The First Read, Week 3: Raiders are for real; Cowboys' defense good enough?

In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 3 of the 2021 NFL season, including:

— What to make of the Cowboys after a 1-1 start.

— Two defenses and a rookie QB trending down.

— A personnel executive’s take on why one team’s bold offseason move is paying off.

But first, a look at a surprise 2-0 team that should be taken seriously …

There’s something that feels different about this year’s Las Vegas Raiders. It’s more than the impressive season-opening wins over Baltimore and Pittsburgh, although that has said plenty about how far this current group has come. Last year, the Raiders flirted with success, teased us with their potential and then ultimately left us wondering how they could inspire so much faith in the first place. This year’s squad has the noticeable glow of a bunch that is most definitely built to last.

The Raiders head into their Week 3 matchup with Miami with a lot to like about themselves. Quarterback Derek Carr is running a high-powered offense and playing at an elite level. Some new faces have energized a shaky defense, making the pass rush more tenacious and the unit more consistent. You need a certain level of mental and physical toughness to beat the Ravens at home and then the Steelers on the road. The Raiders are brimming with both at this point, along with an obvious team chemistry that should have people taking them more seriously than ever.

“We have a bunch of guys that, one, love football,” Carr told reporters after his team’s 26-17 win over Pittsburgh. “There’s not one guy on our team where, when you come to the building, you say, ‘I don’t want to talk to this guy.’ I’ve been on teams where there are, if I’m honest. It makes work not fun. Every guy in that locker room makes football fun. They bring joy every day.”

There’s more than good vibes walking through the Raiders’ headquarters every day. There’s talent on offense, from hard-charging running back Josh Jacobs to freakish tight end Darren Waller to Carr, who’s thrown for 817 yards in his first two games. A defense that disappointed down the stretch in 2020 has added veterans like linebacker K.J. Wright, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. Instead of continuously waiting for younger players to mature, Las Vegas now has a nice mix of experienced leaders to look to in critical moments.

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The difference between this group and the one that nosedived at the end of last year already is striking. The 2020 team started 6-3 and then collapsed in the middle of a race for playoff spots, losing five of its last seven games (three by four points or fewer). That’s why the common refrain after the Pittsburgh win was to stay grounded.

“We have a confident group,” said Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. “We were confident last year. We lost some heartbreaking (games). Gut-wrenching, disgusting losses at the end of games. We have a long way to go. We’re nowhere near perfect.”

Gruden sees the same thing everyone else in the NFL does: an AFC that is flush with contenders. His own division, the AFC West, is home to three teams that are talented but also have to deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, who are coming off back-to-back AFC titles. The Raiders were good enough to split with Kansas City in 2020, including a win on the road. Las Vegas also proved to be an especially feisty bunch away from home, as it went 6-2 on the road.

The Raiders want to build on those positives, but they have plenty of issues to fight through. Their offensive line has been banged up — one starting guard, Denzelle Good, is lost for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL while the other, Richie Incognito, has missed the first two games with a calf injury — and Jacobs couldn’t play against the Steelers because of toe and ankle injuries. Carr is dealing with an ankle injury of his own, but Gruden expects him to be able to play in Week 3.

The good news is the Raiders beat a strong team on the road after a Monday night win. Getting a victory after traveling across the country on a short week is an achievement every NFL team would savor. It means the Raiders are focused and for real.

“We’ve started 2-0 before,” Carr said. “But we gotta keep going. We can’t let this thing go downhill.”

That sounds like a man who knows the feeling of coming tantalizingly close to reaching a goal. The Raiders have been in that place where a dream has slipped through their fingers. This time around, they are far more prepared to not let that kind of disappointment happen again.

HOT READS

Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.

1) The Cowboys’ defense is good enough: There’s always the inherent danger of becoming too enamored with Dallas at this early stage of the season. There’s often a confounding mix of drama and dysfunction that eventually infiltrates the team. However, the Cowboys do look much better on defense these days. They produced four takeaways in a season-opening loss to Tampa Bay. They snatched another two in a 20-17 win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. Skeptics can point to the 400-plus total yards Dallas has allowed in each of its first two games — and the fact that Los Angeles had two touchdowns waved off because of penalties — but it’s also worth noting that their defense doesn’t need to be exceptional. It just needs to be good enough. So far, we’ve seen that this unit is opportunistic and it has some pride, especially since rookie linebacker Micah Parsons had to move to defensive end to compensate for both DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory not being available on Sunday. This unit should look even better if the Cowboys are able to run the ball as effectively as they did against the Chargers, with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard proving to be a lethal 1-2 punch. Yes, it’s still early, but this defense already has been a refreshing change from the hot garbage Dallas was putting on the field last season.

2) Lamar Jackson will make a run at another MVP: The Baltimore Ravens quarterback firmly answered the question of how his team will adjust to all the injuries that plagued it leading up to the season. The Ravens are going to do what they often do — they’re going to keep punching until somebody tells them the fight is over. Jackson played one of the best games of his career in his team’s 36-35 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night. It wasn’t merely that he threw for 239 yards, ran for 107 and accounted for three touchdowns. It was that he bounced back from two early interceptions (including one that was returned for a touchdown) that could have capsized this team’s confidence in a critical meeting against the defending AFC champs. Jackson showed that he still can carry this offense, that it doesn’t matter who lines up in the backfield with him and that Baltimore can do damage when winter arrives. There isn’t a quarterback in the league who will be asked to do more for his team in the coming months.

