Allen looks to lead Raiders to three straight wins for third time in three years
Coming off their most impressive victory of the year, the Oakland Raiders approach a fork in the road as the halfway point of the schedule nears. At 3-4, they would move to .500 for the first time in 2012 with a win over the 3-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They would officially thrust themselves into the AFC West chase with their third straight win.
By contrast, a home loss would push them to 3-5. With games at the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals, and versus the New Orleans Saints (all three playoff teams in 2011), the schedule only intensifies.
So in many ways, this is a defining game in the 2012 season. A third straight win validates the success of the past two weeks against lesser teams. A loss makes the pundits seem right in putting the Raiders among the bottom feeders of the National Football League.
Tampa Bay will not be an easy matchup, even with their recent personnel losses, most notably marquee free-agent addition Carl Nicks. Coming off a 36-17 dismantling of the first-place Minnesota Vikings, the Bucs also look to move to .500 and will be immensely confident. While the Raiders have their hands full, they do have the means to attack Tampa Bay. That said, here are the five keys, starting with No. 5.
Tampa Bay has played on the road against the Raiders five times in their history. Five times, the Raiders have won. The Raiders have beaten them with great teams (1976), they have beaten them with mediocre teams (1999) and they have beaten Tampa with bad teams (2004). But they have never lost to the Buccaneers as the host.
Of course, the most memorable game these two franchises played was in January 2003. You know what that game was, so I'm not going to bother mentioning it. But if there was one thing that held precedent in those games, the Raiders jumped on the Bucs early and did not let up, winning 49-16, 45-0 and 30-20 (after being up 30-6).
Will this be a rout? Probably not. But when you've got a precedent on your side, it is best to use it as a gauge to see what creates success...
Was McFadden's fourth quarter in K.C. the spark?
While the Raiders still languish near the bottom of the NFL in terms of running the football, there is a pattern of success when they run the football in 2012. When they rush 21 or more times, Oakland is 3-1 this year (the only loss being the winnable game in Atlanta).
In their other three games, the team has averaged 16.6 rushes. You can look at this in two ways: One, the Raiders fell behind and needed to pass the ball playing catchup. That was certainly the case against the Denver Broncos in the second half.
But against the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins, it was more about the inability to consistently run the football. In turn, the shorter series put the defense on the field and extended their time, which in turn led to creases, particularly in the Miami game. The more the Raiders continue to run the ball, the more it balances out the time on the field between the offensive and defensive units.
Even if the run isn't hitting on all cylinders early, it is important to stick with it. This is a team that has to control the ball on offense not just for the sake of that unit, but for the defense as well. It is becoming more and more apparent that if the offense does not tax the defense, it can be a more than serviceable unit.
The Raiders should exploit the absence of Pro Bowler Carl Nicks.
The NFL can be a cruel league sometimes. Tampa Bay will be without their marquee addition in the offseason, Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks, who will miss the game and the rest of the season with a toe injury. Reserves Ted Larsen or Jeremy Trueblood could start in Nicks' place, but they are not nearly the caliber of Nicks.
That means, the Raiders interior trio of Desmond Bryant, Tommy Kelly, and Richard Seymour have to take advantage of Nicks' absence. Tampa Bay's running game is middle of the pack (15th overall), but they have a dangerous duo in rookie Doug Martin and bruising LeGarrette Blount (assuming he's still with the team).
For the Raiders defensively, it starts and ends with run defense. Collapsing the interior will turn loose the sure tackling Phillip Wheeler and rookie Miles Burris, as well as Rolando McClain. When Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman drops to pass, it is important to move the pocket in his face because he's just as capable running the ball as he his throwing it.
Defensively, Tampa Bay may be without both projected starting cornerbacks. Aqib Talib is suspended until week 10 and Eric Wright is facing a four-game suspension for the use of banned amphetamine Adderall (h/t Jay Glazer, Fox Sports). For a unit that already ranks 31st in the league, this is precisely the weakness the Raiders can strongest exploit. But I'm getting (slightly) ahead of myself.
The absence of these men has been a welcomed sight in 2012.
Through seven games, the Raiders have committed just 39 penalties. Here's the perspective: In 2011, Oakland committed that many penalties after four games. They are on pace for their fewest amount of penalties since 1999, the last season they had less than 100 penalties.
With the plus-three turnover margin the team had in Kansas City, they are now plus-one on the season, the first time they have been in that position since Week 10 of 2011. In winning the last two games, the Raiders have done something you have hardly ever seen them do in the last decade: Allow the other team to beat itself with mistakes.
By playing solid, fundamental football, this team has positioned itself to win the last four games. There can't be a meltdown from that kind of style against Tampa Bay. When they are limiting penalties and turnovers, it forces the other team to play very good football all the way down the field. Slowly, this team is showing itself capable of stopping other teams when the defense is not handicapped by short fields and silly penalties.
If protected, Palmer may erupt against Tampa's porous secondary.
For the Raiders, their most advantageous matchup appears to be their passing attack against Tampa Bay's pass defense. On the season, the Raiders rank 10th overall in the NFL in passing (264 yards per game). Tampa Bay has the 31st-ranked pass defense in the league, allowing just under 310 yards per game.
Palmer has shown that with a clean pocket, he can exploit defenses. That means the quintet of Veldheer, Carlisle, Wisniewski, Brisiel and Smith have to give him sight lines and time to pass. No disrespect to Brandon McDonald (who is battling an ankle injury), E.J. Biggers and nickelback Leonard Johnson, but the Raiders should make plenty of hay against that trio.
And they better, because when it comes to the run, the Bucs stop here, there and everywhere (just 85 yards per game). So while I do think the Raiders need to stick with the run game, expecting a ton of yards against this defense is probably not the best idea.
The biggest beneficiary of this attack will likely be Denarius Moore. Moore is looking to become the first Raider with a TD reception in four consecutive games since Tim Brown had a five-game streak from Nov. 5 to Dec. 2, 2001. It would be nice to see Darrius Heyward-Bey become more consistent on the opposite side. The five drops (unofficially) Oakland had against Kansas City will not get it done this week.
Myers has been vital in the pass game thus far in 2012.
So two teams, both looking to reach the .500 mark, face off in Oakland this Sunday. For the Raiders, a game that was penciled by many fans as a win is suddenly anything but. To be fair, it never should have been, but you can officially get that off your mind. Tampa Bay is not just a dangerous team, they might be the slightly better team when everything is factored in.
That said, this game is not at Raymond James Stadium. It is in the Black Hole. A place where Tampa Bay's design has gone to die historically. While you can't expect a 45-0 whitewash or even a dominant win, a win is a win is a win. Tampa Bay is missing key players. Oakland may be getting one back in Aaron Curry.
What this will come down to is what has helped the Raiders win their three games this year: Execution, discipline and opportunistic football. Everything in me wants to pick the Raiders to win this game. But for some reason, I just don't think they will have quite enough in the end this week.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 24, Oakland 20