Game Preview: Raiders vs. Jets

The Jets, with a new coach and some quarterback issues, are surprisingly good so far this season, already appearing in the top ten rankings of many observers. This is primarily due to their top-3 defense and rushing attack. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has beaten the Raiders with three other teams (Buffalo, Tennessee, and Houston) and looks to become the only QB to do that with a fourth team. Fitzpatrick’s numbers are nothing to write home about, but what the stats don’t record is how he keeps drives alive, keeps his offense in the game, and doesn’t make dumb mistakes. Since Geno Smith got cold-cocked in the locker room at the beginning of the season and has been out since with a broken jaw, Fitzpatrick has kept the team going in a division where the Patriots seem determined to make every other team pay for their (the Patriots’) transgressions.

The Raiders are riding high after pummeling the Chargers, and looking to prove themselves as legitimate contenders, sooner rather than later. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree have brought out the best in Derek Carr, and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has done a stellar job in tailoring the offense to the players’ strengths. This should be a good game, with every chance for Oakland to win against a highly touted opponent.

Game Grades: Raiders @ Chargers

This was a game that almost deserves two sets of grades, one for the first three quarters and another for the fourth. The Raiders played brilliantly for 45 minutes, letting up in the final period of a blowout. So we’ll just round up.

Pass Offense: Derek Carr went 24 for 31 for 289 yards, with three TDS (to three different receivers), no interceptions and one sack. Amari Cooper continues to shine, with 133 yards on five receptions, including a 52-yard TD catch. Michael Crabtree had six reception for 63 yards and a touchdown. In all, Carr spread the ball around to nine receivers.
Grade: A-

Rush Offense: The running game added a nice balance to Oakland’s rapidly improving offense, picking up 117 yards on 24 carries total. Latavius Murray accounted for 85 of those yards on 15 carries, including a touchdown. Taiwan Jones notched 35 yards on just three carries. They had trouble getting first downs in the fourth quarter to burn down the clock, but Murray and Jones still ended the day with excellent yards per carry.
Grade: A-

Pass Defense: 38-58-336-3-2 After throwing for over 500 yards on 65 attempts last week in Green Bay, Philip Rivers put up 336 yards on 38 completion in 58 attempts today against the Raiders. At this rate, he will set a single-season yardage record, if his arm doesn’t fall off first. Rivers had three touchdowns and two interceptions in the process, but most of his numbers came late in the game, when the Raiders let up a little. Malcolm Smith’s interception on the third play of the game helped put the Raiders ahead early and command the tempo of the game, and Smith also had a sack. D.J. Hayden also had a very good game, with an interception, a forced fumble and 10 tackles. Tight end Ladarius Green was inexcusably wide open on his touchdown catch, but this was well after the game was getting out of reach for the Chargers.
Grade: B+

Rush Defense: San Diego’s three running backs totaled 90 yards on 21 carries, which is decent, but also shows how one-dimensional the Chargers’ offense became, thanks to the Raiders’ swarming defense, ending up with a nearly 3:1 pass-run ratio for San Diego. They had some trouble containing Danny Woodhead late in the game, but again….
Grade: B+

Special Teams: Sebastian Janikowski made all of his extra point attempts, and had no field goal tries. Marquette King’s punt average (38.0) was below his usual, but a couple of those were short-field shots. The return game was decent, nothing spectacular. This is a unit that is better off staying consistent, and not breaking or giving up big plays.
Grade: B

Coaching: Whatever the coaches told the team going into the bye week, after a close loss to an undefeated Denver team, worked great. Right from the start, the Raiders came out swinging, playing offense and defense with equal levels of passion and precision. Too often, what has hurt the team is that one unit will show up and the other doesn’t, leading to an impressive offensive showing but poor defense, or vice versa. But they showed that when both units are going strong, they can beat up on teams, even decent ones like the Chargers. Next week’s matchup at home against the Jets will provide a better test of the direction the team is headed.
Grade: A

Week 7 Final: Raiders 37, Chargers 29

Full game stats here.

