ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP)Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden spent much of last season lamenting how difficult it is to find good pass rushers after trading away Khalil Mack.
A year later, it looks like Gruden and the Raiders might have found one in fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby.
Overlooked by many coming into the draft because he played his college ball at Eastern Michigan, Crosby is developing into one of the key pieces on Oakland’s defense as evidenced by his four sacks last week in a win over Cincinnati.
That performance that earned him the award as the AFC’s top defensive player of the week may have come as a surprise to outsiders but it’s what the Raiders have come to expect from the player they call Mad Maxx.
”The minute he got here on the practice field, it was evident we had a gem,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Thursday. ”He works his butt off, he’s going 100 miles per hour. You can’t ask for much more from a young player.”
After a broken hand in the first exhibition game limited his impact at the start of the season, Crosby has become a difference-maker in recent weeks. He has shown a knack for batting down passes at the line, forcing fumbles and putting pressure on the quarterback.
He earned high praise from CBS commentator Tony Romo, who predicted last month that Crosby would make multiple Pro Bowls in his career, and has taken an even bigger step the past two weeks.
He had three quarterback hits and provided pressure that contributed to two of Philip Rivers’ three interceptions in a 26-24 win over the Chargers two weeks ago and then harassed Ryan Finley all day with the four-sack performance last week.
”It’s just a start,” he said. ”It’s awesome to get the awards and all that stuff, but we’re in the mix of trying to make the playoffs. So that’s what’s most important now, so we’re just going to stay focused.”
Crosby became the fourth rookie to record four sacks in a game, joining Leslie O’Neal (five in 1986), Cornelius Bennett (1987) and Brian Orakpo (2009).
He ranks third among all rookies with 6 1/2 sacks, trailing only top 10 picks Nick Bosa of San Francisco and Josh Allen of Jacksonville. He already has the third-most sacks in a season by a Raiders rookie, trailing only Greg Townsend’s 10 1/2 in 1983 and Aaron Wallace’s nine in 1990.
”His signature is effort,” Gruden said. ”Not many guys in the league play that hard, that long. There’s a great player in Houston, J.J. Watt. I’m not comparing him to Watt, but I’m just telling you Watt plays with incredible down-to-down effort. It’s amazing. It’s his stamina, it’s his conditioning and those are things that we love about Crosby. He plays as hard as he can play, and he can play a long time at that speed. And that’s one of the reasons why he’s getting to the quarterback.”
Generating a better pass rush was a priority this season after the Raiders had an NFL-low 13 sacks last season – a mark that tied for the second fewest ever in a 16-game season.
Making matters worse was the fact that Gruden had traded away one of the league’s elite pass rushers a week before the season started when he dealt Mack to Chicago for a package that included a pair of first-round picks.
While Mack was generating highlights on a near weekly basis in Chicago, the Raiders couldn’t put any pressure on opposing quarterbacks, contributing to a 4-12 record in Gruden’s first season back on the sideline.
But Oakland has 25 sacks already this season thanks in large part to Crosby, ranking tied for 15th in the league. He’s also getting plenty of help from fellow rookie Clelin Ferrell and veteran Benson Mayowa, who leads the team with seven sacks, as well as an improved secondary.
”I feel like we’re playing together a lot better,” Crosby said. ”It’s all about marrying up matchups, having the back end being on the same page as the guys up front. When they’re holding it down on the back end, it makes our job much easier.”
NOTES: S Lamarcus Joyner (hamstring) and T David Sharpe (calf) didn’t practice.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL