Oakland Raiders Week 9 : Pressures, Hurries, and Knockdowns
Our beloved Raiders have given us something to smile about for two straight weeks, first annihilating the hated Denver Broncos 59-14 on October 24th, in Denver no less, and then backing up that performance with a tour de force home victory over former division rival Seattle in front of a small but raucous Halloween crowd.
To anyone who read last week's PHK, let me say this: I'm sure glad the Big Guy upstairs has a good sense of humour! He apparently forgave my ill-advised Black Hole comment and allowed nature to take it's course.
Now, for the first time since 2002, the Raiders play a meaningful game at the halfway point of the season as it pertains to divisional positioning and potential playoff ramifications. This team is 4-4, at .500 halfway through the season for the first time since 2002, and playing better football all around than I can remember.
The Broncos and the Seahawks are both banged up on defense, which can help to partly explain Oakland's offensive explosion; but this Raider team has been in the top 10 of NFL offense all season, so it's not that much of an anomaly.
It's also been the play and intensity of the Raiders' defense that's been as much a catalyst for this success as offensive efficiency.
This week, the hated Kansas City Chiefs, themselves in the midst of a renaissance after recent struggles, roll into Oakland. Kansas City, after narrowly defeating the Buffalo Bills in overtime last week, own a 5-2 record and sit atop the AFC West, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Raiders at this point.
This game is key for the Raiders, as a win would pull them within 1/2 game heading into their bye week, with a chance to get healthy to tackle a somewhat daunting second half schedule.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, have a relatively easy schedule after this game and are in a better position on paper than the Raiders are in regards to their path to the playoffs and a potential division title.
That is why it is key the Raiders bring the same intensity and focus to this game that they have in three of the past four weeks: because a loss drops the Raiders to 2 1/2 games back with seven to play, against a tough schedule while Kansas City has an easier path. This game is huge for obvious reasons.
Pressures : Run Defense
The Raiders run defense is terrible almost every single year, and though many moves were made to shore up the run defense via trade, free agency, and the draft, Oakland's rush defense continued to rank near the bottom of the league for the first six weeks of the season.
It was the same old issues: poor gap discipline, players freelancing and overpursuing plays, and a lack of good, fundamental tackling.
Well, the last two weeks, beginning with the Denver Broncos who cannot run the ball well and were the perfect opponent to get right against, the Raiders have shut down their opponents.
Granted, the Raiders jumped out to a huge lead in the Broncos game, rendering their already ineffective running game moot and being the main factor in the Raiders ability to stop the run in that game. Holding the Broncos to low yardage in a blowout is certainly a mirage when it comes to the stats; a high school team could've stopped the Broncos rushing attack that week.
Prior to the Broncos game, the Raiders were allowing roughly 135 ypg on the ground on 5.1 ypc. That is not going to get it done; the yardage total aside, giving up over five yards per carry is going to lose you a lot of games. Especially when teams realize this and run the ball an average of 33 times a game.
In the Denver and Seattle games, those opponents combined to rush 36 times for 122 yards, or a 18 times per game for 61 yards on 3.4 ypc. Better numbers to be sure, but more indicative of the flow of the game than Raiders rush defense.
Although seemingly improved, the state of both games limited rushing attempts by the offense and forced them to throw the ball. It's tough to gauge how improved the Raiders rush defense is based on these two games.
However, they weren't very good prior to those games, and the KC Chiefs have the #1 rushing attack in the NFL. The Raiders are under pressure to continue to blitz effectively, maintain gap discipline, and stick to their assignments.
Both Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles have the ability to gash a defense, the Chiefs O-Line is big and powerful, and Charles especially can make you pay for overpursuit with his cut-back ability and blazing speed.
This defense, though, has a different look and feel to them, regardless of statistics. They have indeed improved against the run; and need to bring that renewed focus and intensity against a formidable Chiefs attack.
Pressures : Special Teams
Overshadowed by the score and dominance of the Raiders in last week's victory is the fact that the Seahawks continually gashed the Oakland Raiders' kick coverage units for big gains on both kick and punt returns.
Granted, Leon Washington is one of the best in the business, but still, the Raiders knew special teams would be a key; were facing their former coach in Brian Schneider; made it a point of emphasis all week; and still got taken to school a few times.
Kansas City has Javier Arenas, and if healthy, Dexter McCluster, two rookies who have shown repeated big play ability in the return game and who relish the chance to give the Chiefs the field position battle.
Sebastian Janikowski continues to boom kickoffs out of the end zone at a career-high pace, already tallying more touchbacks in eight games than he usually does in entire seasons, and he must continue to do so if the Raiders hope to win the field position battle. Janikowski's TB ability is a secret weapon that can neutralize the return threats on KC roster and eliminate one worry.
Shane Lechler is an amazing punter, but sometimes he kicks the ball TOO far without enough height, giving the return man a lot of leeway before kick coverage arrives. We saw this last week on the Leon Washington 43 yard punt return; Lechler boomed it over 50 yards, but with little hang time, allowing Washington to catch it on the fly and run AT kick coverage instead of away from it.
