The Oakland Raiders pieced together one of their best performances of 2018 Monday night, and saw players in all three phases step up in a big way.
Dwayne Harris got the momentum started early with a 99-yard punt return, running back Doug Martin carried the offense during his 107-yard performance, and safety Karl Joseph set a physical tone defensively that mirrored the gritty Raiders defenses of old.
Joseph had arguably his best game as a Raider, notching seven tackles, one tackle for loss, and had the only sack for the Raiders defense all night. The former first-round pick had a knack for laying the boom in college, and he wasn't afraid to lay the lumber against the Denver Broncos in Week 16.
Earlier this season, Joseph struggled to stay on the field. No. 42 suffered an injury that kept him sideline for a few weeks, and following his recovery it took time for him to get back in the swing of things, but now that he's fully understanding Defensive Coordinator Paul Guenther's system, and had time to gel with his new teammates, he's thriving.
"In the beginning of the year he got hurt in the Miami game and was shelved through the Seattle game and then he came back," Guenther explained Thursday. "Typically, when you have your team assembled, and it's what you want, and you're drafting guys, those guys take time. You don't just throw them in there right away. It was a thing where he started to understand it more and more, and when the light came on for him you can really start seeing him make plays now. It's a credit to him. He studied, he's paid attention in meetings, he's good on the practice field and it's showing on Sunday."
The middle linebacker position is commonly referred to as the quarterback of the defense, but a lot of the time the communication falls on the safety. It's the safety's job to survey the field, get everyone lined up properly with their assignments, and oversee the play as it develops. The Raiders defense has been a rotating door of sorts this season, and Head Coach Jon Gruden believes Joseph was able to excel Monday night because he's finally reached a good level of communication with his new teammates.
"I think he's just feeling the defense now," Head Coach Jon Gruden said Wednesday. "I think he's learning a new defense. No different than Derek Carr. You talk about Carr learning a new offense. It's tough on a safety now. He's got to be the quarterback back there. He's been playing with different nickels, different middle linebackers. I mean, hell, he's been playing with different defensive lineman, different corners that he has to communicate with. It's a transition period for him, but he is really accelerated in the last four or five ball games and become a real good player for us."
As the season wraps up this Sunday with the Raiders' final game, the evaluation process for next season will begin immediately, and the goal in the offseason is simple. Improve.
The Silver and Black will have some areas of need that should be addressed in free agency and the 2019 NFL Draft, but Gruden is confident Joseph is one of the pieces the team can build around going forward.
"Just got to keep improving and we got to keep improving around him. Much like we plan on doing with Derek and our offense. If you can get some playmakers in the middle of your defense and build around those guys, usually that's a good thing."
The Raiders will face the Kansas City Chiefs this Sunday in their season finale at 1:25 p.m. PST.