Oakland Raiders: 4 Keys to Week 6 Victory over Cleveland Browns
What a weekend.
A messy, tiring, exciting 25-20 win over the Houston Texans brings a bit of closure to the big hole in Oakland's heart. There is still a lot to sort through since team owner Al Davis passed away. The NFL legend was not just one community's figurehead. He was a close friend and mentor to a lot of Raiders players and personnel.
You can't replace Al Davis.
Yet, the S.S. Silver and Black need a new captain. Head coach Hue Jackson seems ready to be a leader for this club and nobody seems to mind. It's uncharted territory for the Raiders. Letting Hue hold the compass for a while may not be the worst decision.
Sunday's contest against the Cleveland Browns feels like a great opportunity for Oakland to grab some more momentum, and for Hue and the Raiders to keep taking steps in the right direction. Oakland is entering a softer part of its schedule, and while every game says something about a team, this feels like a statement game.
How serious are these Raiders about winning?
Key 1: Make Peyton Hillis Regret the Day He Was Healthy
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
It's a medical miracle.
Browns running back Peyton Hillis has recovered from the strep throat he didn't have, and looks ready to pretend he wants to play this Sunday at the Coliseum.
Seymour and company have to be somewhat giddy over the chance to drop Hillis.
Welcome to the new Madden Curse: whoever appears on the video game's cover fakes his way to a terrible season. At least other players who graced the game's cover—Shaun Alexander, Vince Young, Brett Favre (to name a few)—fell from NFL glory the old fashioned way, through injury, insanity and interceptions.
Hillis' vague illness/sitting out/slimy agent puppeteer are all red flags that point to big problems in Cleveland's backfield. Browns quarterback Colt McCoy can attempt 61 passes every week, but without the ability to run the football, the team will find losses like its 31-13 pummeling by the Tennessee Titans two weeks ago a common occurrence.
And no one named Montario Hardesty is going to be able to save them.
Hillis is set to start on Sunday and should see a lot of touches, so if the Raiders are able to suffocate the Browns' rushing attack the way it did against the Texans—running back Arian Foster finished with 68 yards on 22 carries—then it is going to be a long afternoon for Cleveland.
Ideally: Peyton Hillis gets injured on the first play, but no one believes him. The Browns spend the rest of the game giving him the evil eye. Colt McCoy throws 400 passes, but only manages one touchdown.
Realistically: Hillis grinds out three yards a carry, but is unable to break any big runs or give the Browns any momentum. Fans start to wonder why they care so much about him anyway.
Key 2: Feed the Heyward-Bey Machine
Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images
So, Darrius Heyward-Bey is a football player.
This is great news for Raider Nation. Opponents know to focus coverage on containing running back Darren McFadden, as the Texans worked all last week to do. Defenses do not typically have to worry about deep passes from Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell. He could have two hours back there, and still end up forcing a short pass over the middle between two defenders.
The emergence of this shiny new threat downfield opens things up for Campbell in the passing game. Defenses who double cover Heyward-Bey or shift coverage his way will have a tough time also covering tight end Kevin Boss, rookie wideout Denarius Moore and McFadden as a check-down option.
For Oakland's offense, sometimes less is more, but more is always more.
Cleveland enters Sunday's game ranked fourth in passing defense. Holding opponents to under 200 yards through the air is a notable achievement, but considering that the Browns have faced Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Miami this season, it may not be ready to face a professional football team that knows how to, you know, score on purpose.
Then there is Browns cornerback Joe Haden, who has emerged as a shutdown corner and bright spot for a defense and franchise in desperate need of a new leader. Except he's hurt. Haden sprained his right knee against the Titans two weeks ago. If he's a scratch or limping around out there Sunday, expect Heyward-Bey to have dollar signs in his eyes when he steps to the line.
Ideally: Cleveland's mediocre defense is exposed and gets lit up by an aggressive Raiders offense that starts utilizing its passing game in a way not yet seen this season. Heyward-Bey pulls in two touchdowns.
Realistically: Cleveland's mediocre defense is exposed and gets lit up by an aggressive Raiders offense that starts utilizing its passing game in a way not yet seen this season. Heyward-Bey pulls in one touchdown.
Key 3: The Return of Michael Huff
Bob Levey/Getty Images
The Raiders have been an injury-prone club this season, and its banged-up defense has yet to find a groove beyond Richard Seymour's weekly sack party, giving up over 26 points a game to any team willing to run a play.
