Preview and Prediction: Oakland Raiders vs. Carolina Panthers
The Oakland Raiders (8-2) will return home after a successful trip to Mexico to take on the Carolina Panthers (4-6), and despite the disparity in their records, this affair should look the part of a playoff clash.
Gorilla Rilla and Darth Raider will have the Black Hole hitting on all cylinders. It will be up to Oakland to follow their lead.
Here’s an in-depth look at what to expect when the Panthers ultimately take the field in Oakland.
Two Heavyweight Contenders to go Punch for Punch Under Center
In a matchup between a former MVP and what some are calling the league’s current MVP, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Raiders quarterback Derek Carr will go toe to toe in The Coliseum. Newton will look to defend his title and resurrect the Panthers’ season against Carr, but only one of the quarterbacks will leave this heavyweight bout on top.
Just a year removed from his MVP campaign, Newton has turned his Superman suit in for Clark Kent’s trench coat, as he has failed to carry momentum from his reign as MVP into the 2016-2017 season.
Newton has completed just 56.5 percent of his passes for just 2,186 yards, 11 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. With just 11 scores through the air, he is on pace for a career-low 16 touchdowns. On the ground, Newton is averaging a career-low 4.3 yards per carry with just 268 yards on 62 carries.
To prepare for Newton, Raiders backup quarterback Connor Cook has done his best to mirror the former MVP’s talents in practice.
“He’s a great player, obviously the reigning MVP,” Cook said, via Jimmy Durkin of The Mercury News. “Just trying to go out there and make as many plays as I can, trying to be as dual-threat as possible and trying to drop some dimes as well.”
Even with Cook doing his best Newton impression, the Raiders’ defense won’t know what it’s truly like until they finally face the real thing under center.
Carr has flashed Superman qualities through 10 games, establishing himself within the MVP race with 2,800 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, and just four interceptions.
Regardless of either of the quarterbacks’ starts this season, both Newton and Carr are capable of picking up the cape in this affair. The two have the utmost experience in putting their respective teams on their backs, and that’s exactly what we should see come Sunday.
Greg Olsen to Cause Matchup Nightmare
In their Mexico City showdown against the Houston Texans, the Raiders’ defense sat back and watched Texans tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin haul in a combined nine receptions for 114 yards, six of which going for first downs.
With Panthers veteran tight end Greg Olsen next in line to take on the Raiders’ defense, look for the Oakland to sit back and enjoy the show for a second consecutive week, and it’s still too early to rule out popcorn.
Olsen, a former first-round pick in the 2007 NFL draft, leads the team with 54 receptions for 745 yards and has added three touchdowns to the mix. The former Hurricane also leads the team with 38 first down receptions, tying for ninth in the NFL.
“He’s smart. He’s fast,” Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said in reference to Olsen, per Raiders.com. “He runs really good routes. You always need a good guy throwing the ball and he’s got a really good quarterback, really good strong arm, that trusts him. They really have a good relationship together.”
Norton Jr. must call on his two inside linebackers and rookie safety Karl Joseph to end Olsen’s relationship with Newton. The dynamic duo could still try to be good friends, but the Raiders shouldn’t stand for anything too serious.
Raiders veteran inside linebackers Malcolm Smith and Perry Riley Jr. have struggled significantly in coverage at times, so Norton Jr. must look to put the two in the best position to succeed given the importance of Olsen to Carolina’s offense.
Joseph, the Raiders’ first-round pick in this year’s draft, should look to contain Olsen in man coverage, but Olsen’s sheer experience should force Joseph into the student’s desk, as the former West Virginia product could return to school to learn from one of the best.
Holding Newton’s No. 1 target to a minimal impact is tough for even the best defenses in the NFL, so the Raiders shouldn’t set the bar too high. However, if Oakland can rally their efforts on third downs and in the red zone, Newton could cut ties with Olsen and start seeing other people.
Kelvin Benjamin to Test David Amerson
Just 14 months after being waived by the Washington Redskins, Raiders cornerback David Amerson has reached new heights since joining the Silver and Black, and now peering down over the edge at his competition, he has no intention of falling back down.
With 46 combined tackles (39 solo), a team-high 14 pass deflections and two interceptions, Amerson has put on a defensive clinic through 10 games this season, earning the 15th best grade among all NFL cornerbacks, per ProFootballFocus.com.
Looking up at him, Panthers veteran wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin will do everything in his power to cast Amerson back down to earth.
After missing the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL, Benjamin has exploded in his third NFL season. With 46 receptions for 683 yards and four touchdowns, the former Florida State product is on pace to eclipse career highs in both receptions and receiving yards.
At 6’5”, 245 pounds, Benjamin often uses his large frame to wall off defenders on inward cutting routes to prevent pass break-ups both in the red zone and on critical downs. Through 10 games, he is second on the tram with 80 targets and 36 first down receptions behind Olsen.
Amerson (6’1”, 205) is capable of playing with bigger receivers because of his above average size, but he will have his hands full with Benjamin and should see a large volume of targets on his side of the field.
