Oakland Raiders Week 13 Preview: Oakland vs. Cleveland
By now, most of you are aware of the big story in Raider land from Wednesday. The underwhelming Rolando McClain, in just his third year, is likely done as an Oakland Raider. I don't want to rehash this very much; I already said my piece on the Alabama linebacker.
So let's move beyond that in the short term and get back to the issue at hand: Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns.
As the season winds down, suddenly this game has meaning. No, not the "we still mathematically cling to the playoffs" meaning. That's silly. But there's meaning when looking towards the 2013 NFL draft and potential selection hierarchy.
As it stands right this very second, the Raiders would pick third overall, and the Browns would choose fourth. By the end of Sunday's game, that could very well change.
But I digress, as this is still about how the Raiders can win, which is something they have not done in their last four weeks.
Realistically, this team might not have too many more chances to notch a win in 2012. With another home game against Kansas City being the other likely opportunity, for Raider Nation, this is hopefully a beacon of light in what has been a dim, dark season.
Coming off their worst home performance of the season (against New Orleans), Oakland will try to build a little momentum against the Browns as they start a three-game home stand at the Coliseum.
So here, as always, are my five keys to a Raider win on Sunday.
5. Play with Passion
Houston and Kelly finally showed some of the fury the Raiders have lacked in 2012 late against Cincy.
I have been a bit esoteric about how the Raiders can/should go about winning ballgames. The reality is that this is a below-average team with flaws that you can just offset when analyzing them from a fan's point of view.
In other words, winning is not about simple Xs and Os anymore.
Right now, it is about fight.
Lamarr Houston may have taken the rules to the edge with his tackle of Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton after a false-start penalty had stopped play last Sunday. That said, the ensuing scuffle between Houston, Cincy tackle Andrew Whitworth and ultimately Tommy Kelly is kinda what has been missing this year.
No, I'm not saying they should go out and commit a bunch of penalties for the sake of doing so. I am saying they should play with some fury. Play to the hilt, and if mistakes happen that way, you take them as part of that effort. But when a team is sloppy, disorganized and mistake-prone, well, that is a recipe for blame with both the coaching and the players.
So starting this Sunday, it would be nice to see this Raiders team play passionate football and be satisfied with the results after 60 (or more) minutes at home.
That's the direction this team needs to go not just for the final five games of this season but for seasons to come.
4. Choose an Identity on Offense and Be That Identity
Palmer throwing the ball all over the place isn't conducive to winning.
This one is pretty simple. If you are a run-first team, then come out and run the ball!
Earlier in the season, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp would run the ball even after it became clear that this team wasn't running the ball well. That put the offense in predictable third-down situations and led to a lot of bad field position and big deficits as a result.
Flash forward to the last three weeks. The Raiders without Darren McFadden have averaged 97 yards per game on the ground. Doesn't sound like much, but that is more than the 82.6 they have averaged for the season. To make matters more curious, the team has averaged four yards per carry, up from the 3.7 they average on the season.
Yet they have not run the ball much in the first half. Their 24.3 attempts per game in the last three weeks is deceiving. Against Cincinnati, the Raiders only ran the ball six times in the first half. Against New Orleans, they ran the ball 15 times, and against Baltimore, just seven rushes. That's an average of 9.3 first-half running attempts.
Needless to say, the results haven't been pretty, as the Raiders have trailed 24-0, 21-7 and 27-10.
This team has to control the pace and hog the ball. It is just not equipped to win shootouts or even depend on that to happen.
Getting Darren McFadden back should hopefully see a commitment to running the football again.
3. Vary the Defense
Allen's defensive expertise has yet to be seen on the field.
I thought Al's defense was gone? Where's the variety, the disguise, the attacking from all angles many Raider fans expected with the hire of a defensive head coach? Truth be told, the Raiders have looked more vanilla this year than they did under Chuck Bresnahan. Not by much, mind you, but I stand by that statement.
The truth is that Dennis Allen is hamstrung by the lack of talent at cornerback and linebacker. But the rebuttal is simple: That is precisely why you do more things on defense! You mask the deficiencies you have with a scheme that maximizes what your players can do.
So far, we have seen nothing that even suggests there was more in the playbook to vary things up.
I would love to see nothing more than that element of surprise sprung on a Cleveland Browns offense that, frankly, is not very good (29th in yards, 27th in points). Zones in all three levels (short, intermediate, deep), blitzes from the middle and both flanks and twists and stunts upfront.
Open the vault!
2. Do Not Turn the Ball over
McFadden and his offensive/special-teams mates must possess the ball.
It is a pretty simple equation to beat the Cleveland Browns: protect the ball.
In the Browns' three wins, they are plus-11 in turnover margin, an average of 3.66 per game. In their eight losses, they are minus-three. In spite of those gaudy turnover statistics, Cleveland has won its three games by six, one and 10.
So when it gets down to it, if you do not give the ball away, you beat the Browns. That means ball security by usual suspects Darren McFadden, Carson Palmer, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Phillip Adams on punt returns is a must.
If the Raiders hold on to the ball, their chances of winning stand to go up exponentially.
1. Treat Your Fans to Some Home Cookin'
It's been a long month for the Raider Nation.
An even more simple point about beating the Cleveland Browns: At home, they are a respectable 3-3 in 2012; on the road, they are 0-5. While they have been competitive in all five games, they have come up on the short end all five times.
Oakland needs to use its home crowd, and in turn, the Raiders fans need to energize this team. Truth be told, the last few weeks have been flat at the Coliseum, though the play on the field didn't exactly help much.
To get win No. 4 and re-establish some of the good feelings the back-to-back wins against Jacksonville and Kansas City created, the Raiders have to play like they're the team that's desperate and use their home to get a win against a team they should be favored against.
Like I said earlier, this isn't about Xs and Os; this is about pride. Honestly, if they lose this game, they may not win another game in 2012.
So will they?
Gaither will have his shot to play at middle linebacker.
Sunday will soon be here again. It's the last of the three home games for 2012 against a foe with many of the same things in common as the Raiders.
What this game gets down to is not about who does what best, because they are evenly matched.
This game gets down to who wants it more. Do the Raiders, winless since Week 8, have the fortitude to grind out a victory for 60 minutes? Or will their own mental meltdowns and deficiencies doom them to loss No. 9?
Frankly, this is a toss-up on paper, and I wouldn't be shocked either way. So with all things being equal, I'm going to be a homer and play the fan card.
Oakland has beaten Cleveland the last two times at home. I say the third time is the charm...for the Raiders.
Prediction: Oakland 19, Cleveland 17