All smiles after Raiders thrash Giants in Pierce’s coaching debut

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The Las Vegas Raiders snapped a two-game losing streak in routing the New York Giants 30-6 Sunday at Allegiant Stadium.

LAS VEGAS — Delicious ironies aside, Antonio Pierce came to Allegiant Stadium Sunday with his game face on, just like he has done every week for the last two years.

But this time was different. He was no longer just a cog in a sputtering machine. He was now at the control of the switch, determined to get things running right.

The former All-Pro linebacker who won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants, stood across the way from his old team. Frankly, it wouldn’t have mattered who the opponent was. Pierce has one task before him — to help clean up owner Mark Davis’ mess and make the Las Vegas Raiders competitive, if not relevant over the second half of the 2023 NFL season.

It’s one thing to say the right things, be inspirational, energize a dejected fan base and motivate the players. It’s quite another to execute and get the desired results.

The Raiders did look like an improved football team Sunday. They appeared free from the emotional and physical shackles Josh McDaniels had bound them to. The result was a convincing 30-6 win over the Giants, a game where Las Vegas dominated in all three phases — offense, defense and special teams. 

“We talked about getting back to being ourselves,” said Pierce, who took over for McDaniels late Tuesday night. “We’re looking forwards, not backwards.”

The Raiders played with no fear, with enthusiasm and energy. Pierce and his coaches had them ready and the execution was arguably the best this team has displayed all year.

The Raiders hadn’t generated 20 points on offense all season prior to Sunday. They had 24 at halftime and finished with 30. It likely would’ve been more had they not gotten conservative late in the third quarter and throughout the fourth as the game was already well in hand.

Rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell, who was starting for the second time in his brief NFL career and was making his first start at home, was 16 of 25 for 209 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and no sacks. His offensive line gave him time to make plays, such as the 50-yard hookup he had with fellow rookie Tre Tucker in the second quarter which led to the second of Josh Jacobs’ two touchdown runs.

“He’s a dawg,” Tucker said of his QB. “I’m usually one of the guys who gets to the facility early every day but Aidan’s usually there before me, working, studying. He’s one of our hardest workers.”

O’Connell said everybody deserves credit for the offense’s success Sunday. The Raiders generated 334 total yards.

“Bo did an awesome job,” O’Connell said of Bo Hardegree, who is the new offensive coordinator. “I know he didn’t get a lot of sleep this week. Hopefully, he gets to sleep well tonight.”

This was supposed to be a matchup of two of the NFL’s best running backs. It turned into a one-man show as Jacobs outplayed Saquon Barkley, though in fairness to Barkley, whatever effectiveness he may have had disappeared once starting quarterback Daniel Jones injured the ACL in his right knee on the first play of the second quarter and left the game for good. 

Jacobs turned back the clock to last year when he was football’s top ground gainer. He finished with 98 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns, running hard and effectively, thus taking a lot of the heat off O’Connell.

“I saw that heartbeat,” Pierce said of Jacobs, who had his best day of the season. “He’s a Raider. When he’s running angry, that’s when he’s at his best.”

Barkley finished with 90 yards. But the Giants (2-7) have bigger concerns. The status of Jones remains paramount. They’re still without backup Tyrod Taylor and it may mean going with third-stringer Tommy DeVito for the foreseeable future. DeVito was 15 of 20 for 175 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

The Raiders sacked him six times and had eight total on Sunday, three of which came from Maxx Crosby, who the overmatched Giants offensive line had trouble containing all day.

Pierce said what took place Sunday was the byproduct of changing the atmosphere at the team’s Henderson practice facility.

“Guys were having fun, but when they got on the grass, it was all about work,” he said.

O’Connell said he noticed the difference.

“It was hard,” he said. “It was a short week. But (Pierce) had us ready. It was great to see all the smiles from the players, coaches and administrators.”

At 4-5, the Raiders still have a long uphill climb to make the playoffs. They host the Jets next Sunday night with a chance to get back to .500. The road gets tougher after that with games at Miami, home to Kansas City and hosting Minnesota. Can they go on a second-half run?

We’ll see. Pierce is auditioning for the permanent job and he got off to a good start Sunday. There’s still things to be cleaned up. There are still challenges that lie ahead. But Davis, who made the decision to move on from McDaniels and give Pierce his chance following the loss to the Lions last Monday night, has to be happy with what he saw.

As for Pierce, he felt like a player again.

“I won’t lie, I had butterflies,” he said. “I only felt this way twice before, my first game in the NFL and the Super Bowl. But it was a great team effort — players, coaches, everyone. I couldn’t be happier for Raider Nation.” 

Oh, they’re happy too. It’s not often they get to leave the stadium with a smile on their Silver and Black painted faces. But maybe this will be the start of a new trend.