The Ravens defense is playing fast, aggressive, and smart. They are #2 in the NFL in total defense and look somewhat like the smothering units of the Ray Lewis/Ed Reed era.
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On the other hand, the Raiders offense is ranked #2 in the NFL. Derek Carr has been spectacular in the young season, and the running game has been versatile, effective, and multi-faceted. It will be strength against strength — and more often than not, defense wins out in these battles.
The Raiders are under pressure early in this young season to keep winning. That’s because the Broncos (at Tampa Bay) and Chargers (vs. New Orleans) have very winnable games in which they’re favored. The Chiefs (at Pittsburgh) face a stern test but the Steelers looked infinitely beatable last week.
The AFC West teams are all playing well, even the 1-2 injury-riddled Chargers. The Raiders need to ride their recent road success into Baltimore and come out victorious.
Who’s under pressure this weekend? What are some things of note that have happened with the Raiders recently? What are some things we thought we knew that are wrong?
Aug 12, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Oakland Raiders guard Vadal Alexander (74) against the Arizona Cardinals during a preseason game at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The players facing the most pressure in Week 4.
The revolving door at right tackle stops this week at seventh-round draft pick Vadal Alexander. He’s a mammoth of a man at 6’6″, 342 pounds, and was expected to play guard in the NFL due to a lack of outside quickness.
Funny how multiple lower leg injuries to multiple large men can lay plans to waste.
Center Rodney Hudson also missed practice earlier this week, but returned yesterday and looks on track to play this weekend. That’s good, because the Raiders are running out of lineman.
Alexander became the fifth player in three games to man the right tackle position for the Raiders. The RT position hasn’t been this decimated since Khalil Mack ate up the Broncos in Week 15 last year. Hi-yo!
Alexander filled in admirably, but wasn’t perfect. He’s a big man who’s a bit plodding and has some footwork issues. That could pose a problem against the Ravens.
Timmy Jernigan and Terrell Suggs will relish initiating the rook. Ravens rookie Matt Judon has been a pass-rushing beast since preseason. Baltimore may also be getting back another pass-rushing stalwart this week in familiar Raider foe Elvis Dumervil. He’s currently listed as questionable.
The Ravens have nine sacks this year, and the Raiders have given up only one real sack. The other ‘sack’ was when Carr ran OB slightly behind the line. They’ve also paved the way for the league’s second ranked rushing attack, even though they’ve had to shuffle personnel frequently.
Aug 27, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) attempts to rush past Tennessee Titans offensive tackle Jack Conklin (78) in the second quarter at Oakland Alameda Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Khalil Mack, DE
Notice I put DE and not DE/OLB. That’s because Mack is playing, bafflingly, almost exclusively as a hand-down lineman this season. This is despite being the only person in NFL history — ever — to be voted All-Pro at two positions. One of those positions? OLB.
Now Ken Norton Jr. has a ring and was a heck of a player. Jack Del Rio was a Pro Bowler himself and knows defense. It’s tough to question men with that kind of pedigree — but I do.
Mack has special speed and bend off the edge. Those abilities magnify when he’s coming from a two-point stance. Having his hand in the dirt almost exclusively is limiting his ability to use his greatest strengths and diagnose plays from the linebacker position. Though he would never say it, the team-first Mack is likely a bit frustrated.
JDR knows Mack’s numbers will come, and I wholeheartedly agree that he’s had a bigger impact on the game than the box score indicates. It’s not his fault his linemates are taking advantage of the opportunities he provides them often enough.
Mack is one of the best defensive players in the game, and that means making impact plays. He’s yet to record a tackle for loss or a sack. Yes, he’s being double and triple-teamed every play. Yes he’s being held damned near every play as well.
Mack’s under pressure to get a sack or make a big play. This will alleviate any concerns of diminishing play. He’s an impact player every down even if the stat sheet doesn’t show it. The man is a beast and other teams know that — that’s why they devote all their attention to him.
