Game Grades: Raiders at Browns

Pass Offense:  Stat-wise, Derek Carr did just fine — 34-54 for 328 yards and a TD. However, that touchdown pass to Andre Holmes came on the final play of the game, and 54 passing attempts is way too many for this offense, which for the thousandth time needs to find a way to emphasize the run game. Kenbrell Thompkins and Mychal Rivera each had spectacular one-handed grabs; unfortunately, neither led to touchdowns, which is the story of this offense in general. The Raiders did not get into Cleveland’s red zone at all until that final drive. Grade: D

Rush Offense:  The run-pass imbalance continues to be the key to the Raiders’ offensive struggles. Someone on the coaching staff needs to explain why, against the league’s worst run D, there were only 20 total rushing attempts, versus 54 passing attempts. This team is simply not built to win that way, and the whole world knows it. Darren McFadden is running hard and well, averaging just under 5.0 yards on his 12 carries, but that fumble in the 3rd quarter, just as the Raiders were taking a long drive into the red zone, changed the momentum of the entire game. Maurice Jones-Drew gained only 8 yards on 6 carries, with a long of 4 yards. Jamize Olawale’s failure to get any yardage on a crucial 3rd & 1 carry exemplifies the difficulty Oakland has had all year in creating holes, getting line push, and establishing even a decent (forget dominant) rushing offense. Grade: D-

Pass Defense:  The defense continues to take the heat for the poor offensive performance. For the most part, the pass D performed well, with Charles Woodson in particular making several nice plays. Oakland finally got under its dismal 3rd-down conversion record, allowing Cleveland to convert only 2 of its 12 third-down plays (16.6%). The 32-yard completion to Andrew Hawkins, immediately after the Browns recovered Darren McFadden’s fumble, was inexcusable; a complete lapse in coverage left Hawkins wide open. D.J. Hayden made an appearance later in the game, getting burned on a pick that allowed Hawkins a TD reception on that same drive. There were at least a couple Brian Hoyer passes that could and should have been intercepted, including a critical late-game pass that went right through Sio Moore’s hands. The defense has done a poor job in general this season of creating turnovers. Justin Tuck accounted for the Raiders’ only sack. Grade:  C

Rush Defense:  Amazingly, this was the bright spot of the Raiders’ entire effort. Cleveland’s 6th-ranked rushing attack was held to a mere 38 yards on 23 carries, with 6 tackles for loss. Ben Tate’s rushing TD came late in the game, long after the game was out of reach, and was only a 6-yard carry anyway. If they can shut down Marshawn Lynch in the same fashion next week, the Raiders have at least a fighting chance. Grade: B+

Special Teams:  Special teams continue to be relentlessly average, neither great nor terrible. Janikowski made both of his field goal attempts, and should have had a third, but for the bungled fake FG early on. Marquette King had a sub-par day, with a couple of short punts. T.J. Carrie has game-breaking return potential, but needs to develop the patience to create long returns for the field position this offense needs to be effective. Grade:  C

Coaching:  This game was winnable, and in fact the Raiders were in it right up until McFadden’s heartbreaking fumble. Again, it is beyond puzzling why, against the league’s worst run defense, the Raiders have 54 pass attempts and only 20 run plays. They managed to address many of the other issues, particularly 3rd-down conversions on defense, and time of possession. The fake field goal on the first drive was an interesting idea, but completely botched and poorly conceived. After nearly pulling off an upset against San Diego, the team — especially the offense — has regressed, with questionable play-calling and frequently inept execution. The only opponent remaining on the schedule with a losing record is the Rams, and they just beat Seattle last week. Right now, the coaches have two primary missions:  avoiding a 0-16 season, and getting a look at players that might be retained for the next rebuild.  Grade:  D-

Game Preview: Raiders at Browns

The Raiders have lost their last 15 consecutive games in the Eastern Time Zone, 13 of their last 14 road games, and their last 12 in a row overall. Their 0-6 start to this season has not happened to the team since 1962, the year before Al Davis took over. To say that Oakland is in pretty desperate shape is understating it.

