Week 2 Final: Falcons 35, Raiders 28

Say what you will, this year’s team does not lack in pure entertainment value so far. We got a little bit of everything today, but ultimately lost what should have been a very winnable game.

After Atlanta’s first two possessions, the Raiders’ defense simply couldn’t stop the Falcons, who passed and ran seemingly at will. Free-agent CB Sean Smith continues to be a liability in coverage. Even with a bum wheel, WR Julio Jones had Smith in his back pocket all afternoon, burning him time and again with quick and obvious inside breaks. Even the fluke defection caught by Atlanta WR Justin Hardy was within Smith’s power to prevent.

He’s not DeAngelo Hall cat-chasing-a-laser-pointer bad, but Smith was signed specifically to be the key player in the defensive backfield. He’s made a couple of decent tackles, but is getting burned quite a bit already.

Signs of life late in the game were extinguished when Amari Cooper had a fantastic 50-yard catch-and-run TD called back because he had stepped out of bounds prior to the reception. After the loss of down put the Raiders at 4th-and-2 at midfield, Jack Del Rio went for one more gutsy call, this time to no avail.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Del Rio’s guts in making these play calls. But it’s difficult already to shake the feeling that he’s making them at least in part because he feels like he can’t trust his defense to hold the opponent. And he really can’t so far.

The offense continues to click, and show the ability to play catch-up in the 4th quarter, something it was not very effective at previously. But the defense has got to step up and get it done, and stop leaving the offense in a late-game hole.

The expectations might have been a little high. It’s not that the Raiders can’t or won’t reach the playoffs this year — they can and should. But good teams, solid playoff teams, don’t keep letting mediocre teams build two-touchdown leads on them, and have to scramble back frantically in the fourth quarter.

They can’t all be nail-biters; good teams have their share of methodical, plodding games, almost boring in their relentless efficiency. That was definitely not the case today. This should have been like the Jets game last season, and instead it was a rerun of last week’s Saints game, without all the lucky breaks.

Game Preview: Raiders vs. Falcons

This early in the season it’s tough to do much in the way of previews, as there aren’t yet enough trends to spot anything really predictable.  The good news is that Oakland currently is #1 in offensive rushing; the bad news is that they’re dead last in passing and total yards defensively. Obviously, both rankings will probably change after the next game.

Coming off a wild finish in New Orleans last week, the Raiders should put up a solid home opener against an Atlanta team that got tuned up for 281 yards and 4 TDs by Jameis Winston and the Bucs.

The Falcons’ main weakness — pass defense — mirrors the Raiders’ own. New CB Sean Smith got torched repeatedly by Drew Brees, so Matt Ryan will be itching to test Smith out with Julio Jones, Mohammed Sanu, and Tevin Coleman. Jones and Sanu each had aTD in Tampa Bay last week, and Coleman racked up 95 yards on 5 receptions.

Atlanta only managed 52 rushing yards (including 10 from Ryan), so they may be vulnerable in the running game, as well as their pass defense.

Already the Raiders’ offensive line is in trouble. Right tackles Menelik Watson (groin) and Matt McCants (knee) are both doubtful, and center Rodney Hudson (knee) and RG Gabe Jackson (knee) are both listed as questionable. RB and special teams ace Taiwan Jones (concussion) is also listed as questionable.

With a victory, Oakland would start 2-0 for the first time since 2002, and beat Atlanta for the first time since 2000.

Game Grades: Raiders at Saints

Full game stats here

Pass Offense: Derek Carr had 24 completions in 38 attempts, for 319 yards and 1 TD. Carr spread the ball around effectively, to eight receivers in all. Amari Cooper led the squad with 6 catches for 137 yards, including a nice 43-yard catch-and-run. Michael Crabtree was 7-87, as well as fantastic catch on the go-ahead two-point conversion with just fifty seconds on the game clock. Seth Roberts made up for a critical drop on the final drive by catching the Raiders’ only passing TD to win the game.
Grade: A-

