Oakland Raiders Week 11: Pressures, Hurries and Knockdowns
After a nice, relaxing bye week which couldn't have worked out much better for the Raiders, the boys get ready to buckle their chinstraps and take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Steel City this Sunday in a rare 1 p.m. appearance this season.
The Raiders entered the bye on a roll, having won their previous three games and four of their last five. A strong running attack coupled with an aggressive, attacking defense have been the main reasons, but solid quarterback play from Jason Campbell and excellent special teams have been large contributing factors as well.
After the Kansas City Chiefs got pummeled by the Denver Broncos last Sunday, the Raiders, sitting idle, moved into a first place tie with the Chiefs at 5-4, one game ahead of the also idle San Diego Chargers (4-5).
If that wasn't enough good news during the bye, the Steelers are dealing with some injury woes to some key pieces on both sides of the ball, and the Raiders next opponent after Pittsburgh, the Miami Dolphins, suffered so many injuries at the quarterback position last week that they actually brought JaMarcus Russell in for a tryout.
The Raiders have been playing their best football in years, and Coach Tom Cable, after a rocky start, has this team believing in themselves, each other, and a winning culture.
With numerous teams sitting at 5-4 in the AFC and the Chiefs and Chargers, and to a minute extent the Broncos, still in the hunt for the AFC West title, every game from here on out takes on a measure of significance; especially considering the Raiders have a much tougher road than their AFC West brethren in terms of schedule.
Still, as a long time and recently long suffering Raider fan, to say that each game at this point in the season carries significance is to say I'm a happy man; but also now very much attached to the result of each game.
I want to see the continued resurgence of this proud franchise, and that means continuing excellence on the field of play. With that in mind, I give you Pressures, Hurries, and Knockdowns, week 11 edition.
Pressures : Jason Campbell
Once again, I reiterate that Jason Campbell's odyssey as Raiders' quarterback has been no less contentious and trying than the travels of Odysseus himself.
Named the starter; nay, anointed a potential saviour, when first he came to Oakland, Campbell's ugly play in the first six quarters of the season earned him an unceremonious, and surprisingly quick, yank from grace.
After Bruce Gradkowski saved the day against the Rams and almost pulled out victories against Houston and Arizona, Raider Nation was firmly behind the fiery backup. Only now Bruce wasn't the backup; he was the unquestioned starter.
Except he played poorly against the Chargers before getting injured; Campbell then saved THAT day, laid an egg against the Niners, put up numbers and played well in easy duty in blowouts of Denver and Seattle, and still, Cable insisted that Bruce, and not Jason, would be the starter once healthy. No question.
But then came the Chiefs game. Jason played the first half like the Niners game, and the Raiders as a whole were outplayed by the Chiefs and lucky to be down only 10-0 at halftime.
We all know what happened; Jacoby Ford returned the kick for a TD, Campbell began to find Ford and others in a lights-out second half performance that culminated in game-tying and then game-winning drives, and the Raiders won the game and put themselves in a distinct tie-break advantage situation over the Chiefs should it come down to that later on.
Campbell was still the backup; until he wasn't. Cable recently made the wise decision to stick with Jason, citing "he's won four of his last five games," as a valid and excellent reason.
Bruce is great, and this team needed what he gives them earlier in the year. But this team now has a spark all their own, and no longer need to feed off that energy Bruce brings. We are lucky he's our backup for that very reason.
Campbell has performed well this season; but not when he was actually labeled the "starter." That's why he's under pressure this week; he's been able to "cut it loose" in the spirit of the Raiders' adopted 2010 motto, because he's had the pleasure of playing as the so-called backup.
But now, as starter, he must show that he can continue to "cut it loose," and play well under pressure, because the Pittsburgh Steelers come after quarterbacks like ex-wives after alimony; hard, fast, and with their claws out.
Pressures : Coach Cable
This is a little different than earlier in the season, when Coach Cable was a regular in Pressures for his perceived strange decisions and ineptitude.
When this team was struggling early in the season, many, including myself, questioned whether Cable was the right guy to lead this team out of the woods. The players liked him, but all his talk and big words in the media weren't translating into results on the field, and after seven straight years of glad-handing garbage, Raider Nation wanted no more talk. We wanted results.
We've now got them, and in spades over the last five weeks. If you throw out the Niners game, there is a case to be made that since the start of the second half of the Chargers game, the Raiders have been a top five team in the NFL in that span of time.
And a large part of that has to do with some of the very things I and others criticized Cable for earlier this season.
He cobbled together a Frankenstein experiment at offensive line, and his ill-fated idea to move Jared Veldheer to center only to yank him unceremoniously and then platoon him with Mario Henderson at left tackle could've backfired and left the kid in a huge developmental wasteland.
Only it didn't; Veldheer supplanted Henderson as the full time tackle and is quickly turning into a very, very productive player. Not rookie; player. He's clearing running lanes for Darren McFadden and doing a solid job of keeping Campbell clean. In short, it appears that, though the methods were strange, Cable knew what he was doing. Or perhaps he got lucky. I'm not nitpicking.
