Rookie wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey has taken a lot of criticism this season but Oakland's first-round draft pick was finally to answer back with his four-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter against Dallas that pulled the Raiders within 17-7 and briefly gave the team hopes of rallying for a comeback for the second straight week.
Those hopes didn't last long, however.
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo threw his second touchdown pass of the day early in the fourth quarter and the Cowboys shut down the Raiders' offense the rest of the way, the combination adding up to a 24-7 loss that dropped Oakland to 3-8 this season.
Heyward-Bey's touchdown – his first since entering the NFL as the seventh overall draft pick this year – was about the only highlight the Raiders had in the Thanksgiving Day loss, which prevented Oakland from winning back-to-back games for the first time this season.
"It's disappointing and it's embarrassing also," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. "Trying to win two games, for us, has been like trying to climb Mt. Everest. It's been very difficult. We're trying to get two wins at some point in the year, and it always never happens."
There is plenty of blame to go around in this one:
-- Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski had some decent moments but wasn't very effective overall. He completed just over 50 percent of his throws for 200 yards but missed open receivers and had one pass land incomplete without another Oakland player within 15 yards.
"I didn't feel good about it at all, especially (because) we didn't win," said Gradkowski, who had a 78.3 QB rating. "I felt like I missed a couple of throws early in the game. There were plays out here to be made early on, we just didn't make ‘em, and I'm disappointed myself, I missed a couple throws early on that would have given us key first downs."
No word from head coach Tom Cable whether Gradkowski would remain the starting quarterback or if JaMarcus Russell might work back into the mix.
-- Left tackle Mario Henderson, who has generally played well this season, had a rough afternoon against Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Ware only had one sack but he had four quarterback hurries and also forced a fumble.
Oakland's entire defensive line had a tough one. Gradkowski was under considerable pressure for much of the game, though he did hold onto the ball longer than he did last week against Cincinnati which enabled some of the pressure to get to him.
-- The run defense was terrible yet again. No shock there. It's been the biggest problem facing the defense all season and has not shown any signs of getting better.
While the Cowboys didn't have a running back reach the 70-yard mark, the trio of Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice gave Oakland fits all day. Choice's 66-yard gain coming out of the Wildcat formation in the first half was Dallas' longest run from scrimmage this year and went right up the gut of the Raiders' defense.
In all, Dallas rushed for 195 yards on the ground, with Jones adding a 46-yard gain and Jones a 32-yarder.
-- In maybe the play that could have swung momentum in the Raiders' favor, Oakland had Dallas pinned against its own end zone when Romo threw a pass that got knocked into the air, and safety Tyvon Branch seemed ready to grab it and take it back for a touchdown. Instead, he collided with Trevor Scott as both men ran to the ball, allowing it to fall to the turf incomplete.
"(Branch) claims that was his pick to the house but I saw the same thing even though I was going the opposite way," Scott said. "I would have caught it and turned around and broke for it."
-- Speaking of Scott, the Raiders had the defensive end starting at the weakside linebacker position in place of Thomas Howard. The plan worked pretty well, with Scott getting a team-high five tackles, two sacks and three quarterback hurries.
By his own estimate, Scott played just two downs with his hand on the ground. Howard also logged significant playing time, but this is definitely a situation worth watching the rest of the season to see if the Raiders do it more, and if so, what they do with Howard.
-- The pass defense wasn't much better. Miles Austin had a huge game (7 catches, 145 yards, 1 TD) as did tight end Jason Witten 5 catches, 107 yards). Austin, in particular, was a major thorn in the Raiders side. At one point he seemed to be running free with no defender assigned to him, forcing an alert Asomugha to pick him up.
Part of the problem was the Oakland didn't mount much of a pass rush against Romo. Outside of Scott's two sacks and three hurries, the Raiders rarely got near Romo, who threw for 309 yards and two TDs.
-- On the plus side, Justin Fargas looked very strong at running back while Oakland finally opened up the playbook and started lining up Darren McFadden out wide as a receiver. Fargas gained 63 yards on 12 carries but the running game was abandoned in the second half for some reason. The Raiders ran the ball just eight times after halftime and finished with 82 yards overall.
-- Shane Lechler continued to stay busy in his pursuit of Sammy Baugh's single-season punting record. Lechler punted nine times for a 54.8-yard average and landed four of his kicks inside the Dallas 20-yard line. That raised Lechler's season average to 51.9, down from the high of 52.3 but still higher than Baugh's record of 51.4.
-- Without question Michael Huff has been the Raiders' most improved player this year. Huff is now the team's full-time free safety after splitting time with Hiram Eugene early in the season, and he made a pair of big tackles against the Cowboys. Huff is also bringing a much-needed physical presence into Oakland's secondary.
We were ready to give up on this kid, as were many in the Raider Nation, but Huff has definitely silenced the critics so far.
-- The Raiders used Gary Russell on kickoff returns, though they also had Michael Bush as an up man on the return team late in the game. Jonathan Holland, who previously had the job, made one tackle on the coverage teams.
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