Rush Offense: The Raiders had a pretty good day on the ground. Rookie Jalen Richard was the unexpected star of the running game, with just three rushes but for 84 yards, including a 75-yard breakaway TD run. Latavius Murray went 14-for-59 and a touchdown. FB Jamize Olawale had just a single run, but it was a nice 2-yard punch into the end zone to comeback from what had been a 27-13 deficit in the 4th quarter. Derek Carr had a couple of decent drive-sustaining scrambles, and rookie DeAndre Washington had a few short relief runs.
Grade: A-

Pass Defense: Drew Brees passed at will on the Raiders’ secondary going 28-for-42 for 423 yards and 4 TDs. WRs Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks racked up yards on free-agent CB Sean Smith. Snead had 9 receptions for 172 yards and a touchdown, while Cooks went 6-143-2, including a 98-yard TD in which Cooks simply sprinted past Smith for a toss-and-catch from Brees from his own end zone. Jihad Ward had a nice fumble recovery from sacking Brees on the first possession of the game, thanks to an assist from Bruce Irvin, who had the game’s only sack. DJ Hayden came in for Smith in the second half and actually had some solid coverage and tackles, as did safety Reggie Nelson. With the loss of D Mario Edwards, Jr., this unit is going have to step up its pass rush to give the vulnerable secondary a better chance.
Grade: D+

Rush Defense: Only 88 net rushing yards were surrendered, and no touchdowns, so statistically a solid effort. Mark Ingram led New Orleans with 12 carries for 58 yards, but his long for the day, a 17-yard rumble in which he carried half the front seven deep into the red zone late in the game to set up another short TD pass from Brees, was embarrassing. Still, 88 yards and no TDs. That’s something for them to build on.
Grade: B-

Special Teams: As the Raiders attempted three 2-point conversions (making two), Sebastian Janikowski made his lone extra point and both his field goals. Marquette King continues to establish himself as one of the league’s premier punters, counting a 62-yard long as well as sticking the Saints on their own 2-yard line, among his four punts for the day. The Raiders’ return game was nothing to write home about, but the special teams did a fine job in keeping Saints returner Marcus Murphy’s averages low as well, just 17 yards avg. (long of 26) on kickoffs, and a 5-yard avg. on the two returnable punts.
Grade: B

Coaching: We’ll get to the specifics shortly, but right off the bat, Jack Del Rio turned this game into a team statement at the end with his decision to go for two to lead 35-34 with 50 seconds remaining, rather than tie the game up with a PAT kick. Not only did Del Rio show some serious BALLS in making that call, he showed a lot of trust in his players, who were down 24-13 going into the 4th quarter, and roared back with 22 points in the final period.

The way this season’s schedule lays out is tough, and if the team is going to live up to the heady expectations everyone is placing on them, they needed first to win the season opener, which they haven’t been able to do much this century so far. After getting battered at home by the playoff-bound Bengals in last season’s opener, it was important to not come out of the gate short and get pushed around again to start a new season. The entire offense showed great poise and focus in mounting the comeback, if they didn’t get much help from the defense, who couldn’t stop Drew Brees and his receivers.

Even so, DC Ken Norton Jr. kept making adjustments and substitutions, occasionally getting to Brees, but continuing to try to crack the code on the Saints’ solid o-line and Brees’ quick release. There are new players in key areas, and they are clearly still gelling with one another. They managed to stop Brees enough on the final drive to force the Saints to attempt a 61-yard field goal. If Brees had had ten more seconds, there might have been a different outcome, but he didn’t and that’s what matters.

The entire coaching staff deserves credit for keeping the team in the game on a tough road trip to start the season. But again, Jack Del Rio gets the Balls Out award for the week just for having the guts to give it a shot. The old saying goes that you’re a genius when it works, and a fool when it doesn’t. But right when I saw they were going to go for it, before the play went off, I felt like win or lose, Del Rio deserved credit just for throwing the punch. (And of course, Carr and Crabtree made it all happen with an outstanding throw and catch.) The fact that it was successful just made it that much more of a statement for the team.
Grade: A

Game Preview: Raiders at Saints

Oakland definitely looks like the better team on paper. New Orleans is coming off a subpar season, with one of the league’s lowest-ranked defenses. They still have most of that high-powered offense though, with Drew Brees re-upping his contract for big money. Free-agent pickups Sean Smith, Bruce Irvin, and Reggie Nelson are going to earn their money. This will be a chance to see just how much the Raider D have improved, and if the core offensive stars are ready for a new run. I’m optimistic about this season, but this game could end up in a high-scoring shootout.