Sunday’s game in Cleveland has been billed as a “weakness vs. weakness” matchup, pitting the Raiders’ last-ranked rushing offense (69.3 yds/game) against the Browns’ last-ranked rushing defense (155.5 yds/game). But the real difference lies in the disparity between Cleveland’s 6th-ranked rushing offense (133.5 yds/game) versus Oakland’s 29th-ranked rushing defense (145.3 yds/game).

After thumping the Steelers two weeks ago at home, the Browns choked in Jacksonville last week, losing 24-6 to the winless Jaguars, despite intercepting Blake Bortles three times. Should the Raiders manage to win tomorrow, Cleveland would become the first team to lose back-to-back games against winless teams.

Keys to Victory

Offense:  Run, run, and then run some more. And not just Darren McFadden up the gut for 3 yards at a time. If the Raiders can commit early and often to throwing in some jumbo sets, using DMac, MJD, and Latavius Murray in generous portions, and showing some imagination with the running game, they can retain valuable possession time and have the Browns’ vulnerable run defense beaten up and gassed by the second half. Greg Olson has averaged slightly over 18 run plays called per game. This number needs to be closer to 30, and the offensive line needs to open up solid lanes for all the backs to exploit. Keeping the offense from sputtering on 3rd & long situations, which has been a consistent problem all season so far, is critical to success — or just keeping the game close.

Defense:  The Raiders’ pass defense, believe it or not, is surprisingly respectable, ranked 11th with an average of 229.5 yards per game. It’s their run D, ranked 4th-worst in the league, that needs to step up. After Brian Hoyer’s lousy outing in Jacksonville last week (16-41-215-0TD-1INT), they will probably be content to run Ben Tate right up the gut until the Raiders stop them. And as always, 3rd-down conversion rates are a serious challenge on both sides of the ball. This game will be a test to see how well DJ Hayden has recovered from his injuries, and an opportunity for him to meet the high expectations the team had when they drafted Hayden in the first round last year.

Roster Moves

As expected, DE LaMarr Woodley and S Usama Young have been placed on injured reserve, which ends their seasons. Young has been a solid replacement for injured safety Tyvon Branch, where Woodley, who has been a stand-up linebacker for most of his career, has struggled as a down lineman in the Raiders’ defense, notching just 3 tackles and 2 assists in 6 games played.

Perhaps someone should ask either GM Reggie McKenzie or DC Jason Tarver why they would bring in a free agent linebacker and insist on converting him into a defensive end. Why not grab a true defensive lineman in free agency instead? That’s nothing against Woodley, who was a very good player in a very good Steelers defense for 7 seasons. But it makes you wonder what the process is that leads the management and coaches to make these square-peg-round-hole type of decisions.

Converting a linebacker to a lineman — especially an end — is much different than, say, converting a cornerback to a safety to give him a few more years of playing time. And this defense has never had the luxury to do that kind of experimenting.

We’ll have a little more on this subject as the week progresses, but for now let’s just say that it’s this sort of puzzling management and use of the roster that has gotten the team to where they are today, and on the path to another huge round of turnover in the coming off-season.

Brandian Ross had been signed to replace Young, and played last week. Cornerback DJ Hayden has been activated, and should see playing time tomorrow against Cleveland. Defensive end Denico Autry has been activated from the practice squad to replace Woodley (many fans are asking why Autry instead of Shelby Harris, who made some plays in preseason games).

Nothing to Lose

In an NFL week where Peyton Manning broke Brett Favre’s all-time TD record, this play got maybe less attention than it might have if it happened last week or next week. Think about it — in a game where no one expected them to compete against the reigning Super Bowl champs, the Rams not only fooled the Seahawks with a fake punt return earlier in the game, but also a fake punt, with less than three minutes left and leading by just two points.

