Updated 10:28 pm, Sunday, October 1, 2017
Photo: Joe Mahoney, Associated Press
DENVER — Seven days earlier, the Raiders awoke in Washington with a 2-0 record and rampant optimism. Their offense was rolling, their defense was improving, their ambitions were sky-high.
On Sunday, they hobbled home in an altogether different state.
The Raiders not only lost 16-10 to Denver, they also lost quarterback Derek Carr to a back injury. Carr went down late in the third quarter and did not return, leaving his status in doubt for next Sunday’s home game against Baltimore.
Carr, while scrambling to evade pressure, was hurt on a sack by defensive end Shelby Harris. Carr immediately reached for his back, stayed on the ground for several minutes and walked gingerly to the sideline.
Then, after the game, Carr’s back appeared stiff as he moved slowly around the locker room. Head coach Jack Del Rio described the injury as a “back spasm” and suggested it “should clean up quickly,” but Carr half-jokingly dismissed Del Rio’s diagnosis.
Carr didn’t seem especially confident about returning to practice this week. He got treatment and tested his back by throwing the ball in the locker room during the fourth quarter, but he clearly wasn’t ready to re-enter the game.
More than an hour later, Carr was asked how his back felt and replied, “Not too good. It still hurts. … I got blasted pretty good.”
The Raiders did not announce results of X-rays on Carr’s back. He wasn’t sure if he would have an MRI exam after the team’s return to the Bay Area.
His departure punctuated another desultory outing for Oakland’s offense, which produced only 10 points for the second consecutive game (after averaging 35.5 the two previous games). The Raiders had 24 yards rushing, struggled again to convert on third down — 2-for-12 on Sunday, after 0-for-11 in the previous game — and discovered some rhythm only after EJ Manuel replaced Carr.
The offense went three-and-out on Manuel’s first full possession, but then he directed the Raiders on a nine-play, 73-yard drive early in the fourth quarter. The drive stalled in the red zone, leading to Giorgio Tavecchio’s 38-yard field goal to trim Oakland’s deficit to 16-10.
After the defense held, Manuel again led the Raiders downfield, at one point reaching Denver’s 36-yard line. But the bid for a comeback victory fizzled when Manuel floated a long pass toward Amari Cooper inside the 10, and safety Justin Simmons raced over to make a game-sealing interception.
“I really thought we were going to win that game,” Del Rio said of the late surge.
There were many reasons the Raiders didn’t win, none more central than their suddenly anemic running game. Marshawn Lynch was their leading rusher — with 12 yards on nine forgettable carries.
The Raiders have gained 56 yards on the ground in their past two games combined, after piling up 289 in their first two games.
Some of this disparity traces to stronger opponents, no question. The Broncos entered Sunday’s game with the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL, and then showed why.
Even so, Del Rio was uncommonly candid about his team’s struggles running the ball.
“We’ve been out of rhythm for too long,” he said. “Our inability to run the ball with our physical guys is most disappointing. We have to get that rectified, and we will.”
The Raiders looked overmatched at the outset Sunday, for the second consecutive game. They had zero first downs in the first quarter, matching their non-output in the first quarter of the previous Sunday’s 27-10 loss to Washington.
At the end of Sunday’s first quarter, the Broncos held a gaudy lead in total yardage: 140-22.
The Raiders, after falling behind 10-0, stitched together a five-play, 99-yard scoring drive. The march started with an 11-yard completion to seldom-used tight end Lee Smith and culminated with a 64-yard touchdown pass to seldom-used wide receiver Johnny Holton.
Holton broke into the clear and made a nice over-the-shoulder catch on Carr’s long, high pass. It was the first touchdown of the second-year receiver’s pro career.
Denver’s tenacious defense went back to work after halftime. Carr and Co. spun their wheels and the Broncos added two field goals in the third quarter, stretching their lead to 16-7 before the Raiders showed some life.
Not enough, as it turned out.
“It just sucks right now,” offensive tackle Donald Penn said. “We lost two in a row. We’ve got to find a way to get this bad taste out of our mouth and get back to being the Raiders.”
RB Marshawn Lynch: Beast Mode found no room to run and broke few tackles, with only 12 yards on nine carries.
DE Khalil Mack: Last season’s Defensive Player of the Year remains practically unblockable. He had two sacks Sunday to boost his season total to four.
QB EJ Manuel: The backup quarterback showed poise and arm strength in pumping late life into his team’s previously stagnant offense.