San Diego managed to make it exciting in the fourth quarter, but the first three quarters of this game was the best we’ve seen out of this team in several years, at the very least since the epic 59-14 beatdown of the Kyle “Neckbeard” Orton Broncos in 2010, almost exactly to the date.

The score is deceptive because the Raiders took their foot off the gas in the fourth quarter and let the Chargers back into the game, but make no mistake — Oakland dismantled the Chargers, made them one-dimensional, forced them to lean on Rivers. Right from the start, from Malcolm Smith’s interception on the third play of the game, leading to an easy touchdown for the Raiders, Oakland controlled the tempo of the game, on offense and defense. The 30-6 halftime lead left no doubt as to the outcome.

The Chargers were wounded and vulnerable, and had two key scratches right before the game, in Antonio Gates and Eric Weddle. But the Raiders were so dominant throughout that even Gates and Weddle, who are both outstanding players, might not have made that much of a difference.

The best teams know how to hold a big lead on an opponent, to keep them down and not let them back in the game. After being down 37-6, San Diego was able to put up 23 points in the final quarter and get within a touchdown, while the Raiders couldn’t get a first down just to burn off the clock at the end. If the game had been even two or three minutes longer it might have been a problem.

But this is a young team that’s still learning how to win, much less win decisively. Things happen, and the main thing is that they held on for the win, and learned a lesson without having to lose a game in the process. Whatever the case, the Raiders played crisp, focused ball, and they put together one of their best games in half a decade.

Game Preview: Raiders at Chargers

Both the Raiders and Chargers are coming back from heartbreakers, Oakland barely losing at home to the undefeated Broncos before the bye week, while San Diego traveled to Lambeau Field and barely lost in a valiant effort against the undefeated Packers. Philip Rivers threw for a team record 503 yards (and is on a pace to set a season yardage record), leading the team very near a tying touchdown before petering out.

So these teams each have a lot play for right now, as their respective seasons are at a turning point. Rivers is nearing the end of his career, and his team is already at 2-4, on the verge of chucking the season. The Raiders, on the other hand, are 2-3, but for a precious few missed plays and opportunities could be 4-1. The teams have nearly identical records, but is on their way up, the other on their way down and out. And games in San Diego, like games in Arizona, are practically home outing for the Raiders anyway.

So the keys to victory are what they always are: cover the opponent’s tight end (Antonio Gates has victimized the Raiders for years, obviously); diversify the offense with more tight end use; and run as much as possible to keep a balanced attack. This should be a good game.

Week 5 Final: Broncos 16, Raiders 10

Full game stats here.Well, it was very close to being a nice upset game, a chance for a young team on their way up to show that they could run with the bigger (if somewhat older) dogs. And for the first half, as well as Denver’s first possession of the second half, the Raiders did just that.

After that, not so much. From Austin Howard’s completely whiffed chip block that left Derek Carr wide open for a sack-fumble, to Seth Roberts misreading a Carr pass late in the 4th quarter, leaving Chris Harris to take the pick-six to the house, the offense choked on a very winnable game. Throw in a pair of missed field goals by Sebastian Janikowski, in a game that ended up being lost by six points, and it was that kind of day for the Raiders as they head into the bye week.

But Oakland also showed that they could run with the big dogs, holding Peyton Manning to zero touchdowns and two interceptions, both by the ageless wonder Charles Woodson, who amazingly had never intercepted Manning in the 18 years the two have been in the NFL. Denver’s defense is probably the best overall in the league, a veritable buzzsaw that gives grief to every team they face. And for a couple of missed field goal attempts and a bad throw on a bad route, the Raiders might actually have pulled off a huge upset.

So even with a 2-3 record going into the bye, there is cause for real optimism. Aside from the season opener debacle against a Bengals team that is still undefeated, the Raiders have been in every game, are playing competitively and with confidence. They look focused and prepared, and are executing well for the most part. This is just a bump on a long road, they will continue to improve at this rate, with just a few minor tweaks.