The fake return was brilliantly executed, and a great play in its own right. But that fake punt, at that point in the game and from that field position, that was a do-or-die move. The ball was snapped at the Rams’ 18-yard line, and punter Johnny Hekker was standing on the 5-yard line when he threw the pass. If he throws a duck or the receiver clanks the pass, the Seahawks are already in field goal range and can just run the clock down and kick a chip shot to win.

Jeff Fisher was risking the game with that single trick play, no question. But with a 1-4 team at the bottom of the strongest division in the league, Fisher understood that he has nothing to lose. Everyone expected the Rams to get thumped by the mighty Seahawks (who, between two consecutive losses and the surprising trade of their most explosive receiver, are having a down year) anyway, so Fisher saw no harm in going for it.

This is the sort of balls-out play calling that Tony Sparano and his staff need to do with the Raiders. Early in Sunday’s Raiders-Cardinals game, Oakland’s offense stalled (shocking, I know) just past midfield, something like 4th & 2 at the Cardinals 45-yard line. Going for it wasn’t even considered, and at this point, Raider Nation has to be wondering why the hell not? At 0-5 to start that game, the season is already over for all practical purposes. They still have 5 division games to play, and will be lucky to win even one of them. There are a few second-rate teams on the schedule such as Cleveland, Buffalo, and the aforementioned Rams, but only the Buffalo game is in Oakland, and again we all saw what Jeff Fisher’s team just did to a much better team than the Raiders. (Oh yeah, the Raiders also have to go to Seattle game after next.)

They probably won’t end the season completely winless, but it’s hard to see them winning more than 2-3 games. Which means yet more turnover, at every level — players, coaches, probably Reggie McKenzie as well, unless Mark Davis just can’t find anyone else willing to take the GM job. The only thing about the Raiders that has improved in McKenzie’s tenure is the salary cap situation, and there is precious little to show for the money that’s been spent — two wasted years trying to find a decent QB, and their best defensive back just turned 38 years old.

So there is really nothing left to lose — and plenty of upside if it works — to give it a shot, and coach and play-call aggressively. No one’s saying they need to just take foolish risks and go for it every time, no matter the field position or time left in the game. But 4th-and-short at midfield in the first quarter? This team can and should take that one every time. Coaching not to lose, instead of coaching to win, is part of what’s gotten them to this historic low. Maybe it’s time to try something different.

Game Grades: Raiders vs. Cardinals

Pass Offense:  Derek Carr continues to do the best he can with what he has, but until this offense finds some real balance, it won’t matter. Consider:  Arizona’s run-pass ratio was 37-31, while Oakland’s was 19-28 (2 of the rushes were Carr scrambling). The only way that second ratio ever wins is if receivers run crisp routes and don’t clank any passes, and that’s just not happening. The offense just sputters, even when they get great field position to start with. Until the Raiders have a real #1 WR, they need at least a 50-50 run-pass balance, and they don’t seem to understand that. Grade: D+

Rush Offense:  Just as balance in the offense is a concern, balance within the rushing offense is a major concern. Greg Olson has clearly chosen to make Darren McFadden his go-to ball carrier, and completely neglect not only Latavius Murray, who they really need to get a look at, but free-agent running complement Maurice Jones-Drew, who had just 3 carries for 6 yards today. The Wildcat play on which McFadden got his longest carry of the day was a nice wrinkle, but again just another sputter in an inconsistent, impotent offense. The Raiders had only 56 rushing yards today, and are ranked dead last (69.3/game) in rushing. This team will not win until that improves. Grade: D

Pass Defense:  The historically bad 51.4% third-down conversion rate went to 60% (9 of 15) today, so it’s just getting worse. Charles Woodson had a nice interception of a tipped pass in the 2nd quarter, taking it down to about the 20-yard line, but of course the offense was completely unable to capitalize on it, managing just a field goal. And again, 37 minutes on the field for the defense today. I can’t think of any team that could consistently succeed with a nearly 2:1 TOP ratio deficit. Grade:  C-

