Palmer should have a big game against Jacksonville
Going into last Sunday, I felt the Raiders has bottomed out in their putrid performance against Denver. In spite of what the prognosticators were saying, I felt Oakland would play a competitive game against the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons.
They even exceeded my expectations, outplaying the Falcons more for much of the game, but unfortunately, came up short in a tough 23-20 loss. Now 1-4, this is officially a must-win game if the Raiders want to entertain any notion of a playoff push over the last 11 games. I say that because since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, no team has made the playoffs after starting 1-5.
And oh yeah, while this writer is not one to play the schedule game (you know, "this game is a win, this game is a loss"), if the Raiders can't beat the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, they aren't beating many other teams the rest of the year. It is as plain as that.
The Raiders should be in a position to win a comfortable (that does not mean a blowout) game. But we have seen this team allow inferior teams hang around and steal games time and time again.
So to avoid that and an official end to any realistic playoff pursuits, here are the five keys to a Raiders victory Sunday—speaking for myself of course.
The Raiders need to see Janikowski kicking extra points Sunday, not field goals
One of the biggest Achilles' heels for the Raiders in the post-Rich Gannon abyss has been the inability to consistently score touchdowns once in scoring range. This is even more of a problem in the red zone. So far, that problem continues to plague the Silver and Black.
After five games, Oakland ranks 27th in red-zone scoring percentage at a very mediocre 41.67 percent (touchdowns only). In terms of their red-zone touchdowns per game, the Raiders are tied for 28th in the NFL at just one per game. If you are only scoring one red-zone touchdown per game, you better be explosive offensively or outstanding defensively.
At this point in the season, the Raiders are neither. That means their consistency in capitalizing on scoring opportunities must improve. That starts Sunday.
The Jaguars are a pretty solid team defensively in the red zone (43.48 percent/seventh in the NFL), but like the Raiders, they are porous against the pass. That means a veteran with Carson Palmer's ability will have the chance to make plays. He may have to with Oakland's running game still inconsistent.
Goodman's return was a back breaker against Oakland in January
When playing a team as terrible on offense as the Jaguars have been, it is vital not to give away any cheap points. For the Raiders, that means being solid on special teams. With Sebastian Janikowski booming most kicks into the end zone, kick returns haven't been much of an issue in 2012.
That means, steady hands in the return game (particularly on kick returns) is a must. In addition, when Shane Lechler booms one of his cloud scrapers, lane discipline has to be taken care of. Mike Thomas is only averaging seven yards a punt return, but this is not the week to allow a long return.
Mike Goodson has been solid, if not spectacular, with his returns. But, he still has the reputation for fumbling. As such, discretion is the better part of valor this week. Instead of challenging a return four to five yards in the end zone, a touchback is just fine. The Raiders offense should be able to move the football.
Gabbert's effectiveness is negated when forced to throw out of the pocket.
As a Raider fan, there is nothing quite as frustrating as seeing quarterbacks get some pressure and then take off running with no one within eight to 10 yards to make a tackle.
I can rattle off names of quarterbacks who have killed Oakland's defense over the last few years with scrambling: Tyler Thigpen, Alex Smith, Ryan Tannehill, Christian Ponder, Caleb Hanie, Sam Bradford, Ben Roethlisberger, etc., etc., etc.
Let me put this as plainly as I can: If the Raiders keep Blaine Gabbert in the pocket and vary their schemes, they will have just fine against the pass Sunday. If they insist on rushing four and dropping seven, Gabbert will run for at least 40 yards. Jacksonville offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is not shy about saying he would like Gabbert to run.
So when the Jaguars are passing, and if they have their way, it won't be all that much (but I'm getting ahead of myself), the Raiders have to vary their looks and make Gabbert a one-read thrower. This is not the week for the second-year QB to get some confidence.
McFadden's best runs in Atlanta were negated by penalties.
Obviously, the Oakland Raider offense goes as Carson Palmer and Darren McFadden take it. We all know that. But no matter who's running and who's throwing, the offense won't move if it commits penalties.
For the first time in 2012, the Raiders looked like the Raiders of old last Sunday. Against the Falcons, they racked up 12 penalties for 110 yards. McFadden had a beautiful run of 25 yards wiped out by a Willie Smith penalty in the second quarter. Then, a 14-yard run by Mike Goodson in the third quarter was erased by another hold on Smith late in the third quarter.
Those would be the two best runs the Raiders had out of the backfield. So either the running game is only effective when someone is committing a penalty, or there needs to be more consistency in the blocking through the play. I think it is the latter.
Much is being made about the familiarity Bratkowski has as Palmer's former offensive coordinator in Cincinnati. But if there was ever a game that the Raiders were going to get on track as an offense, it is this one—not just big yardage like they had in the Georgia Dome, but scoring points.
As long as Oakland isn't beating itself with the dumb penalties, they will move the ball against Jacksonville's 29th-ranked defense.
Wheeler and the Raiders defense must make MJD priority No.1.
Obviously, the No. 1 key for this game is the Raiders stopping Maurice Jones-Drew. There is nothing else that really needs to be said about it. But for the sake of this slide and the rest of the article, here it goes: If you stop Maurice Jones-Drew, you stop the Jacksonville Jaguars. It is as simple as that.
However, for the Raiders schizophrenic run defense, that might be easier said than done. Five games in, it has literally been feast or famine for a unit that looks maddeningly good, only to disintegrate at the most inopportune times. In five games, these are the run-yardage totals against the Raiders: 32, 263, 54, 165, 45.
It appears as though that sets the stage for another game of seeing an opponent's run game gash the Raider defense. But Oakland's run defense has been much better at home. And it will need to be against Jones-Drew.
Though he held out through training camp and the preseason, he started right where he left off last season. Currently, Jones-Drew has 409 yards on a 4.9 yards per carry clip, so an awful passing game (last in the NFL in yards) has not stopped him from being productive.
With all due respect to Laurent Robinson, rookie Justin Blackmon and tight end Marcedes Lewis, Oakland should have eight and even nine guys in the zone and dare Gabbert to beat them all game long. Much like the game in Miami, if the Raiders allow a young quarterback to get confident, it might end up coming back to bite them as the game progresses.
"Mr. Official, the other guys weren't calling that stuff..."
When it gets down to it, the Raiders have to win this game. I am hearing fans talk about how this team will be 4-4 going in to Baltimore in four weeks. That's silly logic and goes against everything this team has shown over the last decade.
Yet, there are still those in the Raider Nation who make assumptions simply because of the caliber of the opponent. The problem with that is, the team they're rooting for is not high caliber either.
So before anyone talks about 4-4, you have to talk about getting to 2-4.
For the Raiders, that means jumping on a team that wants its second win as well and has played much better on the road (only win against the Colts and three-point loss to Minnesota) than it has at home (three losses by a combined 75 points). If you're expecting a rout, you haven't been watching the Raiders this year.
But, if you want a comparison, think back to the Cleveland game last year. In many ways, its the same idea here. The Raiders are a more talented, and frankly, a better team.
However, if they don't play for 60 full minutes, they will find themselves in a fight they might not have the fortune in as they did against the Browns in 2011. Ultimately, though, the Raiders will do what they need to do for their second win.
Prediction: Oakland 24, Jacksonville 17