The return of safety Michael Huff to full health is of great benefit to Oakland's secondary. It could use all the help it could get right now. If the Raiders can stay healthy, there is still a lot of time to patch up some of the bigger holes. The linebackers are giving up a lot of yards to tight ends and backs, so it's not to blame only one group or certain positions. Playing bad defense is typically a team effort.
But the Raiders defensive line is creating all sorts of chaos for the Schaubs and Sanchezs of the AFC. Tipped passes, interceptions, sacks. This is an explosive front four, even with substitutions.
So Huff may be reemerging at the perfect time to give credibility to the other, less good-looking half of Oakland's defense. They do not have to give up over 400 yards a game, and they do not need Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha back.
An interception on the final play to seal a tough road win should be just the kick-start Huff needs to bounce back and get down to business.
Ideally: Huff can't stop every McCoy throw, but knocks several down, intercepts two of them and even gets a sack on a safety blitz.
Realistically: Huff makes the red zone a nightmare for the Browns passing game, and fires up the rest of the secondary to play just a little bit harder. Hopefully, a lot harder.
Key 4: Holy Sebastian Janikowski, Batman
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
There was a reason Al Davis used a first round draft pick back in 2000 on the Polish placekicker out of Florida State University. A classy fellow facing bribery charges and possible deportation.
That's old news.
Sebastian Janikowski has been the most reliable Raider of the decade. He currently holds the club record with 1,188 career points scored. He led the team last year in points scored with 142. He tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal in Oakland's regular season opener at Denver last month, and last week he tied another NFL record by connecting on three field goals of at least 50 yards.
For productivity's sake, Janikowski is already over halfway to his career high for 50-plus-yard field goals in a season, with six through five games. More importantly, he is making a difference for the Raiders where it counts—in the win column.
Janikowski's two first-half field goals kept the Raiders close last week in Houston. Had the team been forced to punt twice, the Raiders may not have been down 14-12 at halftime or in position to take the lead later in the game.
The Raiders have not yet shown itself offensively dynamic enough to blow teams out, or always convert on crucial third downs, but instead of just rolling over Oakland has been able to chip away at leads and keep itself in the fight.
If Janikowski keeps this up, we are all going to owe him a few beers. Or bail money.
Whatever he needs.
Ideally: Oakland pulls ahead early, then spends the fourth quarter testing Janikowski's range by attempting field goals from its own 40, the other end zone, the parking lot.
Realistically: The Raiders do not need Janikowski to keep them in the game, but he is still perfect on the day—let's say 3 for 3, including another field goal from 50-plus yards.
Closing Time: How the West Will Be Won
Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images
Oakland cannot afford to take a day off this Sunday. It's been an emotional week for the team, and this is exactly the kind of trap game the Raiders used to fall into and end up losing.
The Cleveland Browns are a beatable team, but so are the Oakland Raiders.
This is not to say that these two match up evenly on paper, but to expect the Raiders to have fixed every kink in its machine by Week 6 is a tad too optimistic. The progress they've made in the past few seasons is admirable and has the makings of a real contender.
Jason Campbell still has a lot to learn if he is to lead this offense for years to come, and is bound to throw a few more costly interceptions. It's good to know the Raiders can win on days McFadden doesn't play like a superhuman. A healthy Heyward-Bey will take some of the pressure off the run game.
Oakland needs to continue getting healthy as it prepares to run the AFC West gauntlet, facing Kansas City and Denver in Week 7 and Week 8 before the bye. Then it's off to San Diego for a Week 10 showdown with the Chargers. The Chiefs and Broncos are aligning themselves perfectly to be giant killers this season. They may not make the playoffs, but they may keep a team or two from the postseason party.
This has already been a wild year for the Raider Nation. What we all need right now is a nice, relaxing victory. Nothing fancy or crazy.
Just win, baby.
Ideally: Oakland is up 34-7 at halftime, so the Browns all pretend to get strep throat and forfeit.
Realistically: Cleveland puts a fight, but gets tired in the fourth quarter and finds it can't cover all of the Raiders' offensive weapons. The Browns' offense can't generate a first down, and McCoy turns the ball over, unable to stand the heat of Seymour's kitchen. Oakland wins, 27-14.