The Oakland Raiders have historically had to prepare to defend against a running quarterback when getting ready to play the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s the other way around now, as the Eagles must instead prepare for Oakland's mobile signal-caller, and how well Terrelle Pryor is able to run the ball will go a long way in determining which team will win this Week 9 matchup.
The game features two of the NFL’s top-five rushing teams, though each has gotten there by different means. The Raiders have done so behind the swift athleticism of Pryor, while the Eagles counter with the league’s leading-rusher in running back LeSean McCoy.
Both teams also own top-10 run defenses, meaning it will literally be strength versus strength for the entire game.
If there’s an edge to be had, it’s on the injury front.
With Michael Vick’s hamstring keeping him on the sidelines, the Eagles will instead go with Nick Foles at quarterback. Foles played well in relief of Vick earlier this season but struggled in a loss to Dallas in Week 7. He then sat out Philadelphia’s Week 8 loss to the New York Giants with concussion symptoms.
Oakland, on the other hand, is finally starting to get its offensive line back together. Center Stefen Wisniewski returned to practice last week following a two-game absence, and key backup Menelik Watson came back this week after being out with a calf injury.
Here’s a look at four of the things the Raiders must do in order to have a chance to get back to .500 and hand the Eagles their third-straight loss:
Clog the Middle Against McCoy
McCoy’s 733 rushing yards are nearly 100 more than the next closest running back in the NFL, Kansas City’s Jamal Charles, and more than half of those yards have come on inside runs. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only 334 of McCoy’s rushing yards have come on plays in which he’s gotten to the edge and turned the corner.
That should play directly into the Raiders’ hands.
While Oakland’s pass rush has been key to the team’s success, it’s been the improvements in the run defense that have made the most difference. A big key has been the interior play of defensive tackles Pat Sims and Vance Walker.
The two haven’t made a bunch of big plays, but they do a good job of holding off opposing blockers so that linebackers Nick Roach and Kevin Burnett can do so instead.
The Cowboys and Giants slowed McCoy down by deploying an extra defender or two in the box, daring the Eagles to go to the air. Oakland defensive coordinator Jason Tarver will likely follow suit, particularly early in the game when Philadelphia will try to establish the ground game.
Containing McCoy will also largely depend on how well the Raiders tackle on the back end of their defense. Oakland’s Brandian Ross has really struggled in that department and ranks 84th out of 85 safeties in defending the run, according to PFF.
Stretch the Field Through the Air
Pryor stunned just about everyone in the building when he opened the Raiders’ 27-17 win over San Diego on Oct. 7 with a 44-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Rod Streater on the first play from scrimmage. This was an area that the young quarterback has really struggled to find his touch, although he’s clearly more comfortable throwing deep than he was earlier in the season.
Because the Eagles defend the run so well and will likely be keying on taking that part of Pryor’s game away, it’s imperative that the Raiders throw the ball consistently and take a few shots down field in order to loosen up some of that pressure.
Throwing long to Streater and Denarius Moore will also open up some of the underneath stuff, where rookie tight end Mychal Rivera could be a factor.
Pound the Ball On the Ground, No Matter Who It Is
The Raiders aren’t built to win by throwing the ball. The offense was built around the running game, and that theory has remained the same even though there’s been a few tweaks added with Pryor at quarterback.
The biggest change has been the addition of the read-option packages, which were originally only going to be a small part of the Raiders’ offense.
Pryor has had a lot of success running out of the read-option. However, he’s going to have to be at his best on Sunday to make any sort of impact against the NFL’s ninth-ranked run defense.
That means knowing when to give the ball to Darren McFadden. Oakland coach Dennis Allen was critical of Pryor’s performance against Pittsburgh last week and pointed out that there were a handful of instances when the quarterback incorrectly kept the ball rather than giving it to McFadden while running the read-option.
Truthfully, it doesn’t matter who runs the ball—whether it’s Pryor, McFadden, Rashad Jennings or fullback Marcel Reece. The bottom line is that if Oakland can’t run and Pryor is forced to try to win by using his arm, it could be a long afternoon.
Load Up the Pass Rush Against Foles
Foles has played in all or parts of five games this season, and he’s been sacked just five times in total. That’s by design, though, as Chip Kelly’s offense is predicated on the quarterback getting rid of the ball quickly.
The Raiders have to counter that by loading up the pass rush and trying to knock Foles around as much as possible. Nothing rattles a young quarterback more than taking a few shots early in the game in a hostile road environment like the one the Eagles will face in Oakland.
Philadelphia grades out much lower than Pittsburgh does in pass protection, according to PFF. With Foles, a second-year quarterback, it could become even more of an issue.
The Raiders are coming off their second five-sack game of the season and have been getting a much stronger push up front from the defensive line. In turn, that has made it easier for the team to employ a solid pass defense.
Look for Tarver to try and send a message to Foles early in the first quarter with frequent blitzing. The Raiders did it with success against Kansas City and Pittsburgh, both of which have better offensive lines and more experienced quarterbacks than the Eagles do.
*All quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required), unless otherwise noted.