren Waller has stepped up to lead the team in receptions and receiving yards early in the season. Fellow TE, rookie Foster Moreau, grabbed his first touchdown against a Colts team that has struggled against the TE position. Despite this, Gruden was adamant that the focus doesn’t fall specifically on those two to provide a receiving threat against the Bears.
“We’ll see how the game goes. We’ve got running backs that can catch. We’ve got other receivers that are good players. We’re not going to throw the ball to all the tight ends and backs just because a couple of guys are hurt.”
A balanced Raiders offense is the key to success
This game has been circled on schedules as one to watch for one reason: Khalil Mack.
The trade of the Raiders’ star pass rusher last season gave them the war chest of draft picks they’ve used to begin a rebuild in 2019. Is it a revenge game? Is it a game where the Raiders prove they were right to trade such a prized asset?
Either way, Gruden noticeably refused to mention Mack by name during Friday’s press conference. He did, however, make an excellent point about an overlooked facet of the Bears defense.
“No-one has been able to run the ball [on the Bears]. Goldman, no-one even talks about him, like he’s not even on the defense. He’s the best inside run defender I have seen this year.”
The Raiders, behind Josh Jacobs, have leaned on the run often this year. The rookie got off to a great start to his NFL career in the season opener against the Broncos. Against such a strong run defense, will the Raiders have to adapt their game plan?
“We’re going to try and have balance. We had balance last week against Indianapolis, we won the game. We had balance against the Broncos, we won that game. We need balance to win. So, we’re going to try to run and pass, and try to be a little bit unpredictable at times and see what happens.”