Game Grades: Raiders vs. Broncos

Pass Offense: Derek Carr had 26 completions in 39 attempts for 249 yards, with 1 TD and 1 INT, which are pretty respectable stats against Denver’s defense. The offensive line gave up four sacks, however, the worst of which was a whiffed block by right tackle Austin Howard that caused Carr to fumble the ball away. Amari Cooper was held in check; Michael Crabtree was the only Raider receiver to gain over 50 yards (4-54).
Grade: C

Rush Offense: Not much to speak of, as there were only 24 carries for 66 yards total (Latavius Murray went 13 for 39). The Broncos clearly were not going to give anything up on the ground, so Oakland had to devote most of their energies to short passing attempts. Again, while the team made a very solid and respectable effort against a team with a Hall of Fame QB, All-Pro WR, and one of the best all-around defenses in recent years, a stronger rushing attack will give them better balance and consistency.
Grade: D

Pass Defense: Peyton Manning went 22 for 36 for 266 yards, but had two interceptions (both to Charles Woodson) and no touchdowns, a rarity for Manning, who is having an off year so far. Just as impressively, considering how badly the Raiders have been getting burned by tight ends, Denver TE Owen Daniels had no receptions. Putting LB Neiron Ball on Daniels was a good move that paid off, and should be continued. Emmanuel Sanders had 9 receptions for 111 yards, but Demaryious Thomas went only 5 for 55. Manning was also sacked twice.
Grade: B+

Rush Defense: C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for just 18 carries for 43 yards. The defensive line has benefited already from the addition of Aldon Smith, who disrupts just about every play he’s involved in, as well as the continued improvement of Khalil Mack. At the rate these players continue to gel, they will impact games later in the season.
Grade: A-

Special Teams: Seabass had an off day, missing two of his three field goals, which makes all the difference in the world in a game decided by six points. And you can’t even blame it on the damned infield dirt, since the A’s are done and the field is all turf now. Marquette King averaged 50.8 yards on his four punts, with a long of 61 yards. Every time I see Amari Cooper back to return a punt, my heart stops and my stomach tightens up, waiting for the inevitable crushing hit, but Cooper’s sole punt return went for a nice 18 yards.
Grade: C-

Coaching: The coaching plan for this game was simple — keep the game close, and any damage to a minimum. The Broncos’ defense is fast, dangerous, and opportunistic, and even a past-his-prime Peyton Manning is better than most quarterbacks in full stride. The best way to neutralize that defense would be to have a powerful rushing attack and some nice screen plays in their pocket, but having neither of those things, the Raiders settled on a controlled short-passing game, which was pretty effective for the most part. This was just one of those games that hinged on a few crucial breaks, none of which went the Raiders’ way. But the coaches deserve credit for keeping the team focused and prepared against a division-leading rival stacked with talent. There’s no such thing as a moral victory, but this is definitely one of those losses where the team can see how close they came, and make a few adjustments going forward. A very respectable effort.
Grade: B

Game Previews: Raiders vs. Broncos

Oakland has lost their last seven in a row against Denver — most of them blowouts. But despite that recent streak, the Donkeys’ undefeated record so far this season, and the Raiders’ last-second collapse against a winless Bears team, there is some cause for hope in this one.

The main thing is that only one of Denver’s wins has been by more than seven points, and that was the 24-12 victory over the hapless Lions in Week 3. It has been the Donks’ top-ranked defense that has been getting it done, for the most part; Denver’s passing offense is actually 120 yards behind Oakland’s heading into this matchup. So this is a different, much less dominant Denver team than we’ve become accustomed to the last couple years. They have been just good enough to win, much like this year’s ascendant Raiders team.

