Oakland Raiders vs. New England Patriots: Who's on Wes?

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Oakland Raiders vs. New England Patriots: Who's on Wes?
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Stanford Routt, given his experience lining up against slot receivers, figures to be matched up quite often against the speedy Wes Welker. Whether he can neutalize him remains to be seen.

As Sunday draws closer and the specter of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots approaches, the question of how the Oakland Raiders plan to thwart the Patriots' aerial attack becomes a sobering one.

In fact, it may be as futile an endeavor as mowing the lawn with scissors.

Thus far, Brady is on a torrid pace, already with 1,327 yards through the air and 11 touchdowns in just three games.

By comparison, Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell has 584 yards and three touchdowns. Both play in completely different offenses, so the comparison is not fully warranted; it is simply a barometer to determine how impressive Brady has been so far.

Brady has two favorite targets, as dissimilar in stature as Donkey and Shrek: the shorter, more agile Wes Welker and the bigger target Rob Gronkowski. Welker, so far, has compiled 31 receptions to go along with 458 yards and four touchdowns. Gronkowski, on the other hand, has only 17 catches but has one more touchdown than Welker.

Charged with the task of trying to stop them this week is the Raiders' secondary, which has nearly given up 300 yards passing in each of its first three games. The only occasion where they were able to keep their opponents to under 300 yards was against the Buffalo Bills, yet it was primarily through the air that Buffalo was able to mount its second half comeback.

While this is a misleading statistic because many of the yards given up to Kyle Orton and Mark Sanchez were towards the end of the game, the fact remains that the Raiders' secondary is easily the weakness of this ball club. I've said it many times, the way to beat the Raiders is to spread them out and attack them with short passes.

Did I mention Tom Brady was coming to town?

It's not like he has not been stopped. Last week, the Bills were able to intercept Brady four times. The New York Jets last year were able to demonstrate that they could stop Brady as well.

Both teams employed similar strategies. They would rush only three or four players and drop everyone back. Instead of putting three linebackers out there, they throw in a bevy of defensive backs and quicker coverage type linebackers. Man to man coverage is what the situation calls for; if you drop into a zone coverage, Brady can easily pick that apart by throwing into the soft spots of the coverage. Blitz one too many players, and Brady will quickly recognize the blitz and throw to his hot read.

Luckily for the Raiders, they play man to man exclusively and have a good amount of bodies to throw at the Patriots' receivers. They must be able to look at tape from the Buffalo game and see what exactly went wrong in that one and correct it. A similar performance will bump the Raiders back to 2-2.

One big thing working in Oakland's favor is that New England will almost always throw the ball, while Buffalo would mix it up and run the ball often, carving up the Raiders' unprepared defense. In this game, the Raiders can simply drop back and prepare for the throws to come.

One of the biggest weaknesses against the Bills was the play of Chris Johnson. While having him healthy would be a bonus, so far he has missed practice this week because of an injury. Look for Chimdi Chekwa to take his starting spot if he is unable to go. Chekwa performed admirably matched up against the taller Plaxico Burress last week. If he were to play, he would most likely match up against Deion Branch or Chad Ochocinco. Either one presents a marginally easier task than Burress.

If safety Michael Huff is able to suit up (he also is nursing an injury), look for him to cover whoever Chekwa doesn't.

Now we get to the two big targets. While some members of the secondary are ailing, one of them looks to make his season debut. Safety Mike Mitchell in all likelihood will play this Sunday. He figures to match up against Gronkowski, as he is usually handed the duties of covering bigger, more athletic tight ends such as Antonio Gates. Mitchell does a solid job in coverage, but if his knee is not up to the task, look for his fill-in, Jerome Boyd, to cover Gronkowski. Both have a similar playing style and have been used as tweeners between linebacker and safety.

The question remains: what to do with Wes?

Here is where Oakland can benefit. The Raiders' top cornerback is by far Stanford Routt. Welker, however, loves to line up in the slot, but this is familiar territory for Routt, who for years has covered the opposing team's slot receiver. Though they have not allowed him to move around as much and shadow another receiver, if there were a game to do it, it would be this one. Routt is also much more physically imposing than Welker. A few hard jams before he runs his route will affect Brady's timing and prevent Welker from getting too much separation.

All this being said, I still believe the Raiders will give up many yards through the air against Brady. That's why it is so imperative that they are able to get penetration from their defensive front. The defensive backs cannot cover their assignments forever, so the defensive line needs to dominate the line of scrimmage. If the defense can make a few big plays like Buffalo did against them last week, the offense has the capability of capitalizing.

This game can be closer than a lot of people realize.

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