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The Ass-Kickers From Oakland

When Derek Carr went down, so did Oakland’s best shot at a Super Bowl. To make a deep run, the team will now have to rely on its physically imposing, history-seeking offensive line.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Two days after his Raiders rallied to knock off the Panthers 35–32 in Week 12, Kelechi Osemele posted a highlight from the game to Twitter. It was a quick snippet filmed on his phone, given away by the fluorescent lighting reflecting off the top-right corner of the screen. The clip lasts 22 seconds, taken from the end zone view of a play in the third quarter, and is accompanied by a short, fitting caption.

As the video plays, carnage unfolds. The pain starts with Osemele, Oakland’s left guard who set the market for his position this offseason by inking a five-year deal with $25.4 million guaranteed, trying to launch Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis into orbit. Next, center Rodney Hudson buries a nose tackle into the turf. It’s at that moment when Osemele begins his commentary, as he lets out a reflexive “Gahhh” while Hudson crushes his man into the ground. As right guard Gabe Jackson chases Carolina linebacker A.J. Klein downfield, Osemele begs Klein not to run away. Stay still, he implies, and it’ll all be over soon. With Jackson stuffing his man into the dirt, Osemele and a teammate can’t help but cackle.

“There was a bunch of people on Twitter going crazy like, ‘Oh my god,’” Osemele says, sitting in front of his locker at the team facility in Alameda, California. “‘They’re over here killing people and laughing about it. The Raiders are crazy.’”

Some commenters thought the post was in poor taste, Osemele dancing on a grave that he helped dig. He says that was never the intention.

“I kind of think when you put stuff out like that, you’re putting the league on notice. That’s how we play here. Every time you play us, that’s the type of physicality you’re going to get. If anything, I feel like if [players] are paying attention to it, it might not be good for them to pay attention to it.”

The Raiders’ surprising run to a 12–4 season and their first playoff berth in 14 years was defined by quarterback Derek Carr’s emergence as an MVP candidate and pass rusher Khalil Mack’s ascendance to become the league’s most feared defender, but as Oakland prepares to face Houston in this weekend’s wild-card round, it’s those 22 seconds — and the men responsible for them — that truly define its roster. No team spent more on its offensive line this season. No line in the league is bigger. In the Raiders locker room, even 300-pounders can look downright tiny.

“Most [offensive linemen] who can move are smaller, and most guys who are big can’t move,” says rookie Vadal Alexander, the sixth lineman on the Raiders depth chart. “We have a lot of big men who can move.”

While the Cowboys and their trio of first-round picks have set the NFL standard up front, the Raiders have presented a fascinating parallel all season. Both teams are poised to send three starting linemen to the Pro Bowl — more than one-third of the blockers invited. The groups were constructed differently (in Oakland’s case, with a combination of prudent bargain-bin finds, gold-plated free agents, and a draft steal), but they prove the same point — an offense built around its line can take the NFL by storm.

With Carr now set to miss the postseason with a broken fibula, the limits of that premise will be tested. If the Raiders have any hope of making a deep playoff run, it rests with the most valued position group on their roster. Osemele wants the league to pay attention; if Oakland can string together a few wins with rookie Connor Cook at quarterback, he’ll get his wish.

“[Position coach Mike] Tice always says that the offensive line is the engine of the offense,” Osemele says. “And I think that becomes more important now than ever.”

Donald Penn (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Donald Penn (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In March 2014, following an eight-season stint with the Buccaneers, left tackle Donald Penn was unexpectedly released by the franchise. A former undrafted free agent, Penn had earned a spot in the starting lineup by his second year, and hadn’t relinquished it for 108 consecutive games. Over that stretch, he’d developed into a more-than-reliable blindside protector who was invited to the 2010 Pro Bowl. When Tampa Bay hired Lovie Smith in early 2014, Penn didn’t fear that his job might be at risk. But when the Bucs signed former Bengals tackle Anthony Collins to a big deal in free agency (a player they would cut less than a year later), Penn was on his way out.

“The way they did it at the end, it wasn’t right in my book,” Penn told SiriusXM radio in 2014. “I’m a grown man; they could have treated me like a grown man.”

At age 30, Penn was suddenly a free agent; Oakland, lacking a steady option at his position, scooped him up with a modest two-year, $9.6 million deal. Two months before spending a second-round pick on Carr, the Raiders had sewn up his backside protection.

Now 33, Penn has played some of the best football of his career this season, both on passing downs and in the running game. As the Raiders have shuffled between Menelik Watson and Austin Howard at right tackle, they’ve angled any extra protection — whether in the form of tight ends or running backs — in that direction, leaving Penn alone to slow down edge rushers. “Donald hasn’t blinked,” Tice says. “He’s manned the left side with very little help.”

