Oakland Raiders Week 10: 5 Keys Against Baltimore
I waited a day longer than usual to write this because, well, Doug Martin is still running.
After the nightmare second half on defense that saw Martin rush for nearly 200 yards and four touchdowns, the Raiders are now 3-5 as the schedule again heats up.
When I profiled the biggest games on the schedule last spring, the Baltimore game was the first one on my list. Realistically, I never had the Raiders pegged as a contender in 2012. At best they were a borderline playoff team.
But, as much as some fans hate hearing this, it isn't always about wins and losses, but how you achieve them.
Baltimore has, for the most part, "punked" the Raiders.
Especially at M&T Stadium, where the Raiders have never won.
As a matter of fact, the Ravens are 6-1 all-time against the Raiders, with the only win coming in the utterly forgettable 2003 season. Think about that: Rich Gannon and Jeff Hostetler didn't beat the Ravens, but Rick Mirer did.
How does that relate to Sunday's game? Simple.
The last couple of times the Raiders have played in Baltimore, they have been blown away (28-6 in 2006, infamous for Aaron Brooks begging out of the game, and 29-10 in 2008). Even in a slightly more competitive game in 2009 (a 21-13 loss in Oakland), the enduring image was Willis McGahee's stiff arm on the hapless Hiram Eugene en route to a 77-yard TD run.
The point is, for all of the Raiders' historical bluster, they have been meek tabby cats against the bullies from Baltimore.
Last week's game is not a good omen, as a similar back in Ray Rice and a solid quarterback in Joe Flacco led a good Ravens offense against an Oakland unit that looked much like the same group from year's past.
To win, they will have to play inspired football and create their own breaks.
With Darren McFadden potentially out, two things can come of this game: One, we can see if Carson Palmer's experience against Baltimore helps (he's 9-4 as a starter lifetime against the Ravens). And two, with McFadden out, perhaps Marcel Reece and/or Mike Goodson can shine some light on if the struggles in the running game are due to the zone blocking system or McFadden's incompatibility with it.
Here are my five keys to Sunday's game.
#5: Bend, Bend, Bend but Dont' Break
No need for a lot of explanation, here.
After eight games in the 2012 season, the Raiders rank 21st in the NFL on defense in yards allowed per game. That would be their best finish since 2006, if the season ended today.
The problem is, games aren't won on yards, but points.
Oakland's 28.6 points per game allowed are good for 29th (tied with New Orleans) in the league. A good cross-reference is the Patriots, who allow slightly more yards than the Raiders (369.8 to 369.4), but allow 7.4 fewer points per game (28.6 to 21.2).
In games like this, the last decade has shown that when the Raiders give up touchdowns, they get beat. To stay with Baltimore, it won't be about shutting their potent offense down. It will be about slowing it enough to make them kick field goals.
A ratio of 1-to-4 touchdowns to field goals is probably necessary to spring an upset.
#4: Reece Lightning!
According to CSN Bay Area, Taiwan Jones has received the bulk of the carries and reps as the first-string running back this week in practice due to injuries to both Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson.
Even if Jones starts against Baltimore, the likeliness will be that a pass-heavy offense will be in place against the Ravens.
For the Raiders, that means an opportunity to deploy one of the most dynamic weapons in football in Marcel Reece. Last week was a taste of what he could do if targeted on a regular basis (eight catches, 95 yards and a touchdown). The fact is, there is no single better matchup for the Raiders to exploit more on offense than Reece against a linebacker or safety.
It would serve Carson Palmer well to strike Reece lightning often Sunday afternoon.
#3: Seymour, Do More
Richard Seymour is the leader of the Oakland Raiders on defense.
He is a potential Hall of Fame defensive lineman with credentials that are undisputed. That is all well and good, but the version the Raiders have in 2012 has been inconsistent, and what's more disturbing is that he seems to do most of his damage with borderline cheap shots and penalties.
Al Davis traded for Seymour in 2009 to bring leadership, yes, but mainly production.
And yes, his first two years were very very good. But Seymour regressed in 2011 and has not looked like the same dominant interior lineman so far. In the three meltdown games of 2012 (at Miami, at Denver and versus. Tampa Bay), the run defense collapsed as teams ran inside and right down Oakland's throat.
That is supposed to be the Raiders' big strength on defense: Seymour and Tommy Kelly.
They are certainly compensated like they're the best on the team ($37.5 million for Seymour, even after a restructure, and $50.125 million for Kelly). Far too often, they don't dominate the game. Kelly is more understandable in my opinion, as he is not an elite defensive tackle.
But Big Rich is. Or at least he was.
Either way, in this game, he has to be the guy from New England and 2009, and not the player that has been largely invisible in 2012. Or you might see Ray Rice run for another 200-plus yards.
Speaking of Rice...
#2: Practice Makes Perfect
The Raiders have to tackle Ray Rice in space. Period.
We hear stuff like that all the time, but Doug Martin's performance was the tipping point. Whatever the schemes are supposed to do, the Raiders defense is often in a position where there's a one-on-one situation, for whatever reason, with a ball-carrier resulting in a missed tackle that leads to a big play.
Martin had some creases in the second half, no doubt. However, there were also quite a few missed tackles.
It comes back to the one thing that head coach Dennis Allen stressed in the offseason: fundamentals.
Rice is going to get anywhere from 20-to-35 carries in this game (assuming it stays competitive). If the Raiders aren't able to get him on the turf consistently, it will be another ugly road loss.
End of story, copy and print.
#1: Last Call with Carson Palmer
Sound familiar? It should. It was the same number one key as last week. With out a running game and a shaky defense, fair or not, the burden is squarely on the right arm of Carson Palmer. When your quarterback throws for 414 yards and four touchdowns, it is hard to believe your team loses by double figures against anyone.
But that is what happened last Sunday. And it probably isn't a safe bet to assume those kinds of numbers for Palmer on the road. So how does Oakland pull the shocker? Well, Palmer has to eliminate the three interceptions. One of them (the misread of Denarius Moore) was not his fault. But the other two were bad throws and the Raiders simply are not good enough to overcome that.
And that is what being an elite quarterback is about. Peyton Manning mastered this high-wire act for the better part of a decade in Indianapolis. Tom Brady has steered a Patriots team with a pretty bad defense over the last two and a half years to 33 wins. That is what a great quarterback can do. And no, Palmer is not on that level. But he is capable of playing that way in small pockets.
The only way the Raiders win on Sunday is if he has one of those pockets for four quarters. Even then, it might not be enough.
When it gets down to it, Tampa Bay seems to be a slightly lesser version of what Baltimore is now. And they beat the Raiders in Oakland by 10. And that was with Darren McFadden playing.
There are too many variables working against the Raiders in this game to project a victory.
So how does it play out? Well, that's the unknown. This team was good enough to stare down the 8-0 Atlanta Falcons. This team was bad enough to deserve to lose against a 1-7 Jacksonville Jaguars squad.
Like the teams in 2008 and 2009, you don't know what you're going to get week to week, but it probably won't be good enough to win on a consistent basis.
And against an elite team, you can't play the hope game and expect to win many. Baltimore might overlook the Raiders, but I am not sure that this team is capable of taking advantage over an entire game to make them pay.
Prediction: Baltimore 33, Oakland 17