Then, there was the rah-rah relentless positivity even when the team was getting smoked. We're right there, he told us. Just need to put a few things together. Just need to tighten up. It was getting old; and wasn't paying off.
Well, shut my mouth now, because things are happening exactly the way he said they'd play out. He never claimed this team would fire right out of the gates; rather, he preached patience and a plan in place, even if it was veiled under time-honoured cliches and platitudes.
He's under pressure only to keep doing what he's doing, not lose these guys - which he won't, this I know - and continue to inspire this team to greater heights. I apologize to Cable for my earlier derision; it appears now he was right all along.
Pressures : Expectations
Yes, that's a picture of the Lombardi trophy, and no, although improved I don't think the Raiders will win it this season - even if that would make my entire decade of suffering worth it.
However, with great play comes great expectations, and at this point, tied for first place and having an upper hand over both Kansas City and San Diego in tie-breaker scenarios, the playoffs are a realistic goal for the Raiders.
After years of futility, the Raiders, thanks in large part to Coach Cable (see last slide) and great leaders like Hue Jackson, Richard Seymour, Nnamdi Asomugha, are eying up more than just vacation spots in January and have quickly exiled the stench of a losing culture.
But can this team handle something that the majority of them have never had in the NFL? Can they handle the pressure of expectations?
The way Coach Cable and all the players are talking, I believe they can. They seem grounded, understand they have a long way to go and really mean it, and seem dedicated to playing for each other and working hard every week to get better.
If they do that, and don't get ahead of themselves and start thinking playoffs in November, then they should be fine.
If, however, the hype and love they've been getting begins to affect them and they buy in to the thought that they're back already, if they succumb to the pressures of being a playoff-caliber team in a real dogfight for the rest of the season, then they will quickly fall back into old habits, and disappointment will follow.
I truly believe this won't happen, and Cable has them focused; but it is a worry, and one that is present only because success at this level is foreign to most of these Raiders.
- The man in this picture saved the Raiders season against the Chiefs. His kick return sparked a moribund and downtrodden squad, and his willingness to fight for the ball and refusal to lose carried the Raiders to their most important victory in eight years. He gets a season-long game ball
- His tour-de-force second half performance gave rise to the scary prospect of he, Louis Murphy, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Chaz Schilens, and Zach Miller all playing at a high level. Just imagine
- While I'd like to see that from Schilens and Heyward-Bey, I cannot believe it fully possible until Chaz is able to stay healthy and DHB is able to be much, much more consistent and visible; oh, and fight for the ball the way Jacoby Ford does
- The pick was nice, but Jeremy Ware also played solidly in nickel coverage. Between he, Stevie Brown, and what we've seen from Walter McFadden, we have some nice talent going forward in the defensive backfield
- Speaking of which, Mike Mitchell was pressed into active duty after Tyvon Branch suffered a concussion against the Chiefs, and with the exception of a blown coverage on a Dwayne Bowe TD catch, played extremely well in both run defense and pass coverage. The more he plays, the more he shows why he the Raiders stole him in the second round when they feared the Bears would take him, even though they were roundly criticized for doing so
- The tandem of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush is beginning to look as we envisioned, albeit with McFadden getting more carries than originally thought. With Bush's ability to soften the defense, the Raiders have been able to run the ball very effectively in the second half recently
- McFadden has been absolutely lights out this season. I mean, we all expected him to break big runs with his speed since day one, but who honestly expected him to be mowing defenders down and moving the pile? What effort he brings every single down
Knockdowns : The Raiders Can't Overcome Themselves
Recent history has shown us, and much ado was made about a quote from a certain Mr. Schottenheimer along said lines, that the Raiders will self-destruct when you push the right buttons.
Those buttons are usually a chance to win late in the game. Whether via penalty, poor execution of a play, ill timed play calling, a turnover, or simple bad luck, the Raiders had an uncanny knack for imploding at just the wrong moment in close games, and essentially beating themselves and handing their opponent a victory.
They also showed that when they got down and things went badly, they simply went into the fetal position and played Madden '11 while the other team stayed on the field and padded their stats against a Zombie-like facsimile of the Silver & Black.
Even as recently as week three of this season, the Raiders shot themselves in the foot when the usually reliable from under 40 yards Sebastian Janikowski shanked a chip shot and me right in the heart along with it.
It was par for the course for a Raider team who seemed to thrive on inventing bold and innovative ways of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
They dispelled every single one of those notions in their hard fought victory over Kansas City in which they overcame 14 penalties, three turnovers, some poor officiating that gave Kansas City some opportunities on which they capitalized, and a late deficit with three key defensive starters missing and an offense that had been relatively quiet against a stout Chiefs defense.
The Raiders of old would've folded at numerous points in this game; when down 10-0 going into halftime; when a bogus call gave the ball to Kansas City, and to their credit they scored the go-ahead touchdown as a result; when a holding penalty put them in an impossible third down situation at the end of regulation and threatened to end the game with no chance to tie.