With Baltimore’s left tackle Ronnie Stanley questionable for Sunday’s game, perhaps this is the week the drought ends.
An impact defensive play would not only help the team in a tough road game, but would also give the man a boost in the confidence department. We’ve seen what happens when Mack gets a boost in confidence. Brock Osweiler ends up in Houston.
Sep 25, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio looks on against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. The Raiders won 17-10. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Quick thoughts on the Raiders heading into Week 4.
Karl Joseph. Jihad Ward. Shilique Calhoun. DeAndre Washington. Cory James. Vadal Alexander. This year’s draft class — all impact players thus far. Oh, and Jalen Richard, Darius Latham and Johnny Holton, UDFAs. They’re not bad either. Connor Cook? Well, Derek Carr.
That’s three drafts in a row that have yielded solid — if not spectacular — results.
This year on a team with more talent and depth than the Raiders have had in nearly 15 years you have two rookie UDFA’s logging significant important minutes (Richard and Latham), and four of the six have started a game (counting Alexander who’s slated to start this Sunday).
Amari Cooper and Clive Walford owe the defense and Derek Carr a case or two after their atrocious drops on third downs killed promising drives. Those plays, as much as anything, kept the Titans in the game late and gave them chances they shouldn’t have had.
That was his only drop thus far, but his catch percentage of 51.7% with 15 catches on 29 targets isn’t great. He’s made a nice play or two this season but he either isn’t getting the separation he did last season, or Carr is simply not looking his way exclusively.
It’s likely the latter but Cooper’s drops can’t help Carr’s confidence in throwing to him, no matter how close they became in the offseason.
I expect Cooper, who is definitely a “revenge against himself” type guy, to have a big game this weekend against Shareece Wright, the only Ravens corner to struggle this season.
Wright has given up 3 TDs and a few big plays, and Cooper is probably pretty pissed at himself for that drop and a somewhat slow start. I’d start him in fantasy (but I don’t have him – boo!).
Sep 25, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) looks to throw the ball against the Tennessee Titans during the first half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Raiders Offense Can’t Be Stopped
The Titans certainly proved that false in the second half. After leading two fairly easy TD drives in the first half and adding a field goal, the Raiders offense stagnated in the second half in Tennessee.
Sure, a large part of that was due to the drops — both killed promising drives that likely would have led to at least field goals, if not more. But it wasn’t just the drops.
It was the Raiders’ inability to decide what they wanted to do. OC Bill Musgrave is much-maligned by Raider Nation as a predictable play-caller that generates as much excitement as a Chargers pep rally. But he’s actually been pretty creative and off-balance much of this season.
However, when the Raiders opened the second half with a two-score lead, Musgrave couldn’t decide whether to run the ball and possess the clock, or throw the ball and try to score. The muddled mix of both at inopportune times — he ran the ball three straight times from midfield during their first possession — was ineffective.
Baltimore won’t be as hot this weekend but the trip is longer. Hopefully the Raiders stay fresh long enough to open holes in the run game late and finish the game.
Derek Carr also threw his first interception of the season on one of his only poor decisions of the year. This was right after Sean Smith had given the Raiders the ball back with by intercepting Marcus Mariota.
Carr cannot do those things, and he knows it. Carr doesn’t hide his emotions, and rarely have a you seen a man burn with such anger toward himself than after than play.
The Raiders have shown thus far that their potential offensive machine wasn’t just hype but rooted in reality. They have to prove they can continue that in a tough game against a good defense.
Putting up 28+ against the Saints and Falcons is pretty standard. The Titans, a middle-of-the-road defense but not terrible, showed what can happen when they get predictable against a decent team.
The Raiders need this one, but it’s their toughest test yet. An undefeated opponent with a tough defense and a ton of confidence. The Raiders need their offense and defense to play a complete game together for the first time this year to win this one.
If they do that, they will. If they don’t, they won’t. It’s that simple.