Palmer will have to be out of his mind Sunday for Raiders to stay with Falcons
I don't want this to sound like the words of a myopic homer, but I'll try as best I can: I think the Raiders are going to be competitive Sunday against the Falcons. Whether they will win or not, well, you will have to wait until the end to get my prediction.
But, my feeling is that the team bottomed out in Denver, and this week starts the slow climb back toward the identity that Dennis Allen and Reggie McKenzie are trying to create in the East Bay. There are a few things precisely that have to go right for the Raiders to have a shot, so let's get right into it.
Here are my five keys to a Raider victory Sunday afternoon.
Reece could have a big day against Atlanta's linebackers.
The Raiders have not been an explosive team this year. You don't really need me to convey that message to you. But in a scheme that lends itself to conservatism, there are still guys who can make plays. One of them is Marcel Reece.
In a bit of cruel irony, the Raiders executed their best play of the Denver game on their first pass play. Carson Palmer threw a screen that went for 31 yards. It caught the Broncos off guard and out of position.
So naturally, the Raiders didn't run it again. Reece's speed was evident, and he had favorable matchups against Wesley Woodyard and Von Miller (as evidenced by his awesome TD catch against Denver from Palmer last year).
Though he caught five passes at Invesco Field, the last four were for just 23 yards. Reece can be used as a safety valve effectively. But in a game like this, where the Raiders' pass rush could be challenged in the loaded Georgia Dome, quick hitters up the field could benefit the offensive line and Palmer.
The more Atlanta's varied defense has to account for what the Raiders are doing, the less variety they can throw in Palmer's face. I think Reece could be a big part of that.
Lamarr Houston, it's been four games and no sacks.
By far, the biggest problem the Raiders defense has had stems from an utter inability to consistently pressure quarterbacks with four linemen. The Raiders have only three sacks as a team in four games and really haven't been that close to many more.
Against Matt Ryan, the Raiders have to create pressure. If that means sending the house, so be it. There is nothing worse than seeing the Raiders slow moving front four get little pocket pressure and enabling a quarterback time to pick the back seven apart.
This team is a mismatch of players. It is high time that they were allowed to do what they did well as opposed to trying to be what they aren't.
That means use Miles Burris as a pass-rusher. Blitz! I saw his ceiling as a poor man's Von Miller if utilized right. Instead, Burris has been trying to run after tight ends and pass-catching backs while the defensive line gets stymied up front.
Players like Michael Huff, Tyvon Branch, Burris and Rolando McClain are simply not very good in coverage. It is really disappointing that Huff never became a playmaker. But he can blitz. The Raiders still have an excess of speed. There is no point is wasting it running a vanilla defense.
If this team was middle of the pack defensively, I could understand. But no, it is just as bad as before. Waiting for offenses to make mistakes when you don't get pressure is basically asking to get 30-plus points to get put on you every week. It is time for Jason Tarver to dial up as much heat as he can and make the opposition beat your pressure.
Somehow, this turned into a turnover for the Raiders.
Based on what we have all seen, Oakland's defense is not going to stop Atlanta's offense. That means the Raiders will have to, somehow, create turnovers. They have three in four games. They will probably need that many in this game to win.
How do you generate turnovers? Pressure. The Raiders don't have the players to just line up and chase Atlanta's great receivers (Roddy White, Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez) over the field.
This is a plodding defense in many spots (middle linebacker, defensive end), and the speed should be emphasized over the power. Atlanta's running game has been average, which doesn't mean much for the Raiders.
But, if Oakland can at least keep Michael Turner to an average game, then they have to utilize pressure on Ryan. I can't say that enough. The Raiders have to play zone coverage more to protect their depleted secondary; that gives guys like Pat Lee more of a chance to come up and go for the ball.
That should be what the Raiders try to do all game. The first guy tackles, but everyone else goes after the ball.
There is no formula for causing turnovers, or else, all teams would use it. But if the Raiders choose to play back, then I would like to see them funnel the receivers toward the inside of the field to try and go after the football.
The Raiders need both Palmer and McFadden to be spectacular.