    Keys to Victory

Quick passes: New Denver DC Wade Phillips, who replaced Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, is an old hand who habitually builds solid, fast defenses. He has a lot to work with in pass rushers like Demarcus Ware and Von Miller, and defensive backs like Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby. Giving Derek Carr quick, short pass plays to move the chains will neutralize the quickness of the pass rushers.
Cover the tight end: I have two fantasy football teams. Both of them had mediocre tight end points so far, so I added Denver TE Owen Daniels to both teams off the waiver wires. I wish I was kidding about this.
Pass rush: Even an old, less effective Peyton Manning is still pretty damned good. He’s still a master at identifying and carving up defensive schemes. But as his physical skills attenuate, he’s more vulnerable, and Denver’s o-line is middling at best without Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady. They’ll try to mitigate this with tons of tunnel screens, but sooner or later Manning won’t be able to resist picking on Oakland’s corners deep. If Demaryious Thomas looks like he’s wearing a backpack, it’s probably DJ Hayden trying to cover him. It’s crucial that Tuck and Mack and company get to Manning, early and often.
Down to the wire: This looks to be a close, low-scoring affair, one of those games where the last team to possess the ball, or the team with the fewest turnovers, will probably win. As long as there are no dumb mistakes, the Raiders have every chance of knocking off the Broncos, and getting within a game of the division lead.

Game Grades: Raiders at Bears

Full game stats here, play-by-play here.

Pass Offense: Derek Carr had a rather average outing, going 20-33 for 196 yards, 2 TDs and an interception. Amari Cooper was held to four catches for 49 yards, but his touchdown catch in the back of the end zone was a thing of beauty and field awareness (as well as a fantastic throw by Carr. Michael Crabtree continues to be the free-agent steal of the year, notching five catches for 80 yards. The tight ends continue to be an afterthought, as Lee Smith and Mychal Rivera combined for four catches for 26 yards. Spreading the ball around to the backs (Murray, Helu, and Reece) helped but not enough.
Grade: B-

Rush Offense: It’s strange how, in such a close game, Oakland only had 22 total carries by running backs. The talk had been of how the Raiders had always won when Latavius Murray had at least 15 catches, but that was clearly too small of a sample size, as his 16 carries for just 49 yards did very little to keep Oakland in contention. It didn’t help that Murray clearly had an off day, between turning the ball over and getting stuffed on a critical 3rd-and-2 near the end of the game. A final time of possession of just 26:38 may have been the deciding factor.
Grade: D+

Pass Defense: It’s hard to argue with three sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception, yet the results don’t lie. Cutler went 28-43-281-2-1, not exactly superstar numbers but not bad for someone who played hurt. Tight ends continue to burn this unit at will; Bears TE Martellus Bennett tuned them up all day, with 11 catches for 83 yards, including a TD catch where he was embarrassingly wide open, and a crucial 4th-and-5 catch right before the two-minute warning to keep Chicago’s final drive alive. That last play is ultimately what made the difference between a win and a loss, there’s no way to sugarcoat it. This is exactly why the offense needs to not settle for field goals.
Grade: C-

Rush Defense: They actually did a respectable job here, as Matt Forte had 25 carries for 91 yards (3.64 ypc) and no touchdowns. Jeremy Langford and Jacquizz Rodgers added just three carries for seven yards total. Aldon Smith in particular had a solid game, making critical tackles and stops.
Grade: B

Special Teams: Sebastian Janikowski made both of his field goals and both of his extra points. Marquette King finished with a 45.0 average on his five punts, including two beauties that forced Chicago to start drives within their own 10-yard line. The decision to use valuable players such as TJ Carrie and Amari Cooper as punt returners finally bit the team in the rear, as Carrie was injured on one of his two returns and left the game. As Carrie seems to be the most consistent playmaker among the Raiders’ cornerbacks, it likely made Cutler’s job that much easier.
Grade: B+

Coaching: Head coach Jack Del Rio and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave found out the hard way about playing not to lose, as the Raiders’ final offensive drive, which ended conservatively in a go-ahead field goal, left the Bears way too much time to respond with their own game-winning field goal. It makes sense that with a young, rebuilding team, the coaches would want to stay conservative and try to hold leads to the end. But as the secondary is the team’s biggest vulnerability, that has to be factored into fourth-quarter offensive strategy. It didn’t even necessarily need to be a touchdown drive, just one more first down would have made a huge difference, and two more first downs would have sealed the game. And they need to figure out another solution to the return game, as they cannot afford to lose players like Carrie or Cooper. But as always, all is forgiven if they can pull it together and knock off Denver this Sunday, before heading into the bye week.
Grade: C-

