Pressures, Hurries, Knockdowns: Raiders vs. Texans

The PHK series continues, previewing the Week 11 Monday night matchup between the Oakland Raiders and the Houston Texans.

After a week off to rest their bones and work on a few things — like penalties, perhaps — the Raiders get back to work with a “home” game in Mexico City on Monday night against the Texans.

Despite having Brock Osweiler at quarterback and less rushing touchdowns as a team than Latavius Murray scored in his last game, the Texans are 6-3 behind a stout defense and good special teams play.

This defense with J.J. Watt healthy would be scary. Jadeveon Clowney is healthy himself now and beginning to play at the high level expected of him as a former #1 overall pick. The Texans stick to receivers like glue, but running backs can make hay against them.

They’re almost a carbon-copy of the Broncos, who are #1 in passing defense and #28 in rushing offense. The Texans? #3 in passing defense and #26 in rushing defense. That’s the Tay-train you hear getting warmed up right now…

The Raiders are 7-2 and a tie-breaker behind the Chiefs for first in the AFC West. They are in the first wild card spot and closer to the playoffs than they’ve been since some younger fans were infants. And they’ve done it in a variety of ways. Comebacks, big plays, with defense, with offense, running, passing.

One thing that’s stayed consistent — guts. Going for two for the win. Carr checking out of a safe play on 4th down for a shot downfield, that works. Always believing your team can win and never feeling out of the game.

The Raiders are under pressure of a different form now, as the playoffs loom. All games count now, especially those against conference rivals who may challenge for said playoff spot.

Who is under the most pressure this week? What are some things going on around the Raiders? What are some things we thought we thought, that we were wrong about?

Let’s check in after the (basically) half-way point of to date an excellent season and find out.

Oct 30, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Jacquizz Rodgers (32) runs with the ball as Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Perry Riley (54) defends 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

Pressures

Run Defense

The Raiders run defense hasn’t been good this season, but it has gotten better in recent weeks. Since getting gashed for over 130 yards by Spencer Ware and over 150 total by the Chiefs in Week 6, the Raiders have allowed 105, 102, and 33 yards over their last three games.

The YPC average in those games went from 6.5 (Jacksonville), to 3.7 (Tampa), to 2.75 (Denver). That has allowed them to climb from #29 in the NFL in rush defense to #21, and it’s improving weekly.

Not coincidentally, UDFA Darius Latham has come on the past three weeks. He’s recorded six of his seven solo tackles on the season in the past three games, including three against the Broncos. He’s kept lineman up front occupied so that Perry Riley Jr. and the other linebackers can flow more easily to the ball.

Khalil Mack has also come on recently, and not just in the pass rush. He’s got 15 tackles the past three games, including two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Mack’s ability forces offenses to game-plan around him and as he’s coming on, the entire defense is playing better.

They must keep it up in the second half of the season, particularly in this game. They need to set the tone again and keep it throughout — the one of physicality they set against the Broncos pre-bye.

The Texans are no slouches. They have the #5 rushing offense in the NFL behind the versatile and powerful Lamar Miller, and with Osweiler struggling mightily this season, expect Houston to go strength against perceived weakness on Monday.

The run defense is under pressure to stuff the run and make the Texans one-dimensional. Mack sacked Osweiler 5 times in one game last year when the QB was with the Broncos.

There’s no question Brock has woken up a few times recently — and likely will a couple more times between now and Monday — in a cold sweat as #52 strip-sacks him and rips his still-beating heart from his chest. Mack wins. Fatality.

We saw against the Broncos what happens when the Raiders force a middling QB to beat them when the run game stagnates. It’s not pretty. The run defense is the key to this game as well.

If the Raiders can stop the run and force Osweiler to beat them, he may pull a Patrick Roy and storm off the field, yelling “trade me right #&@#^ now!” before Khalil Mack can break his spirit and leave him a shambling mess yet again.

Oct 30, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio looks on against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 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

Coaching Staff

When  you change the culture of a moribund franchise, instill a will to win and iron work ethic, elicit love for and from your players and fellow coaches, and generally build a good, solid winning franchise you get a lot of love.

If you let that franchise collapse in on itself after doing all that — you won’t.

Jack Del Rio and his staff — particularly line coaches Mike Tice and Jethro Franklin — have been great at their jobs this season. Del Rio has seemingly made the right call in every situation (going for two against Atlanta notwithstanding) and they’ve panned out.