Raider fans expected Carson Palmer and Darren McFadden to be like the disco duo McFadden and Whitehead at their best when teamed together this year. You see, they're the guys who sang the No. 1 song, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" in 1979.
So puns aside, the No. 2 key is really simple. McFadden and Palmer (aka Whitehand) have to be fantastic Sunday. The Raiders can't win without great efforts from both.
I would like to say that, for McFadden, that means more of the power-running game for which he showed so much success in the last two years. But according to reports (via Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, there won't be much change in philosophy on the ground. That means, McFadden's linemen will have to make something happen with what they have.
The good news is the Falcons are not very good against the run, allowing 5.4 yards per carry and 143 yards per game. That puts them at 27th, a slot about the Raiders. So, McFadden could have an opportunity for more of the big runs he had in the last couple of seasons and the big touchdown burst against the Steelers.
As for Palmer, he has been good statistically, given the constraints the Raiders' putrid running game has placed him under. But, this isn't going to be a game about completion percentage or QBR.
No, Palmer is going to have to get him some throws, some big throws for the Raiders to move the ball and get touchdowns. I just don't think Greg Knapp's play-calling will allow for four to five long TD drives on the road.
So, Palmer will have to check out of plays and then take his shots. Denarius Moore appears to be mostly healthy, and Darrius Heyward-Bey continues to move toward a return. So while Derek Hagan and Rod Streater can get some stuff underneath, Palmer has to make plays in the intermediate to deep range to set the Raiders up.
If he isn't absolutely precise, the Raiders don't stay close.
If you see this, the Raiders are getting destroyed.
And here's the bottom line for Sunday's game.
We know Atlanta is going to move the ball. We know they are probably going to have plenty of scoring chances. What we don't know yet is whether or not they will be scoring tons of touchdowns or kicking tons of field goals. If the Raiders wanna hang around, they have got to force the latter.
That means being better with their red-zone defense. Week 1's amazing job (keeping San Diego out of the end zone in the second half, despite an average field position inside the Raider 50) seems like a mirage based on the last three games.
Teams have scored with impunity with Oakland allowing 35, 31 and 37. Those are Michael Jordan scoring numbers, not opponents' point totals in the NFL.
So to give themselves a chance against Atlanta, the Raiders will have to force them to kick more field goals than extra points. That said, the total number of scoring chances has to be six or less in this scenario.
What that means is, the Raiders possessing the ball is paramount. Unlike the last three games, they might have the match up on offense to do it. But beyond that, it means being in sync once a team gets in scoring range to actually get off the field.
How many times have we seen a player get wide-open, only to have a Raider defense turn and point at another player in confusion and anger?
This also means keeping Rolando McClain in a bubble with support around him. He can't cover laterally; it's that simple. If this team isn't playing a 3-4, then either have him attacking the line of scrimmage or zoning up in a cover two or three.
It is already a vanilla defense. Having someone like McClain chasing crossing patterns in man coverage is something we already know does not work.
I can't see the Raiders allowing more than 26 points and winning, and frankly, they have to allow less than that. So, that means Matt Bryant has to be a big fantasy player for his field goals this week.
These are the plays the Raiders must make.
Remember the 2009 season? I do; not because it was anything particularly special (it wasn't) but because the Raiders managed to go 5-11 while beating two playoff teams (Philadelphia and Cincinnati) and the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. What they were was the perfect embodiment of Any Given Sunday.
I see similarities between that team and this team. What I mean is, neither team was going to wind up being anything special for that year. But occasionally, I think this team is going to have a game where they tease you with something they can beat for one week but not on a consistent basis.
This Atlanta game is a perfect trap for the Raiders. The Falcons are 5-0 and headed toward a bye week before big games on the back end of their schedule.
What I'm saying is, the Raiders lull you in to either completely going overboard about their chances (at Denver) or having you think they have zero chance then playing an inspired game (vs. Pittsburgh).
I have a strange feeling we're in for one of those latter games. Ultimately, I think Atlanta makes just enough plays to win, but it will not be a destruction that some are preparing for.
Prediction: Atlanta 26, Oakland 20