Penn’s stellar season is what made the injury to Carr all the more cruel. In the fourth quarter of a 33–25 win over the Colts on Christmas Eve, Penn lost his footing, allowing Indianapolis pass rusher Trent Cole to slip past him and grab hold of Carr’s legs. It was the first quarterback hit for the Colts all game, and even more devastating, the first sack Penn had allowed all season. “I wish I could have that play back; I’ve been blocking great all year … “ Penn said standing in front of his locker after the game, almost as if he was trying to work through the cosmic calculations of it all. Soon, his message turned to how Oakland would move beyond the injury. “It ain’t going to stop us. We need to keep this thing goin’, because it’s goin’ good.”

As a veteran presence on a relatively young roster, his words resonated with his teammates. Now they may need to be applied in a different capacity. A knee injury suffered in the regular-season finale has kept Penn out of practice heading into this weekend’s visit to Houston, and it looks as if the Raiders might have to take on the Texans without him. That would place an added onus on Oakland’s other standout linemen, one of whom has already shown a knack for taking the lead.

Rodney Hudson (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Rodney Hudson (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Tice was hired as the Raiders offensive line coach before the 2015 season, following a year spent filling the same role for Atlanta. With both Penn and Jackson already on the roster, Tice surveyed the depth chart and saw that his group was in need of a foundational piece, a steadying force on which both the style and values of the line could be based. From the moment that offseason’s free-agent signing period began, Oakland was hell-bent on making Hudson that player.

A Florida State product taken by the Chiefs in the second round of the 2011 draft, Hudson was the clear-cut top center available. Years earlier, while an assistant with the Bears, Tice had worked him out and tried to sell the Chicago front office on picking him. Even from that limited interaction, Tice felt it was apparent what any team would get in Hudson.

“I felt like he would be a good leader for the group,” Tice says. “A very serious guy. He’s not an aloof player in any form or fashion. I thought he’d be an excellent teacher for our young guys that we brought in. He’s been all of that and more.”

That spring the Raiders gave Hudson a five-year, $44.5 million deal that made him the highest-paid center in football at the time. In the two seasons since, he has been the best pass-protecting center in the league; in turn, he’s helped lift the Raiders line to become the top pass-blocking unit in the NFL. After finishing fourth in adjusted sack rate last year, Oakland closed the 2016 campaign no. 1 in that category. That starts with the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Hudson, who didn’t allow Carr to be hit, let alone sacked, through the first three-quarters of this season.

Hudson is adept at every facet of pass protection, but what distinguishes him from his contemporaries is a level of awareness that borders on an ability to see into the future. The play above is from the fourth quarter of the Raiders’ 30–20 win over the Broncos in Week 9. At the snap, Hudson completely ignores the player lined up directly over him, even going so far as to turn his entire body to the right. That’s because he knows, based on Denver’s alignment and the situation, that safety T.J. Ward — lined up three gaps over — will loop around, right to him, at any moment. Ward, expecting a clean path to the quarterback, never sees the hit coming.

Hudson’s value system — and the amount of work needed to develop that kind of anticipation — is built on the idea that a line’s utmost priority is to keep its quarterback clean. And while he’s just 27 years old, in many ways he’s going on 72. He chooses not to have a Twitter account, instead spending his time poring over film cut-ups that he’ll prod coaches for if they don’t arrive when he expects them. Penn is the line’s elder statesman, but Hudson, six years his junior, is its sometimes-crotchety voice, unafraid to light into the group when he feels it’s fallen beneath his standard.

“Every guy here I think will tell you, we try to take pride in keeping your man away from the quarterback,” Hudson says. That devotion produced constantly cushy pockets, facilitating Carr’s rise and laying the groundwork for Oakland’s path to contention.

Kelechi Osemele (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Kelechi Osemele (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

If signing Hudson served as the moment the Raiders line came into its own, bringing on Osemele was its finishing stroke. When free agency opened in 2015, Tice had just arrived in Oakland; by March 2016, he’d spent a season learning the intricacies of his players and the group as a whole. “I knew what the room was, and I knew what we needed to add,” Tice says. “And [Osemele] filled that role for us.”

The presence that Oakland lacked was an ass-kicker — a bad-intentioned, physical force who would not only provide some much-needed pop to the running game, but also infect the rest of the group with his nastiness. “He showed his true form from the first day and first fight in practice,” Tice says. “That this guy was going to be an intense sucker, to say the least. That permeates the room.”

The interior of the offensive line is where many a would-be tough guy ends up, but Osemele’s brash brand of bullying isn’t posturing. He’s a small mountain at 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds, a menacing presence even in a world full of giants. As a rookie in Baltimore, Osemele spent his entire 2012 campaign at right tackle. When some late-season shuffling moved him to left guard, though, it was clear he had found his calling. A lingering back issue from his college days cost Osemele the final nine games of the 2013 season, but he returned as one of the game’s most physically dominant forces.

