In Star Wars, a Death Star battle station was only as strong as its weakness. This concept applies to offensive lines. While Oakland has rebuilt a unit that resembled Swiss cheese three years ago, a carousel at right tackle has been in continuation for nearly a decade. Gone is the stability of Lincoln Kennedy, since replaced by the names Kwame Harris, Cornell Green, and Robert Gallery. Unfortunately for Offensive Line Coach Frank Pollack, there is no obvious solution.
8 year veteran Khalif Barnes, the incumbent starter, injured his groin in week 2 and was replaced by Willie Smith. The reserve, an undrafted free agent in his 2nd NFL campaign, has been exposed by quicker strong side pass rushers.
Fans’ and coaches’ frustrations with Smith can be boiled down to a single play last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With 9 minutes remaining in the 2nd quarter, Carson Palmer airmailed a 47 yard scoring strike to Derek Hagan, which was negated by a glaring holding call. The drive resulted in a 3-and-out.
To Coach Pollack’s satisfaction, Barnes returned to practice on Wednesday, but the upgrade in play will be miniscule. The 52nd overall selection in the 2005 NFL draft was a disappointment in Jacksonville, and he rode the bench with the Silver and Black in 2010. Last year, Barnes started every contest, but his effective run blocking was overshadowed by a penchant for penalties and his struggles with speed rushers. He is on a one year contract.
If Barnes is unable to go this weekend against the Ravens, Head Coach Dennis Allen could opt to start a rookie. Tony Bergstrom, a 3rd round pick out of Utah, gained experience playing both tackle positions in college but was expected to eventually replace Cooper Carslile at left guard. Since Barnes went down, the 6’5”, 310 pounder has practiced at tackle.
“I feel like I’m ready and I’m just kind of waiting for that opportunity…” Bergstrom explained. “Whatever I can do for this team I’m happy to do.” Coach Allen may have no choice.
Failing to plug the hole at right tackle may bear regrettable consequences in the remainder of the schedule. The Raiders’ 31st ranked rushing attack through 8 games can be attributed to a zone blocking learning curve, but the quality of play at right tackle has been abysmal. An ineffective run game has placed the offensive burden on Palmer, who has averaged over 41 throwing attempts a contest. Add his concerning injury history (torn ACL and MCL in 2006, damaged elbow ligament in 2008), and the signal caller may be a violent takedown from a serious injury. Oakland cannot afford to expose its franchise quarterback.
Looking ahead, if Bergstrom is not the solution at right tackle, GM Reggie McKenzie has a 2013 1st round pick at his disposal, along with narrow wiggle room for a free agency splash. The most realistic target with genuine talent could be Washington’s Jammal Brown. The former Saint is a major injury risk and currently recovering from hip surgery, but if the squad decides to waive the lineman Oakland may afford his services. With 2 Pro Bowls and an All Pro selection under his belt, there are worse options on the market.
For now, the revolving door at right tackle keeps spinning, and the Achilles heel of the front 5 is dragging down their collective performance. If dismal offensive possessions and a grass stained quarterback hint anything, addressing right tackle is a top priority in the offseason. Oakland’s opponents have found an opening to strike.