Connor Cook takes strides in Oakland Raiders backup QB battle with preseason opener performance

OAKLAND, Calif. –On Friday, as the Oakland Raiders entered the Oakland Coliseum for their preseason opener, Greg Papa was not in the broadcast booth for the first time in two decades. The Raiders break camp on Thursday, and neither Donald Penn nor Khalil Mack has put on a jersey.

But in the parking lot, a mariachi band played “Autumn Wind” as a fan openly urinated between cars. The tailgate flags flew, and as Jon Gruden took the field for the first time since 2001 as Raiders head coach, “Back in the Saddle Again” by AC/DC blared on the speakers.

It is most definitely Raiders season. One of their last in Oakland. There were more than a few questions headed into the Raiders’ preseason opener against the Detroit Lions, a 16-10 win secured by a sack and a forced fumble by James Cowser, and recovered by Frostee Rucker with 25 seconds to go. Here’s how the Raiders answered some of them in our five takeaways:

1. How did Connor Cook look?

Given how Cook looked two seasons ago in a first-round playoff loss to the Houston Texans, after Derek Carr went down with a leg injury in the regular-season finale, Cook has arguably had the most to prove this camp, in terms of quarterbacking.

Carr is playing with house money, and E.J. Manuel has 30 NFL games under his belt. Cook didn’t take a snap in 2017.

Two days ago in joint practice against the Lions, he hit a long pass to Martavis Bryant in a scrimmage situation, and on Friday, he went 11-for-19 for 141 yards and a touchdown, and led two scoring drives. He looked clean, confident, under-control and — above all –comfortable in the Gruden offense.

After every series, Cook would dutifully head to the sidelines to chat with both Gruden and Carr, with Gruden at one point gesturing to the big screen for a replay by way of instruction.

On his first pass on second-and-eight from the Raiders 49, Cook stood tall despite a heavy rush from the right side and found a wide-open Johnny Holton on the left side for a gain of 41. The late-play throw up the seam is exactly where Cook’s strength lies, and the fact that those plays are now open for him lets him be far more than the quarterback he was in Houston two years ago.

“He has probably been one of the most improved offensive players so far in camp,” Gruden said.

His next pass was a quick dunk at the three to Jalen Richard, but then he threw incomplete to Holton on third-and-three. Holton was tripped up by Darius Slay, but the pass was high and wide. That set up a 21-yard field goal by Eddy Piñeiro.

“There are a couple decisions I just can’t wait to talk to him about, get his perspective, but he moved the team, put points on the board,” Gruden said. “I liked the two-minute at the end of the half.”

Perhaps the best play of the night from Cook was a 24-yard roll-out pump fake to Paul Butler to get the Raiders down to the Detroit 10 at the start of the second quarter. The touch Cook put on that ball, while on the run to his right, was impressive, and that’s what you want to see out of your No. 2.

“I ran to my left the first time, receiver kind of got held up, really wasn’t any separation there, so just scrambled to my right, offensive line did a great job protecting for me, creating a lane for me to run through, and luckily Paul was able to get open,” Cook said.

As if that wasn’t enough, two plays later, Cook scrambled left on a broken play and sent a side-arm pass to Ryan Switzer in the back of the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown.

“The first read got kind of cloudy right in front of me, bought some time and Switz and the other guys — credit the receivers for getting separation, getting open,” Cook said. “Once you get down in the red zone, everything happens quicker. It happens a lot faster. Things are flying around, and for them to get separation and get open, it’s not easy to do.”

The poise Cook showed in engineering the 5:40, 10-play drive bodes very well for the Michigan State product, and it certainly looks like he’s much more at home in a versatile, nimble Gruden offensive scheme than he was under the previous regime.

“Significantly more comfortable,” Cook said. “Coach Gruden has done a great job with all three quarterbacks, and the other coaches on the coaching staff, as well, just teaching everything. From the first thing, square one, protection; picking up blitzes; run game; pass game; reads; recognition of the defense. They’re great teachers of the game, and it definitely helps us out.”

E.J. Manuel didn’t do himself any favors with a fumble in the red zone midway through the third quarter. That turnover choked off upa would-be scoring drive after a 21-yard pass to Saeed Blacknall and getting a 26-yard run by Chris Warren III.

Manuel did complete his first four passes for 52 yards, though, including a cross-body 19-yarder to Paul Butler with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, evading pressure and throwing a stiff-arm to stay free. On review, the play was ruled incomplete.

Gruden was reluctant to say that Cook took hold of the backup job, and said that Manuel would get more time next Saturday against the Los Angeles Rams, but Cook’s performance went a long way. Gruden’s decision may have something to do with keeping Cook away from the Rams, who Oakland plays in Week 1.

2. How did Kolton Miller fare as starting LT?

With Penn still not quite ready to resume fully-padded activities, rookie tackle Miller got the start at left tackle against the Lions. The UCLA product really took the air out of the building when he was flagged for holding after what looked to be an explosive 60-yard touchdown run on the third play from scrimmage by Marshawn Lynch. It wasn’t much of a hold, but it was flagged, and the drive fizzled after six plays. Upside: Lynch, at 30, still has that third gear in the second level, and it was a sight to see.

“I was really ticked off, though, after that was called back,” Gruden said. “I just got to the stadium, I just called my fourth play, anyhow. Chucky came out for a brief moment tonight, there.”