He’s built a team with the right winning, humble, non-entitled attitude and it’s translating to real victories on the field. The Raiders have a very young team, yet they play like veterans — except in the penalty department — and routinely make timely plays.

Del Rio isn’t the type of coach to let this team get satisfied, and that will be key for a young group tasting success for the first time. This coaching staff pretty much just needs to keep doing what they’re doing — teaching well and being aggressive.

That sounds easy, but it isn’t. Particularly when what you’re doing is often not conventional or risk-averse. If the Raiders lose Monday and the Chiefs win again, does panic set in? Likely not, but coaches have been known to panic and change what’s been working in hopes of salvaging something.

It’s likely things never get to that point, and Del Rio’s experience as both a Pro Bowl player and an NFL coach help in that he’s seen this movie before and wants to write his own ending.

To do that, he’s got to clean up the penalties regardless of how much he dismisses them, and he’s got to stay on his defense to play smart and maintain their assignments. This team is under pressure to keep the train rolling smoothly into the playoffs — they’ve simply set the bar too high at this point.

Nov 6, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) reacts after the Raiders rushed for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter at Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the Broncos 30-20. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Hurries

Quick thoughts on Raiders specific first half awards:

  • MVP – Derek Carr. I could’ve gotten meta here, but Carr deserves this. He’s not only played well when it counts but his leadership and role as a teammate is huge on this team.
    Runner-up – Michael Crabtree. Besides Carr, nobody has made as many big, game winning plays.
  • Defensive Player – Khalil Mack. Others such as Karl Joseph and Perry Riley Jr. have made a significant impact and changed the face of the defense, but when Mack is rolling this defense is rolling. Lately, he’s really rolling.
  • Rookie of the Year, Offense: Jalen Richard. From UDFA to injured to a 75-yard TD on his first carry in his home state, this kid’s had one hell of a ride. He’s shored up the backup RB spot and given the Raiders a consistent threat in the return game.
  • Rookie of the Year, Defense: Karl Joseph. He’s been as advertised and as he gets healthier and more confident and comfortable expect big plays to come.
  • Best Play: 2-point win, New Orleans. Set the tone for the season, showed the new attitude of this team and started the love-in the team and coaches have for each other that’s continued throughout the season.
  • Worst Play: Illegal touching, part one. Amari Cooper’s game-tying TD catch gets negated by an illegal touching penalty. That play happens and the Raiders are possibly 8-1.
  • Most impressive stat: 7-2. The Raiders haven’t been 7-2 in longer than many can remember, and it’s been a hard-earned 7-2.
  • Most impressive stat, #2: 218 rushing yards against the Broncos. Because line dominance and running over the Broncos.

October 9, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders cornerback Sean Smith (21) is congratulated by defensive tackle Darius Latham (75) after intercepting the football against the San Diego Chargers during the first quarter at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Knockdowns

The Raiders Defense is Terrible

Through six weeks this was indisputable. They were terrible. The offense was good enough to bail them out most weeks, but they were terrible.

Then something happened — call it the Perry Riley/team finally gelling effect. Riley’s experience and savvy in the middle of the defense began translating to better run fits and positioning. A team made up of many changing parts throughout the season was finally getting consistent play from the same people.

Khalil Mack started feasting on quarterbacks again as coverage on the outside started getting a little tighter. Bruce Irvin was right there with him the last two weeks. The pass rush is coming on.

The Raiders played their best two defensive games with CB Sean Smith injured. Coincidence maybe, but the play of D.J. Hayden and T.J. Carrie cannot be ignored.

Carrie struggled at times against Demaryius Thomas last week, but ultimately played a solid game and helped shut down the Denver run game as well. Hayden, thrown on the slag heap before the season started by most, has bounced back to have his best season and is starting to show some really sticky and aggressive coverage tendencies.

There are a ton of young players on this defense. Karl Joseph is a rookie. So are Jihad Ward, Darius Latham, and Cory James. That it would take time for them to learn NFL speed and schemes is no surprise, and that this defense improves as time goes on thus is no surprise either.

All this, and the Raiders are hoping to have Mario Edwards Jr. back soon although his return is up in the air at the moment. Aldon Smith’s reinstatement is possible. A defense that is getting better weekly could add some key pieces down the stretch that would really bolster them.

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