2016 Raiders Schedule Breakdown

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We’re all glad that the Raiders are everyone’s sleeper pick for the playoffs this year, but if the schedule makers weren’t trying to make that as difficult as possible, they sure made it look like they were. Three road trips to the Eastern Time Zones in the first eight games, including one in the first four games, plus New Orleans for the season opener and Tennessee in Week 3. Three of the final four games are the division road matches. The Week 11 game against the Texans will be played in Mexico City, but counted as a home game.

Usually my motto is “win at home, win the division,” because if you just do those things, you’re automatically 11-5. But this year the Raiders will have to be effective on the road, and able to get off to a quick start, both in each game and in the season overall. They’ve made some nice moves in free agency and the draft, nothing splashy or spectacular, but definitely solid moves, especially on defense. Free agents Bruce Irvin and Sean Smith should help greatly, and second-round draft pick Jihad Ward made an impression in camp and preseason.

This should be a fun season with lots of impact players. GO RAIDERS!

Raiders 2016 Schedule

It’s finally here, and it’s something else. Lots of road trips bookending just seven home games for the third year in a row (the Week 11 game against Houston will be played in Mexico City, but is listed as a Raiders home game, just like the Wembley Stadium games in 2015 and 2014).

The game-by-game predictions might not be too far off the mark; it’s not unreasonable to expect ten wins out of this squad. But they’re going to have to start and finish the season strong with all those road trips.

Game Grades: Raiders at Chiefs

Pass Offense: Derek Carr had 21 completions in 33 attempts, for 194 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and two fumbles. Carr finished the season just 13 yards shy of becoming the first Raiders QB to reach 4,000 yards since Rich Gannon in 2002. Offensive line issues continue to define the final part of the season for the team, as Carr took six sacks today, ending the season with a respectable total of 31 sacks. However, 19 of those sacks came in the final five games, and 10 of those were in the two Kansas City games. In both Chiefs games, Carr showed difficulty in figuring out Bob Sutton’s aggressive, man-coverage defensive scheme. Michael Crabtree once again proved to be the reliable outlet for Carr, with a great 31-yard grab for the team’s only offensive touchdown. Amari Cooper was still banged up, held to just 20 yards on two receptions.
Grade: D

Rush Offense: Normally we don’t add in Carr’s scrambles to the rushing yards total, because they are usually not designed runs, but broken passing plays. Might as well add Carr’s two runs for 12 yards this time around, since even then the Raiders’ grand total comes to a measly 48 yards on 16 total carries. Latavius Murray was rarely used and mostly shut down, gaining 31 yards on his 11 carries, with a long of 9 yards. Roy Helu was the only other ball carrier, with 3 carries for 5 yards and a long of 3 yards.
Grade: F

Pass Defense: Alex Smith ended his 2015 season with just 7 interceptions, but two of them were in this game, and David Amerson took his in for a pick-six. With Charles Woodson retiring, Amerson is the best remaining player on the Raiders’ secondary right now. The Raiders held Smith to just 14-24-154, but he also had two passing touchdowns. Considering the Raiders defense was on the field for almost 35 minutes, it could have been worse.
Grade: B+

Rush Defense: When Alex Smith couldn’t damage the Raiders with his arm, he victimized them with his legs, racking up 61 rushing yards on just nine carries, frequently at critical third-down points. Spencer Ware also had a field day, going 16-76 with a touchdown. Charcandrick West got into the festivities as well, gaining 34 yards on 13 carries. Jeremy Maclin’s 18-yard end-around pushes the grand total up to 189 rushing yards, a real step back for what had been an improved run defense. But again, 35 minutes on the field and very little offense, and that’s what happens.
Grade: C