Overall, though, it was a solid debut by Miller, who was on the field for 12 offensive snaps(unofficial). Much like fellow rookie tackle Mike McGlinchey on Thursday for the 49ers, there was some good and some not-so-good, and but it was largely reversed — Miller looked better on the run block than in passing sets, and McGlinchey vice versa. Still, a lot to like in the first-round tackle.

First-blush, very-unofficial grade? Solid C, maybe a C+. He looked like a competent NFL left tackle, and he’s got room to improve. Speaking of improvement, Penn was on the sidelines tutoring Miller with some footwork demonstrations after he came off the field.

3. Raiders can haz pass rush?

Yes, yes they can. On third down during the first Detroit drive, rookie defensive tackle P.J. Hall dropped Matt Cassel for a four-yard sack. Even without Arden Key (ankle), the Raiders defensive line forced a three-and-out. Granted, it wasn’t against Matt Stafford (who Detroit smartly held out), but it was against a first-team line.

“P.J. Hall comes in on the very first play, gets a sack, I think he bats a pass down, I think he batted down and blocked a lot of kicks in college, he’s just a very good inside rusher,” Gruden said. “That’s good for him. He missed part of training camp with a pec strain. Maurice Hurst had some good pressures. I would have loved to have seen Arden Key play tonight.”

On the Lions’ second series, both rookies — Maurice Hurst and Hall — got pressure on Kassel, forcing a quick pass and an offensive PI by Cal alum Marvin Jones. With pressure from Hurst on the next play, Hall deflected Cassel’s next pass at the line of scrimmage.

It’s still not enough to say “Khalil who?”, but Paul Guenther at least have some exciting pieces up front. Add in Bruce Irvin and a healthy Key (sprained ankle; will be available next week) and you have a unit that’s going to make some noise.

“We’re hoping one of these days we get Khalil back to fortify everything,” Gruden said.

4. What did Bryant prove?

Over the first nine days of camp, Martavis Bryant hadn’t done a whole lot, to the point where Gruden said he still had to prove himself. He had to be more versatile in Gruden’s offense, which requires all receivers to learn each spot.

After the first series, once the starters left the game, Bryant was out wide, but in terms of the different types of routes he ran, we did see up the seam, down the field and drag routes, and he showed his physicality, reach and speed. Not a ton of results — and there wouldn’t be in the first preseason game — but there was enough to be encouraged that Bryant may have turned a corner, especially after two strong joint practices with the Lions earlier this week.

With five minutes left in the first half, Bryant couldn’t catch up to a ball by Cook down the far sideline, 28 yards down field. That was really his only misstep.

Cook’s throw to Bryant was a bit late, and the safety over the top would have made a big hit, so he does get a bit of a pass.

5. Odds and Ends

— Cornerback Antonio Hamilton had two first-half pass breakups, and with Gareon Conley out (after missing all but the first day of camp, he did dress, but did not play), was the star of a competent, but not noticeable secondary. Hamilton went down with 1:45 left in the third quarter, and hobbled off the field under his own power.

He returned with his left ankle wrapped, but late in the fourth quarter, he went down again, with the ankle being looked at, again.

— Gruden said Conley has a chance to be back on the practice field on Monday, close to a full-go.

“He’s really close, he’s really healed quickly, and my prayers have been answered,” Gruden said. “We need him back.”

— Gruden also said he hopes to work out Penn on Saturday.

— Stanford product Griff Whalen was the primary kickoff returner, and got into the mix on offense, as well, catching a pass on the first series for seven yards. He had 82 total return yards on three punts and two kickoffs in the first half, including a 27-yard take-back to open up the game.

— Rookie kicker Piñeiro hit a 21-yard field goal for his first NFL score, and finished the half with a 48-yarder off the dirt, and then hit a 45-yarder off the dirt with 2:17 to go in the fourth. The heart of Oakland is not in the marble of City Hall, but on the clay of the Coliseum. I think Proximo said that. Welcome to Oakland.

Gruden said he was trying to get Piñeiro in situations to kick off the dirt.

“I remember when we drafted [Sebastian] Janikowski, it was like being on a foreign planet for him when he got here and started kicking off the dirt,” Gruden said. “We did manage to get him a couple looks.”

Before Piñeiro addressed the media, Carr reminded him to put his shirt on before he said anything.

“It’s something to get used to, for sure,” Piñeiro said of kicking off dirt. “It was different. It’s way different than kicking off grass, but it was fun.”

— Chris Warren III acquitted himself well in the second half, highlighted by a 26-yard run on first-and-10 from the Lions’ 42. He finished with 86 yards on 12 carries, acquitting himself quite well as a workhorse in the second half, with runs of 19 and 11 yards in the fourth quarter.

“You don’t know it, but he’s 253 pounds, he can run 4.5, he’s a hammer,” Gruden said. “He can really thump you. He’s got breakaway speed, but he’s improving in the passing game. He’s becoming more and more of a running back, instead of just a runner.”

— Shilique Calhoun had a pair of third-quarter sacks, one negated by defensive holding. He’s a guy who has to show something this preseason, and looked to get nice penetration up the middle, slipping through linemen.

Can S.F. beat L.A.? It’s good news and bad news

Niners fans driving ticket prices through the roof for NFC Championship Game

The Niners can win even when Jimmy Garoppolo has an off night

What we learned during crazy NFL weekend