But these Raiders stood up, kicked their mistakes aside, made plays when they needed to be made, and most importantly believed they could win no matter what happened.
Sebastian Janikowski returned to form by making a game tying and game winning field goal as the Raiders defeated the Chiefs, and their personal demons, 23-20 in overtime.
This team served notice that no matter how ugly it gets, they will scratch and claw to the end, and will not be denied. It was beautiful.
Knockdowns : The Raiders Aren't For Real
I think that Matt Cassell would tell you differently.
Despite playing some of the best football in the NFL over the last five weeks, the Raiders are still a question mark in many people's minds. Which, after seven years of disappointment and failure, is fair to be sure.
But after showing they can win on the road by destroying Denver; that they can put together back-to-back excellent performances by following up the Bronco game by equally destroying Seattle, who leads their division; and by then eking out a blood-and-guts victory over the rival Kansas City Chiefs to stake their claim as the head of the AFC West, they have shown that they are indeed for real.
Some may invoke the fact that the Raiders lost to both the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers, both terrible losses and large blemishes on their record. I would agree, except that was a different Raider team.
Anyone who follows this team will tell you that there has been a tangible and noticeable difference in the attitude, approach, and expectations this team has since that brutal loss to the 49ers. This team came out of that loss embarrassed, and with a renewed verve and focus.
This Raider team has a chance to show the NFL world that it is for real by going into Pittsburgh this weekend and stealing a win. Even a close and tightly-contested loss would go a long way to validating this team in the eyes of those who still doubt their validity.
Pittsburgh looks vulnerable, and this Raider team looks very capable of beating just about anyone right now.
It's going to be fun to watch, but regardless of what happens I tell you this, and not as a fan but as someone who has observed this team closely in good times and bad: this squad is the real deal, and you won't be seeing the winless dysfunction you've come to know and love over the last seven years any longer.
Knockdowns : The Raiders Can't Stop The Run
Yes, they are still ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in run defense statistically, but the truth is the Raiders haven't given up a solid rushing effort to an opponent in four weeks, since Frank Gore of the 49ers went off on them.
They completely shut down the Denver Broncos' rushing attack, which, considering that they don't have much of one and were in a quick 28-0 hole, makes sense. The Raiders followed that up by stifling the Seattle Seahawks rush offense, but many dismissed that effort as yet another product of a weak opponent and a blowout margin of victory.
Against the Seahawks, however, the Raiders didn't begin to blow them out until later in the third quarter, and until that point had shut them down all the same.
Still, stopping the Broncos and Seahawks mediocre rushing attacks when you outscore them 92-17 isn't enough to hang your hat on. To say you've truly improved, to say that you're not the same old Raiders, you have to prove it against a solid opponent.
So how about holding the #1 running attack in the NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs, to their lowest rushing total of the season? Will that do for an encore?
After surrendering over 140+ yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry through their first six games, the Raiders have given up a paltry 226 yards on 71 carries, or 3.18 yards per, in those wins over the Broncos, Seahawks and Chiefs.
During the first six games, big plays killed the Raiders. They allowed three touchdown runs of 50+ yards, and were near the top of the league in rushes over 20 yards.
Well, in those last three games, the Raiders have allowed no touchdowns on the ground, one run of 20+ yards, and held the mighty Chiefs rushing attack to 2.9 yards per carry with a long gain of 13 yards.
In short, this Raider run defense is vastly improved, and they've done it against both weak and strong competition. In fact, their performance against the Chiefs is one of the more impressive in the NFL this season to date.
Is it any coincidence they're winning again?
So the Oakland Raiders head to the "Big Ketchup Bottle" in Pittsburgh this Sunday with hopes of a victory and to stay in the hunt in the AFC West title race.
With the Kansas City Chiefs hosting the weak sauce Arizona Cardinals and the resurgent San Diego Chargers playing host to the Denver Broncos on Monday Night, things could get very interesting in the division after this weekend.
Nothing in the NFL is a foregone conclusion, but it's a fairly safe hypothesis that both the Chiefs and Chargers will pull out victories, meaning this game takes on added importance for the Raiders.
They are fortunate to be getting Pittsburgh at a vulnerable time, with injuries and having been exposed by the Patriots in a home drubbing last weekend. But that can cut both ways, as the Steelers may come out like wounded animals backed into a corner and play with increased urgency.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of the resurgent and once again relevant Raiders, we can be sure that Mike Tomlin and the Steelers have full respect for them after a weaker Raider squad upset Pittsburgh last season at said Ketchup Bottle.
I say again, that to speak of the Raiders in terms of important games with playoff implications at this point in the season is a joyful and long awaited occasion, and regardless of the outcome on Sunday, I am just happy to see my Raiders playing passionate and exciting football once again.
Which, I believe, will continue to lead them to good things for the rest of the season.
Thank you as always for reading, and as I always say all comments, whether good, bad, or ugly, are always welcome!