Pressures, Hurries, Knockdowns: Raiders vs. Panthers

The PHK series continues, previewing the Week 12 matchup between the Oakland Raiders and the Carolina Panthers.

The Raiders return to their actual home in Oakland on Sunday to host the Carolina Panthers. This is after their recent “home” victory in Mexico City over the Houston Texans.

With how much noise Raider Nation made, and how much presence Raiders International had at that game, it’s time to remove the air quotes. This fan base has suffered long and hard, with only three winning seasons in the twenty-plus since returning to Oakland.

All of that suffering from fans south of the border to those who travelled high above sea level to see their beloved Raiders came out in full force cheers and chants of “Raiders” throughout the night.

Raider Nation remains one of the most loyal and devoted fan bases in all of sports, and the passion and intensity brought to this newfound success is something special to part of and behold.

The Raiders are in first place in the AFC West at 8-2. They are actually the current #1 seed in the entire AFC. This is somewhat unfamiliar territory for the players — and the fans, as well.

Many have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. As Raider fans used to disappointment, it’s understandable. But it’s time to stop waiting and appreciate what’s happening, because this team isn’t going anywhere. At this point it’s fair to say they aren’t a year away — they’re here.

This team is suddenly under tremendous pressure of an unfamiliar kind — the pressure of being the hunted. Denver and Kansas City play each other this weekend. Barring another tie — and in this season, it’s certainly possible — one of them will go to 8-3 and either be tied with the Raiders or stay one game back.

The Raiders still play KC and Denver. Both of those games are on the road. The Raiders are under pressure to take care of business at home against non-divisional opponents in Carolina and Buffalo. It starts this weekend with the Panthers.

Oct 30, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Malcolm Smith (53) works out prior to the game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 30, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Malcolm Smith (53) works out prior to the game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Pressures

Raiders Linebackers

Interception against Houston aside, Malcolm Smith struggles in coverage. The Raiders were one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2015 at covering the tight end, and that trend continued last week in Mexico City.

C.J. Fiedorowicz was everywhere except the end zone, corralling 6 passes for 82 yards and was open a slew more times. This was often with Smith or Cory James trailing behind him.

If Brock Osweiler were better, Fiedorowicz would’ve topped 100 yards and possibly scored.

Lamar Miller also got off a little, busting 104 yards on 24 attempts, with a long burst of 33 yards. Miller found the end zone, something he’s not done often this season, and the Texans generally blocked and ran routes on the Raiders linebackers all day.

The Panthers boast one of the top tight ends in the NFL in Greg Olsen. While Osweiler looked for Fiedorowicz often out of comfort and risk aversion, Cam Newton looks for Olsen because he’s awesome.

Newton will throw to Olsen when he’s double-covered. He’ll throw to him when the other team’s best cover corner is on him, or when he’s gone deep up the seam.

And Olsen will catch it. Olsen is 2nd among NFL tight ends with 54 catches, 1st in yardage with 745 and tied for 3rd with a slew of others with 3 TD catches. He’s a productive, intelligent player who excels at exploiting favorable matchups and you can bet he was watching Fiedorowicz do damage on Monday.

JBB writer Tyler Dickson agrees, as he made limiting Olsen priority #1 in his Keys to Victory piece.

Add in the power running game of Newton and Jonathan Stewart, and the Raiders front seven will have their work cut out for them in this game. Of course the absence of all-Pro center Ryan Khalil will help the Raiders stop the run, but the linebackers must be better.

The Raider linebackers are under pressure to cover Olsen and not allow Newton to use him as an easy safety valve so the pass rush can get home. Reggie Nelson and Karl Joseph are solid in coverage. The linebackers not so much.

The Raider backers must be tougher in this game than they were against Houston. Carolina is a tough team, regardless of record, who pride themselves on imposing their will on their opponent. The Raider backers are under pressure to do the opposite and impose theirs right back on the Panthers to set the tone for this game.

Oct 30, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Oakland Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree (15) during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Oakland Raiders defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30-24 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 30, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Oakland Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree (15) during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Oakland Raiders defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30-24 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Crabtree

It’s silly to say, as Crabs has been Captain Clutch all season. No other Raider player has come up as big in winning time for Derek Carr, not even Amari Cooper.

Yet King Crab has struggled a bit the past few games, culminating in some costly and uncharacteristic drops against Houston.

He had a drop against Denver as well before the bye and just hasn’t looked himself the past two Raider games. Even in the Tampa game, though he recorded over 100 yards, it took a few catches late to reach that plateau after dropping two balls early and generally struggling then as well.

After scoring five TDs in seven games, he hasn’t scored since Week 7. Carr has targeted him plenty (88 times in 11 games), but his catch rate of 59.1% ranks 115th out of all receivers with a minimum of 20 targets. He’s got 4 drops for a drop rate of 4.6%. He’s been less than reliable lately.

King Crab is still the King, with the plays he’s made and the swag he brings.

But he’s under pressure to recapture some of his early season magic as teams key more on Cooper, who is making big plays of his own. When Crab’s making plays, the offense is better.