This unit is under pressure to hold Arenas and McCluster down to reasonable returns to allow the field position battle to be won. In a game that will most likely come down to who runs the ball more effectively, and with Janikowski's ability to kick 60 yard field goals, field position is of paramount importance in this battle.
Pressures: Raider Nation
This week, rookie MLB Rolando McClain broke his media silence long enough to deliver this message:
"If you come out to the game and support this team, I'll talk to the media. If not, I won't."
While this is pretty presumptuous for a rookie who cannot fully comprehend the pain and suffering Raider Nation has endured the last seven seasons, he has a point.
I live in Eastern Ontario, Canada, so I cannot attend the game. But if I lived anywhere near Oakland, I'd be there with spikes on, for sure.
By all accounts, Raider Nation has stepped up to the plate and snatched a ton of unsold tickets for the Chiefs game this weekend; the biggest game this team has played in nearly a decade.
Many teams enjoy raucous home field advantages due to their crowd, and while those that frequent the Black Hole and the Coliseum in general are fiercely loyal, intense, and die-hard fans, there simply hasn't been enough of them for a true "12th man" in quite some time. In fact, basically since the team returned to Oakland.
Well now this team is in a meaningful game against a hated rival with playoff implications; are coming off back-to-back decimations of other hated rival teams; and need the sound and support of the Raider Nation to truly give us home-field advantage this weekend.
The pressure is on those of the Raider Nation who can and will be in attendance to this game: I am very impressed with the response by those with the means and geographical ability to buy tickets this week, and just want you in full throat ready to make the Chiefs' ears bleed.
We need the Black Hole to become a bastion of despair and intimidation for opponents once again.
- Darrius Heyward-Bey, when he doesn't jump to catch every ball, has the physical skills to dominate opponents as he showed last weekend. He alternately outran, outleapt, and outspun his opponents on route to his best day as a pro thus far
- Still, it would be nice to have a fully healthy receiving corps for once. Now Bey's shoulder is hurting; if Bey can't go, that would leave Higgins and Ford as our starting wideouts. Two guys about my size on the outside. Ouch
- Zach Miller is hurting a little too, which is no good for either the Raiders or my fantasy team. Cable was confident Miller could play, and said crutches were just a precaution. Here's betting he plays, but is tender like in the Seattle game
- Marcel Reece is the man, and I was remiss in not including him in last week's presentation. He continues to improve his blocking, but it's his running and receiving ability that really separate him. It reminds me a little of when Baltimore discovered La'Ron McClain a couple years back; suddenly you have two players with feature back skills on the field, but one of them blocks most of the time
- Getting Travis Goethel back this weekend is huge, because he showed in preseason he's an animal on special teams, and special teams play was really the only weak link in the Seahawk game
- I know I haven't addressed the Nnamdi issue, partly because I want to believe he'll play. But if he doesn't you'd better believe the pressure on Stanford Routt, Chris Johnson, Jeremy Ware and our safeties will be amped up. Nnamdi is Mister Reliable, having missed only five games in his career, and the Raiders would greatly miss him, especially in a game of this magnitude
Knockdowns : The Raiders Cannot Play Well Two Weeks In a Row
I think 500+ yards of offense two weeks in a row negates that theory. When it leads to an aggregate 92-17 beatdown of consecutive opponents, it's clear the team has made some positive changes and are no longer one-hit wonders.
There is an appreciable attitude shift noticeable in this team over the last three weeks, and I believe it was the loss to the 49ers that sparked this change.
After beating San Diego for the first time in thirteen tries, they should've walked all over San Francisco. Instead, they showed up flat, with a sense of entitlement, and got their asses handed to them.
That, I believe, was a huge wakeup call.
There was an ego here, almost like the team had turned around simply because they had brought in new players and SAID they had turned it around. But after five weeks it was the same old results on the field; then they lost to the winless Niners, and were forced to look themselves in the eye as men.
They didn't like what they saw.
Hence, they decided to stop talking about things like winning two games in a row, running a balanced offense, getting creative in playcalling on offense and defense. They stopped talking about it, and just did.
Tom Cable said flat out there was no discussion of winning two in a row, simply preparation for the Seahawks. That's what good teams do; focus on their opponent and how to beat them, and let the other stuff sort itself out accordingly.
This team has changed, and if you are a Raider fan, you can tell. Others may not believe us, or the team, but we know the feeling when this team is "saying" they're focused and ready, and when they are "actually" focused and ready.
I believe this team is focused, ready, and zeroed on in KC this weekend, and as such, we'll see the real Raiders on Sunday. When that team shows up, they can play with anyone; and we need them this weekend.
Fortunately, they really DO exist, and don't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
Knockdowns : Darrius Heyward-Bey Is Terrible
Much has been made about Darrius Heyward-Bey's inability to run routes, catch the ball, or produce any semblance of offense for the Oakland Raiders.