When Alexander first saw the way Osemele blew people off the ball, he had to ask his teammates if that type of destruction was typical in the NFL. “It’s rare to just push around grown men on this level, and he does it pretty often,” Alexander says.

Before Osemele arrived, the Raiders’ resident mauler was Jackson, a 6-foot-3, 335-pound wrecking ball with a set of shoulders that seem to consume the rest of his upper body. Osemele had known about Jackson for years, after Ravens offensive line coach Juan Castillo compared their styles during film study. Yet while the two share a physical resemblance, their demeanors couldn’t be more disparate. Jackson is the quiet one of the Raiders bunch, a profoundly religious man who says little but taps into a quiet rage on the field. Osemele is never afraid to crow, and his attitude started to seep into Jackson’s from the pair’s first game together.

In the first half of Oakland’s 35–34 victory over the Saints in Week 1, Jackson told Osemele how many pancake blocks he’d already notched. Osemele one-upped him by immediately revealing his number of victims. An NFL game quickly turned into the scene from Lord of the Rings where Legolas and Gimli compete to see who can dispose of more orcs at Helm’s Deep. The Raiders staff tracks knockdowns, and Osemele finished that game with 15. The showing was enough to stoke Jackson into defending his reputation as the line’s principal tough guy.

“After that, he was like, ‘I’m comin’, motherfucker,’” Osemele says.

Osemele’s inclination for obliterating opponents has turned him into a presence that’s almost unheard of — an offensive lineman who feeds into the highlight economy. Not many weeks pass without a new GIF surfacing of Osemele wiping a defender from existence. “Hell yeah, it’s fun,” he says of seeing those plays pop up online. “I like finishing. That’s the thing I like to be known for. I just like playing aggressive.”

Of all the clips he’s seen this season, the one against Carolina remains his favorite. Because in that moment, it wasn’t just him. Even amid his quest to assert his badass supremacy, he notes that Jackson’s exclamation point of a block was as good as it gets. “Gabe’s finish on that guy,” Osemele says, “was the nastiest play of the year.”

With Osemele’s penchant for punishment extending to his linemates, the Raiders morphed from a renowned pass-blocking group into an all-around wrecking crew. And this spring, they realized that along with challenging to become the best front in football, they also had a chance to make history.

Not long after the Raiders linemen gathered for the first time, just before the start of OTAs in May, one of the team’s offensive assistants made an observation: All five of Oakland’s 2016 starters (and even its key backups) are black. In a league in which almost 70 percent of the players are black, that may seem normal. It isn’t. In 2014, more than 80 percent of the NFL’s centers and about half of its guards and tackles were white. This season, Miami was the only other team that started five black players on its line.

After the Raiders opened practice and the caliber of talent lining the roster became clear, a couple of assistants decided to dig through offensive lines from the past. By their count, Oakland had the chance to become the first team with an all-black starting offensive line to win the Super Bowl. The players discussed famous all-black groups, and when the linemen returned from OTAs, the walls of the their meeting room had been redecorated with photos of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the 1965–66 Texas Western men’s basketball team.

“We are black men in America,” Osemele says. “Any time you can be the first group of black men to do anything … it’s a boosting thing.”

Three weeks ago, their goal of realizing Oakland’s Super Bowl dreams felt within reach. But since the injuries to Carr and Penn, talk of the Raiders’ championship hopes have dwindled; their odds of winning the title sit at plus-6,600, according to one Vegas sportsbook, tied for ninth among the 12 teams in the playoffs. According to Tice, though, what separates this group from others around the NFL is the unflinching belief the linemen have — in one another and in themselves — regardless of circumstance. “They know they can block people,” Tice says. “There’s no sense of anxiety. Oh, I’ve got this guy. Oh boy. They know they can block anybody, and they play together as a unit.”

The success of Carr and the Raiders’ passing game may have transformed this team into a contender, but Oakland has shown that it can win in a variety of ways. Twice this season — in the win over the Broncos and the victory over the Colts — Oakland tallied more than 200 rushing yards. That feat was made possible by the line grinding defenses into dust, something it will need to replicate on Saturday as the playoffs begin.

“Losing Derek, I think that puts a lot of pressure on other players. I for sure feel like there’s more importance on us, on being physical,” Osemele says. “There has to be this contagious energy and [we have to] be the people that spark things.”

A brutal twist of fate may have robbed Oakland of its best hope for a title, but the group into which the franchise has poured so many resources isn’t backing down. The Raiders are without their MVP candidate, but they still have their most valuable unit.