The two should exchange blows back and forth for a majority of the game, but if Benjamin makes his way into the end zone multiple times or extends a few too many drives, he will finish the match with his glove raised high.
Raiders’ to Best the Panthers in the Trenches
The Raiders’ big, physical offensive line has found their way into the headlines in recent weeks because of their unparalleled size and ability to keep Carr upright and spring their three-headed monster out of its cage.
There will be no reason to edit the front page after Sunday’s contest.
With veteran left tackle Donald Penn and former Baltimore Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele leading the charge, the Raiders’ offensive line has often left opposing defenses in their wake or peeled them off the bottom of their cleats.
Though the Panthers’ front four has previously been a strength of their defense, they have failed to turn dominant flashes into a consistent beam of light so far this season, and the injuries continue to pile up.
With former Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly officially out with a concussion, the Raiders’ big bullies should have an easier time holding double teams at the point of attack, for they won’t have to worry as much about moving on to secure blocks at the second level.
Kuechly leads the Panthers with 102 combined tackles (71 solo) and six pass deflections.
In the trenches, the Panthers will be without their top edge-rusher in Mario Addison, as the sixth-year veteran will miss the game in Oakland because of a foot injury. He leads the team with 6.5 sacks.
With that being said, Panthers interior defenders Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei should still keep the Raiders’ offense line occupied down low, but there are few threats outside of them that should cause any type of havoc.
Look for Carr to again thrive with great protection and for the Raiders’ backfield to have great success on the ground.
Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin to Embarrass the Panthers’ Offensive Tackles
Coming off a dominant performance in Mexico City, Raiders edge-rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin will enter this week’s matchup against Carolina with two struggling offensive tackles standing in their way of the Panthers’ backfield and Cam Newton.
They won’t stand for long.
Mack and Irvin have terrorized opposing tackles all season, as their presence has been felt against both the run and the pass, combining for 11 sacks and seven tackles for loss.
Second-year offensive tackle Daryl Williams is expected to earn the start at right tackle with veteran Michael Oher recently being added to the injured reserve, which should open the door for both Mack and Irvin to pick on his inexperience.
Opposite of Williams, veteran left tackle Mike Remmers has struggled in his 10 starts this season, as PFF.com has graded him out as the 59th best offensive tackle in the NFL. Despite his experience, he too will struggle to keep the Raiders’ edge rushers out of the backfield.
With Newton’s mobility in play, Mack and Irvin will have to put in some extra work to bring him down behind the line of scrimmage, but they shouldn’t miss a beat defending outside runs.
Jonathan Stewart Could Bully Raiders’ Front Seven
Panthers veteran running back Jonathan Stewart is a physical, downhill bowling ball of a running back, and he has been leaned on to hit strikes for Carolina’s offense all season. With the Raiders’ hapless run defense in the next frame, expect him to down all 10 pins, again.
Seeing action in just seven games this season, Stewart has carried the ball 110 times for 365 yards and five touchdowns, and though his yards per carry average isn’t of high standard, he, like Newton, can turn it on any given Sunday.
The Raiders’ defense, on the other hand, has looked the part just one Sunday this season against the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football two weeks ago, holding lead back Devontae Booker and company to just 33 yards on the ground.
Their success was short-lived, as they allowed Texans running back Lamar Miller to run for over 104 yards on 24 carries just last week.
Smith and Riley Jr. have previously struggled to get off blocks and meet opposing backs in the hole with any kind of physicality, and as a result, even smaller backs have bowled over them for extra yards through contact.
At the line of scrimmage, Mack and Irvin have obviously outperformed expectations along the edge, and their interior defenders have flashed dominance at times. However, it’s up to Oakland’s filling linebackers to make plays on Stewart in the hole if they plan to push him into the gutter.
Panthers’ Youthful Secondary to Take a Lesson From Two of the Best
With two rookie cornerbacks starting on the outside for Carolina’s defense, the Raiders’ elite receiving duo in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree could quickly steal the show for the Raiders’ offense.
Former second-round pick James Bradberry has exceeded expectations at times, but he has also been on the wrong end of some big plays, too. At 6’1”, 210 pounds, the former Samford stud can run with some of the bigger receivers in the league, but he is still adapting to the speed of the NFL and still needs time to catch up.
Opposite of Bradberry, Daryl Worley, a third-round pick out of West Virginia, has struggled immensely in comparison to Bradberry, so look for Carr to look his way early and often.
Like his counterpart, Worley stands at 6’1” and can remain physical against bigger receivers. However, he is much better in run support than in coverage, especially against quick, athletic receivers.
Cooper and Crabtree are both on pace for Pro Bowl bids, as the two have combined for 114 receptions for 1,501 yards, nine touchdowns and 73 first down receptions.
With the advantage obviously in the Raiders’ corner, Cooper and Crabtree must keep the Panthers’ underdogs from pulling off a Cinderella story on Sunday by landing some hard jabs early.
Prediction: Oakland Raiders 31; Carolina Panthers 28