Rush Defense:  Arizona came into this game with a clear dedication to a balanced offensive approach, and a commitment to running the ball. While the Cardinals’ 123 yards brought the Raiders’ overall rush defense down to 145 yards per game, that’s still way too much. Kahlil Mack did have an impact today, with 10 tackles and an assist, including 3 tackles for a loss. Grade: C

Special Teams:  There’s just not enough there to have much of a sway, one way or the other. Marquette King continues to be a bargain at punter. Janikowski made both field goal attempts, including one from 53 yards. T.J. Carrie had a 60-yard punt return negated by a block to the back by Brice Butler (who later caught a 55-yard pass to setup the lone Raiders touchdown). Grade:  C+

Coaching:  Someone needs to ask Greg Olson why he refuses to use Latavius Murray — and more importantly, why after six games he’s averaged only 18.5 rushing attempts per game, with a rookie QB and no true #1 WR. This has been a consistent thread for the team so far this season, and it hasn’t been addressed — the play-calling needs to reflect the one-cut-and-go strengths of the running backs, and the o-line needs to create more holes for the running game. This team is seriously heading toward maybe a 3-win season at best, and needs to start learning and building its strengths. Having Carr chuck it downfield without making opponents respect the running game does nothing to help the team win games. Grade:  D

Week 7 Final: Cardinals 24, Raiders 13

Since the Jacksonville Jaguars upset the Cleveland Browns this morning, the Raiders entered this afternoon’s game as the only winless team in the league. Unfortunately, they also ended it as the only winless team in the league.

Game stats and highlights here.

There are simply too many holes in this team that need to be filled, just to make them adequate and competitive, on offense and defense. And so you have to ask (from a management/coaching standpoint) whether it’s best to keep Derek Carr in and let him figure things out with a half-assed team derping through an already lost season, or let Schaub manage the games, look at bubble personnel and see who’s worth keeping on the roster for next season, and give Carr a break and let him learn without having to run for his life or constantly try to come back from multi-possession point deficits.

There’s a reasonable argument to be made for either approach, but with the trade deadline approaching (Oct. 28), there should be a sense of urgency on the Raiders’ part as to whether they will utilize Schaub or not. Matt McGloin is a serviceable backup, so if they’re not going to get their money’s worth out of Schaub, they may as well deal him for Vincent Jackson and a sack of magic beans, whatever. Bottom line, either use Schaub or get something for him now, while they still can.

Today’s game is useful in considering how Carson Palmer left Oakland, and what the Raiders got in return. According to local media reports at the time, Palmer wanted about $3M per year more than the Raiders were willing to pay. So they dealt Palmer for a 7th-round pick, and then turned around and paid Flynn $6.5M — and cut him after one start.

And this season, in almost a note-for-note replay of last season, Reggie McKenzie grabbed Matt Schaub for a reported $8.5M, and Schaub promptly lost his starting job in preseason to a 2nd-round draft pick. And the Raiders are still sitting on about $10-11M worth of cap money, with nothing to show for it except the league’s only winless record, nearly halfway through the season.

So after spending $15M (and two low draft picks) on two washed-up QBs, with just one start between them, how’s that extra $3M Carson Palmer wanted looking, especially after he took the Cards to 10-6 last year (which would have been a playoff berth in any other division), and just came in and beat his former team?

At the very least, to be more than diplomatic and generous about it, you have to question the ability of McKenzie and his staff to adequately identify talent, particularly at the quarterback position. (Not to mention the back-and-forth between Pryor and McGloin all last season, with nothing to show for that.) The expensive fiascos with Flynn and Schaub have proven them to be inept at best. The rest of their free agent signings have yet to make a meaningful impact, aside from James Jones and Charles Woodson.

Last week against San Diego, the Raiders showed some improvement, played hard, and came very close to upsetting a very good division rival. Today’s game was a regression in many respects, but especially with their continued inability to keep the offense on the field and sustain medium to long drives. As we’ve been saying for weeks here, everyone blames the defense, and rightly so to some extent. But no defense in the NFL can spend an average of 35 minutes on the field every game, and consistently perform well.

