After the Raiders practiced Thursday, I got a chance to stand around and talk with Mike Tice, the team’s veteran offensive line coach. I don’t post every interview I log. But Tice was particularly candid (he admitted that Donald Penn’s holdout set him and line back a bit, and that Vadal Alexander was a little “herky-jerky” during his start at right tackle against the Chiefs) and uncommonly generous (he laid out his system of grading his linemen, and of measuring efficiency in the run game).
So here’s the full transcript. Check it out.
Most people seem to think your line hasn’t been quite as good this year as it was in 2016, at least before the Chiefs game. You see it that way?
“There’s some things that we did better last year than we’re doing this year. One of them is, we ran the ball a little better last year, to this point. I think if we go back and look at last year, we started out a little slow in the run game and then came on strong, finished up fifth or sixth, something like that, and found our groove. And we’ll start with the run game. The run game, every year you have – like we have different right tackles again this year. And different backs.”
And going to Marshawn Lynch is an especially big change, right? Because of his history in zone schemes?
“And I’m not a zone guy. That’s not been my background. So we have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make the outside stretch play work. I’ll give you an example. Last year, like one of these stat guru companies said we ran the ball between the tackles more than any other team in the league. This year, we’re like way down. And so we’ve changed our style. But even with that said, which is fine, years when I’ve had great running teams – first in the league, third in the league, fifth in the league – the next year you think you’ve got a play that’s gonna be a great play for you, and you can’t run the play for a yard. So each year it’s different. And we haven’t quite found our groove yet. You know, we’re working hard, working to improve combination blocks, and working to figure out what the backs are good at. The little guys we kind of know. With Marshawn it’s been a work in progress. I’m confident we’ll be able to run the ball efficiently as we keep going.
“We’re in the 40-something percentile. Our goal is to be 50-percent efficient. That means, on first down we want four yards. On second down we want more than half. So if it’s second-and-6, we can’t rush for three, we’ve gotta rush for four. If it’s second-and-10, we can’t rush for five, we’ve gotta rush for six. Last week, we had second-and-20 twice, we ran the ball for 10 yards and nine yards. Well, those are nice runs. But they’re not efficient. So we’ll continue to work and strive to put these guys in the best position to be successful in the run game.
“Protection-wise: Protection’s been good, we’ve just given up more sacks this year. Last year we were unconscious, with only 18 sacks. What I look at more than anything is, if you check the numbers on how many times the quarterback is getting hit, those numbers are still low. So that’s what is really important for me. Like last year, the backs didn’t give up a sack. The first game of year (in 2017), they already gave up a sack. You add that in. And then you have Vadal (Alexander) gave up a sack early, playing four or five plays in the Tennessee game. So those are two sacks that we didn’t have last year. So sacks numbers? Yeah, I’d like ’em to be low, I’d go two or less a game. I think we were at 18 for the season. But I look at the hits. Is our quarterback getting hit? We don’t want him to get hit.
“The line’s grades, there’s been a number of games where the line has graded out winning grades. By that, we grade a 0-1-2 scale. If they grade 1.6 or above, it’s a passing grade, OK? Now, if they grade 1.6 or above and they have two quarterback hits, or their man tackles the running back to keep the run from being efficient, you ding ’em down. So the guy who’s grading 1.6 is not passing. But a guy who grades a 1.7/1.8, and he might have one hit on a running, one hit on a quarterback or a pressure, he’s got a winning grade. I’ve had a Hall of Fame lineman, Randall McDaniel, he never graded out a 2.0. He was close once.”
Even 1.6 sounds like a high standard.
“We set a high standard. Because here’s what the novice doesn’t understand. People are gonna remember a lineman when he whiffs or when his guy makes a play in the backfield for a negative play, right? The one thing that I remind my guys, if they have 60 plays, they have 60 boxing matches or wrestling matches. Every single play, there’s contact. No lineman is gonna go 60-0. If I can get them to go 52-8, you might say, ‘Oh, eight bad plays?’ But let me tell you, in a day’s work, when you’re singled up…
“So I actually like where we’re at with the line. We’re still having right-tackle growth over there with our combination. And just as Marshall (Newhouse) was playing really good football, he hurts his foot. Now, in Vadal’s defense, he started for us three times in the last two years, and we’re 3-0. So are we at where we were at last year? No. Not yet. But I don’t think we’ve been awful.
“But we have high standards. I’ll give you an example. You hit the quarterback and he goes to the ground, the league puts it down as a hit. The guy hits the quarterback pretty hard, that goes down as a hit. For me, our guy gets close to the quarterback and he goes like that and his feet move, that’s a hit. Now, is that a hit by league standards? No. But it’s a hit by Mike Tice standards. But we have high standards. We have very high standards.
