ALAMEDA – Arden Key took a long road to the quarterback. The Raiders' rookie edge rusher used bend, athleticism and some quality hand fighting to get around the Seattle Seahawks' right tackle and into the pocket. Russell Wilson was rolling away from Key, but the LSU product closed quickly and sacked a quarterback for the first time as a professional.
Veteran Bruce Irvin approached his protégé and said but a few words.
"About damn time."
Key had been close several times over five games, but hadn't finished the job. He finally got home in his best pass-rushing effort to date, with a sack and four pressures during an otherwise bleak 27-3 loss to Seattle.
Results matter more than the plays creating them, so Key won't revel in a job well done. But, let's be honest here. The Raiders are clearly playing the long game. These 2018 season results don't matter much in their grand scheme.
Coaches are striving to foster young talent where available, and use veterans to patch other areas of weakness in an attempt to remain competitive on Sundays.
The Raiders are prominently playing three drafted rookie defensive lineman, whose development has been a rare bright spot during a dark time.
Fifth-round defensive tackle Maurice Hurst has been the best and most consistent. Key is getting more efficient as a pass rusher, and last week was given more opportunities to play against the run. Second-round interior lineman P.J. Hall was slowed by an ankle sprain – it cost him two games – but is slowly starting to make an impact.
Most rookies aren't asked to play so much so quickly, but the Raiders don't have a choice. They're thin up front, especially after Khalil Mack was traded to the Chicago Bears. Hurst, Hall and Key haven't set the world on fire – the Raiders' pass rush ranks among the league's worst – but they learning and developing on the fly.
"It's hard on them. It's hard on them," head coach Jon Gruden said. "These are three rookie players. I don't know if there are three rookie D-Lineman or two rookie tackles playing this much on any other teams. Physically, it's a challenge. They're going up against full grown men in their fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth years. They're in the trenches. They're seeing schemes and combination blocks that are difficult to deal with.
"I thought Hurst did a good job of recognizing the traps. I thought he got off blocks. I saw Key get his first sack. I thought P.J. Hall was finally flying around again like he was in training camp. I think they'll continue to get better. I know they have to prove that."
There's a connection between Key, Hurst and Hall, who have grown close through this shared experience. They root for each other and help each other technically where applicable. They know that they'll play together for the next few seasons at least, and want to develop and comprise a formidable defensive front.
"We definitely have a bond," Hall said. "We know we're going to be here for a while, which is good because we enjoy playing together. I feel like we're trying to build chemistry and hopefully that will help us all play better as we move forward.