The Raiders head out on the road now, first to Cleveland and then to Seattle. Both of these games will be tough, but the opportunity in Cleveland is in their league-worst rush defense, which has allowed over 155 yards/game at this point. Oakland simply will not be competitive and win games until it gets a solid rushing attack together, and this could be their chance. They need to commit to the run, be creative with getting McFadden and Jones-Drew out on the edge where they can do real damage, and give Latavius Murray some touches.

Game Preview: Raiders vs. Cardinals

This matchup makes for a good storyline, because the perennial underdog Cardinals actually sit alone atop the tough NFC West division, and because they have several former Raider players on their roster — Carson Palmer, Jared Veldheer, Tommy Kelly, and Matt Shaughnessy.

Because the Oakland lineup has been turned over so much the last few years, the “coming home” storyline probably means more to the Cardinals than to the Raiders. More importantly, Arizona’s defense is pretty solid, and will present a challenge for Derek Carr as well as for the running game. The Cardinals are a tough, motivated team with good coaches and players, and it’s going to take some extra push to compete with them. If the Raiders can replicate last week’s effort against the Chargers (minus the final two offensive possessions), they have a decent chance to win.

Keys to Victory

Offense:

Time of possession. This is the key to victory for offense and defense, really. Oakland has yet to have a TOP advantage in any game this season, and it has to factor especially into the second-half defense petering out. The offense needs to be more balanced, building on the solid running from last week’s game against the Chargers, use up time and give Carr more options in the passing game. I guarantee you that when the Raiders finally win a game, they will have a positive TOP number; very few teams win when their defense is on the field for 35-37 minutes per game.

Defense:

Generate turnovers/sacks. It’s easy to look at the big picture and see that many of the defensive woes stem directly from the offensive woes. But there’s no getting around the fact that the defense is not creating enough opportunities, trailing the league in sacks and turnovers. You’d think that the one benefit from the defense spending so much time on the field would be more opportunities to make big plays, but in fact it’s been the opposite.

Third down conversions. Really another “both sides of the ball” stat, but especially problematic for the defense. They are on a pace to set the worst defensive 3rd-down stat in over 30 years. There are plenty of reasons for this — lack of continuity; lack of impact players; failure of the offense to do its part; poor execution; scheme and play-calling — but the bottom line is that what impact players are on the defense have to step up and make plays early in the game, while they’re fresh, and give the offense more opportunities to capitalize.

Game Grades: Raiders vs. Chargers

Pass Offense:  Derek Carr continues to improve and impress, matching his entire season total today with 4 TD passes to three different receivers. Carr’s numbers (18-34-282-4TD-1INT) were comparable to those of Rivers (22-34-313-3-0), a veteran Pro Bowler. Once again, the o-line kept Carr upright throughout, enabling him to make quick, decisive throws. There were a couple of drops and a few bad throws, but for the most part, receivers hung on to what Carr gave them. The final two offensive possessions ultimately decided the game, and were in stark contrast to the rest of the game. Grade: B-

Rush Offense:  Only 19 running plays (and a 2-yard scramble by Carr) is not nearly enough to create a balanced offense that uses up some clock time. The Raiders’ time of possession for this game was only 22:58, which might explain why the defense was too gassed to stop Oliver on the final drive. On the other hand, both McFadden and Jones-Drew, to the extent that they were utilized, ran strong, slashing through San Diego’s defense for 5.7 and 7.5 yards per carry respectively. Greg Olson also needs to throw Latavius Murray into the mix, just so he can see what he has. Grade: B-

Pass Defense:  Still not getting enough pass rush, still not stopping opponents on third downs; the Chargers converted 57%. Five of the seven receivers Rivers threw to had plays of 20 yards or more, compared to just 2 (Holmes and Butler) of the 8 receivers Carr threw to. Rivers was sacked once and hurried a few times, but mostly had plenty of time to do what he wanted. The free-agency defensive line combo of Tuck, Smith, and Woodley combined for a total of 4 tackles and 2 assists. Sio Moore, by way of comparison, had 7 tackles and 3 assists. T.J. Carrie continues to improve on coverage and tackling, Carlos Rogers had a couple of nice stops. Grade:  D+