Some of this can be attributed to poor offensive line play, inconsistent quarterbacking, a lack of offensive creativity, and just the general ineptitude of the Raiders offense at times.
However, Heyward-Bey's propensity to body-catch the ball, jump when catching, and run imprecise routes contributed as much to his struggles as any outside factor. In short, he has the physical skills, but has thus far been unable to translate them into production on a consistent basis.
Well, he's still only had two good games as a pro, but this last performance gave many signs of encouragement that it will become the norm rather than the exception.
First, and yes Seattle's secondary was depleted, but they could not cover Heyward-Bey. Whether he was running deep routes, out routes, dig routes, it didn't matter. He was open almost all day. The Raiders ran the ball so well that he only caught five passes, but he could've caught 15 if needed.
Second, when the ball was in the air, he attacked the ball and made it HIS. He didn't wait for the ball to come to him, and was aggressive in pursuit. He did attempt to jump-catch a couple, which didn't work out, but he's getting less inclined to do that.
Third, he made a difficult catch or two look easy, and then immediately turned up field to get YAC as opposed to dancing around. The thing I loved the most from him was his aggression after he caught the ball; he was looking to run around or through whoever was there.
Fourth, we used him early and got his confidence going. Hue Jackson ran him on a reverse in the first quarter, which netted 30 yards, gave DHB some free range running and got him involved early.
Finally, we saw some of the gameplan tailored toward his unique skill set; we saw him running routes with precision and confidence; and we saw him attack the ball like receivers should.
He grew up quite a bit last weekend, and I wouldn't be surprised if he continues to evolve as the team progresses. Another viable deep threat on the outside, coupled with Murphy's big play ability ensures the defense can't simply key on McFadden and open up the field for everyone.
Knockdowns : The Raiders Are a Dysfunctional Franchise
This season it has been somewhat strange to be a Raider fan. Over the past decade it's become normal for a Raider fan to look in the paper or online and see a new, terrible story about something happening in Oakland.
Randy Moss whining; hiring Tom Walsh as offensive coordinator; the Lance Kiffin incident; anything JaMarcus related post 2008; Randy Hanson's jaw and Cable's female problems, and so on and so on.
Al Davis' health and mental capacity was called into question hourly. Many wondered if the game had passed him by. Many speculated the team would never succeed until Davis left one way or another.
Many in the Nation secretly wished he would move on.
The Oakland Raiders were by far and away the most dysfunctional franchise in all of sports, as deemed by numerous lists.
Well, what a difference a year makes.
We return a coach who is having no PR issues this season; finally brought in an offensive coordinator; made smart decisions in the draft and free agency instead of big-ticket, big-splash, little production signings; and essentially have just been playing football while keeping things quiet.
While Brett Favre's penis flies around the media and Randy Moss' personality disorder is displayed prominently for all to see, the Raiders just keep quiet and play football these days.
Some may say the Jason Campbell - Bruce Gradkowski situation could fester, but I don't think so. Cable has made it clear that Grads is his starter, Campbell, though I'm sure not happy has stated he understands this, and Cable has done a good job at making sure things are clear cut, even if I may not agree with his rationale in this case.
All anyone is talking about regarding the Raiders now is their running attack, the fact that the defense is improving, that they are in contention for the first time since 2002 this late in the season, and that the league is just more fun when the Raiders are good.
That's a far cry from: What's going on in Oakland and who's in charge of that asylum anyway?
And it's fantastic.
This team is playing better football than any Raider team since the 2002 SuperBowl team, and I say that without hyperbole or exaggeration.
In fact, the Raiders have played better than any team in the entire NFL over the past two weeks, although they did have lower-tier opponents to do it against.
This weekend marks a huge game in the battle for the AFC West. Although we're happy to be in this position, there's no way this team is content to merely be in the discussion at this point. To a man and a coach, they want glory back, and are willing to fight and claw to get it.
Tickets have flown off the shelves as Raider Nation finally has a reason to attend the game other than out of loyalty. A home game against our biggest rivals in a game with divisional and playoff implications cannot be understated, and the Raiders, Rolando McClain, and the media challenged the Nation to respond by buying tickets.
And you all have; I want to personally say thank you to all the members of the Nation who showed their support this week in place of those of us who cannot financially or geographically do so. Good on you all, and get out there and make Kansas City wish they'd stayed in Missouri this weekend.
This is the biggest game we've played in years, and I want to hear you out there on Sunday. We can make a playoff push if we win this game; it becomes infinitely more difficult if we lose.
I feel good about this team; I feel that if we can wash the running games, Campbell will outplay Cassel and we have more big-play threats in the passing game. We can win this game; we just have to want it enough.
*NOTE: I have just read that this game is indeed a sell out, and will not be blacked out. Great job of showing support Nation, once again, thank you. Full voice, full intensity on Sunday. I shall be there in spirit.
Thank you for reading as always, and comments of all kind, good, bad, or ugly, are always welcome.