3) More people should be talking about the Cardinals: The downside of playing in the NFC West this year is that somebody is going to go shortchanged when the bouquets get handed out. The Arizona Cardinals are currently in that position. The San Francisco 49ers are the team that played in the Super Bowl two years ago, the squad that has everyone wondering when their rookie quarterback, Trey Lance, will be ready to be a full-time starter. The Los Angeles Rams have the star power (with Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Matthew Stafford) while the Seattle Seahawks have been on a great run with Russell Wilson as their quarterback over the past decade. But if people want a team to look out for, keep an eye on the Cardinals. Kyler Murray continues to be an extraordinary talent and he’s taking full advantage of the weapons that keep landing around him. Rookie wide receiver Rondale Moore looked like a perfect fit in this offense when he was drafted in the second round and has shown that to be the case. DeAndre Hopkins is still DeAndre Hopkins. The defense remains a work in progress but there’s enough talent to be hopeful for steady improvement throughout the year. It still has an All-Pro safety in Budda Baker, an outside linebacker who racked up five sacks in the season opener (Chandler Jones) and some promising, highly drafted young players. Bottom line: The Cardinals opened the season by scoring 38 and 34 points in consecutive games. They’re going to give a lot of people problems.

THREE UP

It’s time to take Rhule’s Panthers seriously. It’s one thing to beat up on the lowly New York Jets, as Carolina did in Week 1. But the 26-7 beatdown the Panthers just put on New Orleans should have turned more than a few heads. This team isn’t the sexiest in the league. What it does have is a tenacious defense, a multidimensional weapon in Christian McCaffrey and a quarterback (Sam Darnold) who seems intent on proving that his failings with the Jets had more to do with them than him. Even the Saints weren’t willing to blame the COVID-19 issues plaguing their coaching staff on this drubbing. The Panthers look that good right now. 

This is one thing you can say about the Washington Football Team’s current starting quarterback — he knows how to shine when the lights are brightest. Heinicke won a chance to compete for the starting job with his play at the end of last season, particularly in a Super Wild Card Weekend loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay. Now he’s balling out for the WFT with Ryan Fitzpatrick sidelined by a hip injury. It feels like Heinicke is the kind of player whose bubble might burst at some point, but you can’t argue with the numbers. He’s completed nearly 74 percent of his passes — including a 34-for-46 effort in a Thursday night win over the New York Giants — and he’s developing a reputation as a gamer.

The All-Pro running back has been the Titans’ savior for most of the last three seasons. He looks primed to embrace that role once again. In fact, he led Tennessee to one of the most impressive victories of the week in its 33-30 overtime win against the Seahawks. Henry ran for 182 yards and three touchdowns, caught six passes for another 55 yards and reminded us that his team is still a playoff contender as long as he’s healthy. The Titans could be 0-2 right now. Instead, they rebounded from a season-opening butt-kicking from Arizona, rallied from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit in Seattle on Sunday and gave skeptics a reason to believe they could still be a viable threat in the AFC. 

THREE DOWN

So much for the theory that the Chiefs’ defense would improve once All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive end Frank Clark returned to the field. Mathieu did his part with two interceptions, including a pick-six, in the 36-35 loss to Baltimore, but that shouldn’t ease the sting of this defeat. The Chiefs now have given up 65 points and 938 total yards in their first two games. Mahomes and the Kansas City offense always will be capable of magical feats, but we’ve seen this movie before. It was 2018, when a porous defense killed the Chiefs’ hopes of reaching the Super Bowl in Mahomes’ first year as a starter.

Yeah, it was unfortunate that quarterback Tua Tagovailoa left early in Sunday’s game after taking a shot to his ribs. What was far worse was watching the Miami Dolphins’ defense disappear for the entire contest in a 35-0 loss to Buffalo. The D is supposed to be the strength of the team. They better figure something out fast because they’ll see the Raiders next week and the Buccaneers two weeks later. Both those squads are capable of doing exactly what the Bills just did.

This day was coming for the New York Jets quarterback, as it does for every rookie starting for a bad team. It’s no surprise that it was Patriots head coach Bill Belichick who unleashed the pain, since he loves to devour first-year signal-callers (21-6 against rookie QBs with New England). But four interceptions, including three in your first five pass attempts? You can’t have that when your predecessor, Sam Darnold, is enjoying a rebirth in Carolina. 

SCOUT’S READ

One question answered by an unnamed front office source.

What does Matthew Stafford bring to the Los Angeles’ Rams offense that Jared Goff couldn’t?

PERSONNEL DIRECTOR FOR NFC TEAM: “All the disciples of the Mike Shanahan tree kill people by making you fear explosive plays in the run game and then gashing you in play-action. So if teams start to load up to stop the run, the easy openings come with the drop-back pass. Goff was a guy who thrived off half-field reads and two-receiver concepts. The drop-back passing game is Ph.D. level and that’s what Stafford offers. He also has pocket mobility so he can thrive under duress much better than Goff. When the Rams had offensive line injuries last season, it was over for Goff. But Stafford can still make plays due to his ability to move and throw off platform and utilize different arm angles. If you look at the (media) coverage of Goff when (Rams head coach Sean) McVay first got there, they lauded McVay for having the offense get to the line quickly so he could shorten play calls and talk to Goff about coverage. You can’t do that and then ask a guy to beat teams with drop-back. You need someone like Stafford to make that happen.”

MVP WATCH

A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 3 (arrows reflect movement from last week’s edition):

Dropped out: Dak Prescott (previously No. 3)

EXTRA POINT

My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Tampa Bay over Cleveland.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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