Rush Defense:  While the Chargers’ total of 116 rushing yards is much less than the Raiders’ average of 158.2 in the first four games, San Diego got some of those yards when it counted the most and the game was on the line. True, this is partly because the defense was on the field for 37 minutes, but that was in part because the defense allowed the Chargers to convert 8 of their 14 third-down plays. The Raiders spent most of their free-agency money upgrading both lines, as they needed to, but they need still more upgrading. Grade: D+

Special Teams:  T.J Carrie had a nice kickoff return and two solid punt returns, and fumbled another punt (he recovered). King was fine on his four punts. Janikowski missed his lone field goal attempt, a 53-yard shot at the close of the first half. In a game that is ultimately decided by 3 points, after the dreadful season Janikowski had last year, it is not unreasonable to start wondering when or if he will regain his previous reliability and distance. Grade:  C-

Coaching:  Considering how poorly the Raiders played in all phases the first four games of the season, it seems that at the very least Tony Sparano has motivated the team to push themselves harder and play better. While the team did rack up 11 penalties for 79 yards, some of them drive-killers, sometimes penalties come with the territory when teams are playing more aggressively. There were several midfield possessions that the Raiders failed to capitalize on, and the last two offensive possessions featured poor play-calling and execution. This team still has to learn how to close out and win games, and fast. They also need to take advantage of every opportunity handed to them (such as field position), and minimize mistakes. Their schedule does not get any easier; they might be able to squeak past the Cardinals, Chiefs, Bills, Rams, and Browns, but even that might be a stretch if they can’t figure out how to balance their offense better and maybe come out ahead once in a while on time of possession. Careful game planning and attentive coaching are essential to the team being able to do those things consistently, and get at least something out of yet another lost season. Grade:  C

Week 6 Final: Chargers 31, Raiders 28

They failed to capitalize on several midfield possessions, and ultimately lost the game. But for the first time this season, the Raiders were competitive, leading the game for significant amounts of time, and stayed with a quality opponent right up to the very end. There are no moral victories, but in a season that most observers would characterize as already lost, the teams showed important signs of life and real potential on both sides of the ball.

Game stats

As with the previous game against Miami, Oakland was aggressive and flawless on the opening drive, with a 77-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr to Andre Holmes. Carr later had a 47-yard catch-and-run TD pass to Brice Butler, and showed multiple times that he is more than capable of taking deep shots, as well as throwing pinpoint short passes (the 5-yard TD pass to James Jones was threaded perfectly to Jones, low and away from the defender).

The running game was a pleasant surprise as well, with both McFadden and Jones-Drew repeatedly gashing the Chargers’ D for nice gains. After averaging a measly 61.2 yards per game on the ground over the first four games, the Raiders managed 114 yards total rushing, with McFadden gaining 80 yards on 14 carries. (Jones-Drew only had 4 carries, but for 30 yards. Latavius Murray is still not being used, but as the season looks more and more lost, the team will need to see what he is capable of.) The running game is still not quite where it needs to be for this team to be consistently successful, but it was way better today than in the first four games.

On the defensive side of the ball, rookie T.J. Carrie continues to impress with his coverage skills and sharp tackling. He’s learning fast and should easily displace more experienced players like Chimdi Chekwa, who plays hard but gets burned way too often. Every play where Chekwa is caught off guard is a reminder that he was selected one round ahead of Richard Sherman. Carlos Rogers stepped up and had several nice tackles at critical moments.

In the end, Branden Oliver made the difference for San Diego, racking up 101 yards on 26 carries, including the winning touchdown. Oliver seemed to gather momentum on the final drive, deep in the Raiders’ end zone, with Oakland not having an answer, or being able to prevent him from getting an extra yard or three with every carry.