September 18, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders running back Jalen Richard (30) runs with the football past Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (56) during the third quarter at Oakland Coliseum. The Falcons defeated the Raiders 35-28. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

September 18, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders running back Jalen Richard (30) runs with the football past Atlanta Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (56) during the third quarter at Oakland Coliseum. The Falcons defeated the Raiders 35-28. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Hurries

  • Luke Kuechly is an awesome player and seems like a great person. It’s a shame he’ll be out with another concussion this weekend. Hopefully he gets well soon and it is not serious, because he’s many things that are right about football.
  • The Panthers are missing some key pieces ahead of this important game and the Raiders should run the ball to take advantage.
  • Safe to say Jalen Richard has cemented himself as the #2 back in Oakland. Richard had 12 snaps to DeAndre Washington’s 4. Richard looked particularly good catching the ball, snagging 3 passes for 50 yards and a score. He’s been dynamic.
  • Since beginning his career with 14 tackles and looking solid, rookie MLB Cory James has struggled lately to get off blocks and cover backs and tight ends. He needs to put on some weight without sacrificing quickness.
  • With Irvin playing like that and Mack notching a sack for the fifth straight game, the Raiders pass rush is coming on as expected at the beginning of the season.
  • In fact the Raiders pressured Osweiler on 52.4% of his throws, according to Pro Football Focus. Yes, that’s a pass rush coming on.
  • The NFL Network panel killed Osweiler after the game for his inability to go through is progressions. Osweiler does lock on to receivers and go to his first read a lot. People tend to forget he’s basically a rookie. But but he does have work to do on the mental side.
  • Karl Joseph tied Irvin for the team lead in tackles with 10 against Houston, and has 40 tackles in eight games to lead the team since Week 3. As he gets more comfortable with his knee and the defense, expect some big plays to come soon. He’s been around the ball a lot the last three games.

Nov 6, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (51) reacts towards the crowd before a play against the Denver Broncos in the first quarter at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Knockdowns

Bruce Irvin is a Bust

There’s more to life than just sack and QB pressure numbers, but many Raider fans and experts were beginning to whisper that Irvin was approaching bust territory.

He hadn’t recorded more than four tackles in a game all season, and had only two sacks coming into the Monday nighter. He’s forced four fumbles, but made few other big plays. Irvin just wasn’t the dynamic game-changer the Raiders expected across from Khalil Mack.

Until Monday.

On Monday Irvin was every bit the disruptive force the Raiders thought they got in free agency. He had ten tackles, a sack, a QB hit and many key plays in the run game.

It was by far his best overall game as a Raider so far and hopefully a sign of things to come.

Irvin appeared comfortable Monday and played instinctively, allowing his speed and motor to get him to the ball.

“That might have been the best game of my career to be honest with you – my best complete game,” Irvin told reporters after the Houston game. “I think I really played a complete game and it really showed.”

It’s his 12th game in this system with these teammates, and he’s settling in. While he knew DC Ken Norton Jr. in Seattle, Norton was a LB coach and not a coordinator.

It has taken time for some players to acclimate to this scheme — Irvin, Dan Williams, Sean Smith. The results are beginning to show as players get more comfortable and trust themselves and each other.

Another big game Sunday would go a long way to erasing some questions. But Irvin served notice on Monday of what he can do in this defense, and what it means for this team.

Nobody is happier about that than Khalil Mack.

May 11, 2016; Las Vegas, NV, USA; General view of Oakland Raiders helmet at the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign on the Las Vegas strip on Las Vegas Blvd. Raiders owner Mark Davis (not pictured) has pledged $500 million toward building a 65,000-seat domed stadium in Las Vegas at a total cost of $1.4 billion. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (not pictured) said Davis can explore his options in Las Vegas but would require 24 of 32 owners to approve the move. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

May 11, 2016; Las Vegas, NV, USA; General view of Oakland Raiders helmet at the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign on the Las Vegas strip on Las Vegas Blvd. Raiders owner Mark Davis (not pictured) has pledged $500 million toward building a 65,000-seat domed stadium in Las Vegas at a total cost of $1.4 billion. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (not pictured) said Davis can explore his options in Las Vegas but would require 24 of 32 owners to approve the move. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Raiders Won’t Succeed in Vegas

Count me amongst those who want the Raiders to stay in Oakland. They are the Oakland Raiders. Even when they were the L.A. Raider, they were the Oakland Raiders.

It just fits, sounds good, and works. The city of Oakland is tough, gritty, and nothing comes easy. That works well as an image for the Raider franchise.

Yet it appears that the Raiders will play out the string in Oakland for a few years before settling Southeast in Las Vegas. Nothing is set in stone, of course. But Mark Davis appears to want to drive his Caravan to the Sunset Strip and find a neon Magic Cuts to bowl it up.

Experts have speculated that Vegas’ population is transient and wouldn’t support a local team with the fervor of another market.

To that I say viva la Mexico!

The Raiders travel well — and they have a solid fan base throughout the Southern states and Mexican and Latin community. Their reception in Mexico City and the fantastic home stadium atmosphere cultivated in Estadio Azteca proved this a million times over.

Vegas has a base population of roughly 580,000 people. Of that population, about 183,000 (31%) are Hispanic or Latino, according to Suburbanstats.org.

Over 76,000 people packed Estadio Azteca in a mostly pro-Raiders crowd for a game that sold out in minutes. The novelty of the game for many locals likely played a large part. But Raider love was everywhere on display (with a Chief and a donkey in there too, unfortunately).

What does it all mean? That the Raiders will likely find support in Vegas among a large Hispanic and Latino community. A community that is twice the size of that in Oakland and encompasses over 30% of the local population.

The team is winning and has a young nucleus that could keep it winning for some time. Despite his haircut, fanny pack and Caravan, Mark Davis is actually a pretty smart guy and shrewd businessman.

The team is relevant again, the fan base is rabid, and the youngsters are balling out. The presence of Raider Nation in Mexico on Monday. The team’s upward arc. The strong Hispanic/Latino base in Vegas. It all combines to make it a place the team could definitely succeed.

To the chagrin of those of us who want the team to stay in Oakland.

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