Week 4 Final: Bears 22, Raiders 20

Look, we can’t say we weren’t warned. Everything that’s been an issue for the Raiders so far — the inability to cover tight ends; settling for field goals instead of driving for touchdowns; getting points from turnovers — came to the forefront against what is (was) arguably the NFL’s worst team.

Full stats here, play-by-play here.

Going into this game, it was basically understood that no one should make too big of a deal out of it either way, especially if the Raiders had won. It’s interconference, against a mediocre team, there were a few bright spots, yada yada. But since they not only lost, but found a way to lose, you can at least say that this was a game that will dog them at the end of the season, just for rankings’ sake, that it was a game that they could and should have won, that it emphasized several glaring weaknesses that they are really going to have to work on if they’re going to take things to the proverbial next level.

This was always going to be a tougher game than it looked on paper, partly because it was in Chicago, partly because Jay Cutler, despite his flaws, was going to be tougher to beat than Jimmy Clausen. But again, these are the kinds of games that sort out average teams from truly good teams.

Onward and upward. Surely Jack Del Rio has the Raiders primed for an epic matchup against his former team, ready to tear Peyton Manning a new one, and head into the bye week on a really strong note. Keep your fingers crossed.

Game Preview: Raiders at Bears

The Raiders are (for them) riding pretty high on two exciting wins, including one on the road, and in the Eastern time zone at that. The win in Cleveland removed the whammy of at least five significant losing streaks for the team. It would be understandable, especially heading into a matchup with the team most rankers regard as the league’s worst right now, if the Raiders got ahead of themselves a bit, and looked past this game to next week’s home stand against the Broncos.

But head coach Jack Del Rio, with his rather hokey but effective “keep chopping wood” approach, seems unlikely to let the team do that. Even a bad Bears team is always tough at home, and Del Rio is going up against his former boss in Denver, John Fox. Chicago DC Vic Fangio built a mighty D in San Francisco, and while he doesn’t have nearly the talent to work with that he did with the Niners, he’s still a wily strategist who will do his best to stuff Latavius Murray and confuse Derek Carr with disguised blitzes and stunts.

In the end, this should be a game for the Raiders to tighten things up as they head home for what would be a chance to tie for the division lead in the AFC West. As we’ve seen in the two victories, where Oakland jumped to early leads and had to fight to hang on for wins, they have trouble putting opponents away. That’s something you expect from a young team trying to gel and learn how to win. It’s something they’ll continue to refine as the season progresses, because good teams aren’t going to let them get away with it.

But let’s face it — the Bears are bad, really bad. They’re bad with Jay Cutler, and even worse without him. The Bears have a chance because parity and any given Sunday, but as long as the Raiders keep playing the way they have been, there’s no reason Oakland shouldn’t win this one convincingly.

Keys to Victory

Run like hell: The numbers don’t lie — the Raiders have won every time Latavius Murray has had at least 15 carries. Give the man his touches, mix in Marcel Reece, Taiwan Jones, and Roy Helu, Jr.
Use the tight ends: So far this position has been pretty quiet, with the three TEs (Rivera, Smith, and Walford) having just 8 catches for 36 yards between them. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has been pretty good at being creative and adaptable in his game plans, no doubt Carr will be using them more as the season progresses.
Cover their TEs: Conversely, opposing tight ends have dogged the Raiders’ linebackers and secondary. Cleveland tight end Gary Barnidge, who in seven full seasons had 48 catches total, had a career day last Sunday, with six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. Chicago’s Martellus Bennett is the Bears’ leading rusher, and is easily the best TE the Raiders have faced yet this season. It will be a challenge to keep Bennett contained, while not leaving talented WRs Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal wide open.