The Raiders’ last two possessions ended disastrously, and allowed the Chargers to stay in the game; leading the game 28-24 with just over five minutes left in the game, the Raiders seemed to suddenly forget what got them to that point, and poor play-calling and execution did them in.

Again, though, while there’s no such thing as a moral victory, and there are plenty of areas that need to tighten up, they at least showed a sense of urgency throughout, playing hard and aggressive against a superior opponent. Whether the team simply stepped up to a division rival, or Sparano is giving them a bit of a swagger at long last, this was far and away their best outing of the season so far.

Game Preview: Raiders vs. Chargers

After losing their opening game by a single point, the Chargers have won four straight games, making them everyone’s boutique pick. Chances are they will continue that streak in Oakland, but it should still be noted that San Diego has beaten only one team with a winning record (Seattle), and while their last two victories were blowouts, both games were home stands against crummy East Coast teams (Jaguars and Jets). Those last two wins were by a combined point total of 64-14, which undoubtedly helps the Chargers’ scary defensive rankings (#1 in points allowed, #2 in passing yards allowed).

If there’s one thing the NFL proves week after week after week, it’s that every game is winnable, and every team is beatable. San Diego certainly has the advantage in talent and coaching here, but this game is an opportunity for the Raiders to show whether their woes are more related to talent or coaching. (The reasonable assumption is that it’s a good measure of both.)

One thing Raider Nation seems to agree on is that Reggie McKenzie is much more to blame for the current state of the team than Dennis Allen was; after all, Allen was simply doing what he could with the roster he’d been given. But I think this game will also show Tony Sparano to be the type of coach that Dennis Allen simply wasn’t — and more importantly, the type of coach this team needs right now. In the face of successive blowouts, Allen’s cool, professional sideline demeanor came across more and more as simply passive, accepting of mediocrity and failure. Sparano is more of the in-your-face type that will light a fire under the team and hold underperformers accountable.

The Raiders have lost their last ten games by an average margin of 13.1 points, and the first four games of this season by an average of 13 points. I’m not much for making predictions, but this is the type of game that the Raiders tend to win, or at least play more competitively. I think they probably lose by a field goal or a touchdown, no more than that, and that the coaching change at least starts somewhat more positively.

Keys to Victory

Offense:

Same as it ever was — this team will stand or fall by how well they establish the run game. McFadden has been running hard, but mostly into brick walls. Greg Olson has to get him out on the edge in space, where he’s at his best. Jones-Drew has to be a part of the game, and run with the same urgency that McFadden has been. Latavius Murray has not been used much at all, largely due to the offense’s inability to stay on the field.

More balance in the passing offense. While the short game keeps Carr upright and plays things safe, it also allows defenses to stack more in the box and shut down the run, and hold the passing game to short gains. More medium and long-range passes will keep opponents honest.

Third down conversions. The Raiders’ offense is second-worst in the league, with only a 33% conversion rate. Getting the running game going, and cutting back on the dropped passes, will go a long way towards fixing this.

Defense:

Stop the run. The defense has surrendered an average of 158.2 yards per game in the first four games, easily the worst in the league. Branden Oliver ran for 114 yards last week against the Jets’ 8th-ranked run defense, more than 20 yards over their per-game average. The Raiders need to shut down Oliver early and often to keep this close.

The Rivers-Gates connection. Now in their 12th season together, Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates have been a potent combination, and an ongoing source of frustration for the Raiders over those years. Gates has career totals of 92 TDs and nearly 9,500 yards, many of them against Oakland. In five games this season, Gates already has five touchdowns. The Raiders secondary, having already made second-tier QBs such as Ryan Tannehill and Geno Smith look elite, will have their hands full.

Third down conversions. Obviously, this is a sore spot on both sides of the ball, as the defense is tied for worst at allowing opponents to convert at a 50% rate. Many of these have been on 3rd & 10+ yards. Again, with the secondary and linebacker corps depleted, line pressure is critical to staying in this game.