7 Keys to Victory in Oakland Raiders' Week 5 Matchup
Panic waves rippled through the Oakland Raiders fanbase when head coach Jack Del Rio faced the media with bad news about quarterback Derek Carr's back on Monday. For players, it's football—injuries happen. The Baltimore Ravens won't send any sympathy cards before the Week 5 matchup.
Carr suffered a transverse process fracture, which will sideline him for two-to-six weeks. In his absence, EJ Manuel takes the keys to an offense with many bells and whistles. During the previous game in relief, he completed 11-of-17 pass attempts for 106 yards with an interception on the final drive.
Before the turnover, Manuel looked comfortable in the offense and established an immediate connection with wideout Seth Roberts, which helps the passing attack if Michael Crabtree misses another game with a chest injury.
Physical defensive fronts have pushed the Raiders offensive line on their heels over the past two weeks, but four of those linemen played for a top-notch unit in the previous year. The big guys up front didn't forget how to block. It's about focus and scheme.
How can the Raiders win their first game without Carr since Week 11 of the 2013 season?
Utilize EJ Manuel's Mobility
Manuel can't re-enact the Michael Vick experience. He's not Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on the move, but he possesses enough mobility to evade pressure and reach first down markers on the run.
Through 29 games, Manuel ran for 20 or more yards in seven outings and logged four rushing touchdowns.
The fifth-year quarterback doesn't strike anyone as a dual-threat signal-caller, but he's not a statue in the pocket. When the edge-rushers shrink his safe space, the 27-year-old can move to extend enough time for his receivers to separate downfield.
This aspect of Manuel's game shouldn't suggest designed runs, but the receivers should know it's not time to give up on a route with their quarterback leaving the pocket.
At the least, the Ravens won't have the opportunity to tee off on a stiff passer under center. Furthermore, offensive coordinator Todd Downing can roll him outside the pocket to put the defense on edge.
Group Effort in the Ground Attack
Though it sounds easy, it's important to realize Manuel isn't Carr on the field. As the replacement, the former first-round pick doesn't have to emulate the aggressive throws downfield to wideout Amari Cooper if the opportunity doesn't present itself.
During the summer, Manuel took over the primary backup position as a steady veteran. In Week 4, he entered the game and completed eight consecutive passes right off the sideline. He'll have several ball-carriers behind him in the backfield.
Many will look for Marshawn Lynch to turn the biological clock backward and look like Beast Mode from the 2014 season.
In three out of four games, he's finished with fewer than four yards per carry. Of course, some responsibility goes to the offensive line. At times, the 31-year-old running back has fought through multiple defenders near the line of scrimmage out of the shotgun formation.
Nonetheless, Lynch can still handle 10-12 carries within a crowded and talented backfield. Fullback Jamize Olawale returned to action in Week 3 against the Washington Redskins; he's a short-yardage back. Downing utilized Cordarrelle Patterson as a ball-carrier in all four games. Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington complete the primary running back trio.
As much as local fans root for Lynch, as an Oakland native, and his physical run style, he doesn't have to help balance the offense alone.
Activate Bully Ball with Fullback Jamize Olawale, Tight End Lee Smith
The Raiders can also utilize Olawale as a lead blocker for Beast Mode. With a small sample, the 28-year-old fullback produced a high-end run-blocking grade, per Pro Football Focus.
Can you imagine how effective Lynch would become behind a lead blocker? If he's able to travel two yards beyond the line of scrimmage without a defender grabbing him, he's likely to gain four to five yards on a carry.
With tight end Lee Smith on the field, Richard and Washington can veer off the edge behind solid blocking.
The Ravens have allowed 339 combined rushing yards over the past two outings. The Raiders ground attack has an opportunity to completely dominate the game with quality blocks in the trenches. The offensive game plan should feature early handoffs to set up the passing attack and late carries to control the clock if there's a lead.
Early Screen Passes for Amari Cooper
Here's a page out of former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's playbook. Many Raiders fans will roll their eyes when seeing a boring screen pass, but the personnel could effectively spring Cooper on these plays.
Cooper leads the league with seven drops. A few successful screen plays with yardage after the catch could boost his confidence. Furthermore, the Raiders offensive line does a great job at running downfield and picking up blocks.
For a defense, there's nothing more demoralizing than allowing a four-yard completion extend to a 64-yard touchdown. The same play can breathe life into an offense.
The high-percentage throws would also bode well for a developing rapport between Manuel and Cooper. AC-EJ doesn't sound as appealing as AC-DC, but the Raiders don't need style points. It's about utilizing player strengths and efficiency in the passing attack.
Don't Give Up on Jared Cook, Include Clive Walford
Tight end Jared Cook missed out on two opportunities to score against the Denver Broncos in the previous outing. Manuel should keep looking toward the 30-year-old pass-catcher against the Ravens on Sunday.
Baltimore's defense has allowed 63.7 receiving yards per game to tight ends, according to Football Outsiders. Cleveland Browns rookie David Njoku scored a touchdown on the defense. Mercedes Lewis pulled off a hat trick in the end zone against Dean Pees' unit.
Through four weeks, the coaching staff has buried Clive Walford's role within the offense. He's been on the field for fewer passing plays (13) than Smith (29).
Unless there's an injury that's unbeknown to the public, there's no reason to reduce Walford to a non-factor, especially in a strength area as a potential receiver. Big-body pass-catchers can help the Raiders in the end zone in case Crabtree misses another game.
Dial Up Relentless Interior Pressure
The Ravens placed starting offensive guards Marshal Yanda and Alex Lewis on injured reserve. The replacements, James Hurst and Matt Skura, have allowed six quarterback hurries apiece. The former also gave up a sack.
It's a good time for defensive linemen Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Vanderdoes to dominate on the interior at the point of attack. The third-year pro has three sacks on his 2017 resume. The rookie isn't expected to hit a high sack total, but the pressure alone could force quarterback Joe Flacco into poor throws.
Unlike Manuel, Flacco isn't a mobile quarterback. Pressure up the middle would likely result in a sack, fumble, interception or incompletion as opposed to a four-yard scramble.
Defensive assistants Ken Norton Jr. and John Pagano should dial up a few stunts where defensive linemen cross each other or clever blitz schemes to rattle Flacco in the pocket.
Experiment with Shalom Luani in Big Nickel Package
Ravens tight end Ben Watson leads the team in receiving yards (146) and holds a tie with running back Javorius Allen in receptions with 16.
As usual, the Raiders can't allow a tight end to run rampant on the defense. David Amerson went into concussion protocol, and Gareon Conley missed his second game in Week 4.
In reference to Amerson and Conley, nothing has been confirmed on availability for Sunday's game. Nonetheless, an instinctive safety could become an effective cover in a big nickel package against two-tight end sets. The Ravens have utilized Watson on 86 pass plays and Nick Boyle on 76 pass plays. The latter caught all five targets in his previous game.
The Raiders perpetual issue with covering tight ends isn't a league secret, but Shalom Luani's name hasn't made it into film rooms because he's only played two defensive snaps through four games. The seventh-rounder flashed coverage skills through training camp and preseason to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
On Sunday, the coaching staff should experiment with him on the field, especially if primary nickelback T.J. Carrie lines up on the outside to cover for an injured perimeter defender.
Advanced statistics provided by Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.