Special Teams: Sebastian Janikowski made his lone 29-yard field goal attempt, and both extra points. Marquette King had a (for him) off day, averaging just 35.6 yards on his 6 punts, although one of them was a 57-yarder. Taiwan Jones had a 70-yard kickoff return. Kick coverage continues to be solid, giving up nothing longer than 14 yards.
Grade: B-

Coaching: While the Raiders this season have shown themselves to be much more competitive in general and against division opponents, both Kansas City games were by far their weakest division efforts. For whatever reason, they appear unable to handle Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s scheme and packages. As Denver and San Diego appear to be fading in the AFC West for at least the next couple seasons, it becomes even more critical for the Raiders to figure out the Chiefs and adapt. This will require developing a much more balanced rushing attack, and a complementary back to Latavius Murray. The days of the 35-carries-per-game workhorse running back are over; ideally Murray should get around 20-25 carries max, and the other RB should get 10-15. The 2:1 pass-run ratio today (33 pass plays, 16 running plays) is a surefire indicator of where the offense’s deficiencies lie. An adaptive game plan, especially after what happened in the first Raiders-Chiefs matchup on December 6, would have taken some of the load off Carr and spread it around in a jumbo-formation running package, to slow down the Chiefs’ front seven.
Grade: C-

Week 17 Final: Chiefs 23, Raiders 17

Full game stats here.

Derek Carr is probably going to have nightmares about Frank Zombo during the off-season. The Chiefs LB, who barreled through the Raiders’ o-line twice to end the game in Oakland last month, made his presence felt today in Kansas City as well, forcing a Carr fumble on the game’s final drive that was just barely recovered by the Raiders, to no avail.

At the very end of both a lost season and a Hall of Fame career, the Raiders at least managed to make it interesting, but only after a lot of dullness and derp. Charles Woodson’s NFL career ended in the same stadium where it began, at Kansas City’s Arrowhead. On the Chiefs’ first two offensive drives, the Raiders pass defense made Alex Smith look like Randall Cunningham, scrambling and passing and scoring at will, racking up an early 14-0 lead.

The safety in the third quarter happened on a blocked punt from the end zone, when Ben Heeney missed his block, allowing King’s punt to be blocked trough the end zone. The Chiefs scored a touchdown easily after the safety free kick, opening up a 23-10 lead. Bad play on Heeney’s part, but overall throughout the season, he’s proven himself to be a player with huge potential, and with top-notch LBs like Del Rio and Norton as his HC and DC respectively, there’s no reason Heeney can’t be groomed into a premier linebacker as well.

On the other side of the ball, Chiefs DC Bob Sutton seems to have just the thing to halt the Raiders offense dead in its tracks. Derek Carr managed some nice throws here and there, but Sutton’s constant pressure kept him on his heels, unable to generate consistent, productive drives. David Amerson’s pick-six in 2nd qtr got the Raiders back in the game, but the offense was unable to capitalize. With Woodson retiring, Nate Allen’s status up in the air going forward if he can’t stay healthy, and DJ Hayden on the verge of being permanently demoted to nickelback, Amerson is turning out to be one of the players (along with TJ Carrie) they can rebuild the secondary around.

Game Preview: Raiders at Chiefs

It’s the end of an era, as Charles Woodson suits up for his final NFL game. And of course the Raiders will strive to send him out on a high note. The Chiefs are already in the playoffs, so there’s no spoiler role to be had in this final game of the 2015-16 regular season. But that doesn’t mean that Oakland can’t use this game as a barometer of the direction the team is heading, and how quickly and effectively. Kansas City is red-hot, winning nine in a row after a 1-5 start, and will win the AFC West with a win against the Raiders, and a loss by Denver.

The Chiefs have continued their winning ways with the steady play of Alex Smith, the next-man-up approach of the running back corps, and the usual tight defensive play. Defensive back Marcus Peters is a legitimate contender for the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Kansas City is top-10 in their rushing attack, and second in the league in defensive points allowed.

There are some noteworthy parallels between this game and the season-ender in KC in 1999, for what that’s worth. Probably the main key to victory for the Raiders is to generate a strong running game and ride it for all it’s worth. If they do that, and own the clock enough, they can actually pull this one off and end the season at a respectable 8-8, more than the last two seasons combined.

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