“But the guys practice extremely well. There’s been some weeks where we’ve practiced – the Washington game. Aberration. We got bull rushed. They took us down the middle.”
I haven’t seen that before by this group.
“Not in the three years we’ve been here. We got bull rushed. I put that off as an aberration. It happened one week. Guys knocked us back. Which is hard to do, you know? I don’t want to say we’re a work in progress. I think we’re solid right now. And I said to ’em last week, ‘You guys have played some good games, but you guys haven’t given me a great game.’ Now last week you got 52 snaps, and you had very few quarterback hits and you had no sacks. I thought protection-wise that was a very good game. I thought run-wise, still a little bit up and down, a little bit jumpy. A little bit edgy at times. And again, in their defense, we’ve changed our style a little bit. We haven’t run many gap plays. We haven’t run many pulling plays. We’ve been stretch and zone.”
This seems like a very intelligent group of linemen. I assume that has made the adjustment a little easier?
“I’ll tell you where my guys are at with it. Their like this: quote-unquote, ‘Coach, we’re tired of running sideways.’ My guys want to come off the ball and hit. Not to give away game plans or anything, as we progres forward, I’m very cognizant of the fact of what they want. And the players had four days off, we had a couple extra days as coaches. We did a little mini bye-week study. And we’re gonna, as any good coaching staff does, make some adjustments. And we’ll see if we can grow from it.”
You said your line hasn’t given you a great game yet. But was the KC game pretty damn good?
“I thought protection-wise… We had four guys pass. What I have found out over the years: Three guys pass and you don’t turn the ball over, you win a bunch of games. Four guys pass and you don’t turn it over, you usually win. Five guys pass and you don’t turn the ball over, you usually win. Now where we had an aberration in that, in the Baltimore game I had five guys pass. But late in the game we had a turnover. But I said to my guys, I can only remember two or three other times in my coaching career where five guys passed and we didn’t have a turnover, and we failed. But then I reminded them, well, we did have a turnover. Because if you’re winning up front, usually you should win, if you don’t have a turnover.”
Buffalo is another big challenge up front, right?
“They’re stingy, man. They’re stingy. The strength of the team are those three defensive linemen. So once again we have our hands full, and we have a challenge against excellent football players – and it’s a good thing. Because it keeps them focused. Makes them determined. And it takes a lot of pride to keep your guy away from the quarterback. And, where we gotta get better, keep your guy off the running back. We probably have been a little more edgy in the run game this year than at any point last year, and I think some of that has to do with the new scheme.”
After the Chiefs game, Donald Penn said he realized he had been trying to be too perfect. Did you see that?
“Yeah, that was his best game. He got an ‘attaboy,’ which means he didn’t play good enough to get a game ball – certainly not with a guy who got 200 receiving yards, and another with 500 yards passing on the offense. But he got an attaboy. Very few chips, no quarterback hits, one pressure. I thought it was a good day’s work by him. To be frank, I think the missed training camp time has hurt him. Without a doubt. Because a tackle has to be a rhythmic guy. He’s got to set in rhythm, he’s got to be athletic, if you will. I’ve seen some herky-jerkiness with his sets, with his hands. And so in the run game, the combination blocks where we ran behind those two on the left all year last year have been a little bit off.”
That idea of trying to be too perfect, rather than relaxed and aggressive, has that been an issue for the O-line as a whole?
“The one thing that I demand is that they finish, and they’ve been finishing plays well. We’re known as good finishers. I’m seeing the finish. I’m seeing the lack of mental errors. You have 82 plays last week, and two mental errors between five guys. And one of ’em was taken away because I thought that Gabe (Jackson) stepped with the wrong foot. I count it as a mental error if you step with the wrong foot. (But Jackson didn’t.) So we had 82 plays, times five – you can figure it out, what’s that, 410 plays? We had one mental error. So they’re in tune. They’re studying. They’re putting the time in. And five linemen up front have to mesh and work together. And with the missed training camp time, I think the new running plays, I think the new right tackle, and then he gets hurt, and then Vadal comes in, a little herky-jerky there. (Jon) Feliciano one game. Keep working. Just keep working.”
How good has center Rodney Hudson been for you this year? I feel like he’s been your rock.
“Rodney’s had a tremendous season. His grades are better this year than last year. And part of it is he’s been a little bit healthier. He’s got some nicks and bruises, like we all have, and this and that, nothing worth the injury report. But some days I’ve got to give him some plays off that I wouldn’t normally give him. But he’s been steady as a rock every single game. He’s been our best lineman, consistency-wise, and lack of mentals, and lack of his guy hitting the ball carrier. He’s been the No. 1 guy. Great player. Great leader, too. And you talk about smart. I’ve been blessed to develop three Pro Bowl centers, and all three knew (pass) coverage. And he knows coverage, which is an oddity.”