According to Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com, the Oakland Raiders have their starting left tackle for the first time this season and running back Darren McFadden will play on Thursday too. Now all they need to do is win on Thanksgiving Day—something they haven’t done since 1968.
Oakland has lost three straight and is on the brink of elimination from playoff contention. The Raiders will most likely need to win out to leapfrog five of the teams ahead of them.
Even then, it might not be enough.
Playing in Dallas in Week 13 offers Dennis Allen’s team a legitimate chance to stop the slide and get back in the race.
The Cowboys have one of the worst defenses in the NFL—at least statistically—while the Raiders should get a boost from the return of left tackle Jared Veldheer and McFadden. McFadden has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury.
Here are four of the things the Raiders must do to beat the Cowboys in their Week 13 matchup.
Tighten up the Coverage
In its last three games, Oakland’s defense has made mediocre-to-average quarterbacks like Nick Foles of Philadelphia and Ryan Fitzpatrick of Tennessee look like Hall of Famers.
The breakdowns have come across the board too, from cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter to the back-end play of safeties Charles Woodson and Brandian Ross.
In both instances, the Raiders let opposing wide receivers get so open that oftentimes there wasn’t a defender within 10 yards. It happened consistently against the Eagles and was an even more glaring issue in the loss to the Titans.
Part of the problem has come from the lack of a pass rush. Oakland managed to put good pressure on Foles and Fitzpatrick at times, but the Raiders couldn’t finish off with sacks, which allowed both quarterbacks to extend plays and make throws downfield.
Tony Romo is far better than either of those two quarterbacks, and if the Raiders give him time to work, it could get ugly.
Get Terrelle Pryor Involved
The return of McFadden will at least lighten the workload on Rashad Jennings, who has been an absolute beast over the past month. He’s accounted for more than 100 yards in total offense in each of the past four games and has overtaken McFadden as Oakland’s second-leading rusher behind Terrelle Pryor.
Speaking of Pryor, the former starting quarterback’s right knee appears to be almost fully healed and he will be active as the backup behind Matt McGloin.
While the Raiders may not plan to use Pryor at quarterback, they need to get him involved in the offense in some capacity.
With wide receiver Denarius Moore out with a shoulder injury and rookie tight end Mychal Rivera coming off a concussion he suffered against Tennessee, Oakland’s offense will be running at less than full capacity and will need some kind of spark. Pryor could be just what the Raiders are looking for.
Offensive coordinator Greg Olson designed a package of plays for Pryor when the team thought Matt Flynn was going to be the starting quarterback. It’s time to trot those schemes out and get Pryor involved.
The options are numerous.
Pryor can line up as a wide receiver for an end-around or reverse. The Raiders can throw to him for a double-pass or he can head out for a pass. They can also put him in the backfield to run the Wildcat or put him in motion against a linebacker.
Whatever happens, they can’t let someone with his athletic talent just stand on the sidelines all afternoon carrying a clipboard.
Run it to the Left, to the Left
Veldheer was activated from the injured reserve/designated to return list on Wednesday and is expected to make his first start of the season at left tackle after missing the first 11 games with a torn triceps injury.
That’s promising news because not only is Veldheer the Raiders’ best offensive lineman, but the Cowboys also have one of the worst run defenses in the NFL.
By running the ball effectively, Oakland will take a lot of pressure off McGloin, who will be making just his third career start.
For the past two seasons, much of the Raiders’ success on the ground came behind Veldheer and whoever was at left guard. This year, they’ve had their best luck going straight up the middle because Khalif Barnes—who has started in Veldheer’s place—has struggled so much.
Barnes could move inside to left guard, where he is a much better fit, which would make for a formidable combination on the left side of the line.
The biggest challenge will be in slowing down Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware. The Cowboys like to move Ware around, but he’ll stay mostly on the right side of the defense where he’ll square off against Veldheer in a matchup Oakland has to control to have a chance at winning the game.
Keep it Close, Let Romo Make the Mistake
Romo is one of the most divisive figures in the NFL. There are fans who support and adore him as a potential Hall of Famer, and another group that believes he might be one of the worst decision-makers in the league today.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. One thing that isn’t refutable, however, is Romo’s penchant for making mistakes at critical times—something the Raiders have to keep in mind.
Defensive coordinator Jason Tarver’s squad is second in the NFL at forcing three-and-outs, but Oakland has also been outscored 85-37 in the fourth quarter—a trend that played out against the Titans when the Raiders gave up a game-winning, 80-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes.
It’s critical that they keep it close against Dallas, which has been involved in several tight games already this season. The Cowboys have lost three games by three or fewer points, while three of their wins have come by five or fewer points.