Raiders hope to kill streak, breathe in season
The Raiders have been careful to avoid calling today's matchup against the San Diego Chargers a must-win game. Wise move, considering they haven't beaten the Chargers in more than seven years.
That said, , the Raiders can't deny their season is on the precipice of slipping away.
Since the NFL expanded its playoff format in 1990 to include 12 teams, only 22 teams that began the season with a losing record through four games have made the playoffs. The 2001 New England Patriots are the only team from that group to win a Super Bowl.
"I wouldn't call it a must-win game," punter Shane Lechler said, "but we really need to get this thing headed in the right direction soon."
The Raiders set their sights on the Chargers in the offseason, printing up shirts that said their first goal is to win the AFC West. Doing so entails unseating the four-time defending division champions.
That is easier said than done. For starters, the Raiders have lost 13 in a row to the Chargers. For two, they must find a way to stop a team that leads the league in offense and defense.
Offensively, the Chargers feature one of the game's top quarterbacks in Philip Rivers, an all-world tight end in Antonio Gates and a three-pronged rushing attack with Mike Tolbert, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles.
Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said the Chargers offense hasn't missed a beat without running back LaDainian Tomlinson and wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Tomlinson signed with the New York Jets in the offseason after rushing for 12,490 yards and scoring 153 touchdowns in nine years with San Diego. Jackson has not played this season while locked in a contract dispute.
"It's the same offense, you just have to beat them," Asomugha said. "They are so dangerous that they don't have to change up."
Gates has assumed the starring role on a team that averages 450.8 yards a game. Through four games, he has caught 24 passes for 386 yards and six touchdowns.
Raiders defensive coordinator John Marshall said Gates, in his eighth season, is playing as well as he has at any point in his career.
"He gets a lot of balls and he catches the balls that are thrown to him," Marshall said. "He's really a great player. You've got to change coverages on him, put the right people on him, sometimes double him, roll coverage to him, have people around him and bang him around."
Don't be surprised if the Raiders employ Asomugha on Gates, now that the Chargers are without a bonafide No. 1 wide receiver.
The other key, Marshall said, is getting pressure on Rivers without compromising the overall scheme.
"You've got to do it with pressure but you've got to be careful about how you do that because then you've got one-on-one with Gates and (others) and that's not good, either, if you don't get to him," Marshall said of Rivers. "So you've got to get either quick pressure on him or the four-man front has to be able to generate that kind of stuff."
Defensively, the Chargers are fueled by linebackers Shaun Phillips, Stephen Cooper and Shawne Merriman. They set the tempo through an array of blitzes designed to break down the opponent's game plan.
"They're as good as anybody," Raiders offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. "They have done great against the run, done great against the pass. It's a great challenge for us but, again, just their tempo of how they play on defense, they come after you."
The Raiders are confident that their well-balanced offense is equipped to match the Chargers. Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski has settled into a nice rhythm since taking over for Jason Campbell midway through the second game, and the Raiders' offense is more than a run-oriented attack for the first time since 2005.
"They are doing a lot of good things offensively," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "They have the best rhythm they have had (in a long time). They have always run the ball. They're getting good play in the passing game."
However, the Raiders likely will be without lead running back Darren McFadden, who suffered a hamstring injury a week ago. That places Michael Bush in the spotlight for the first time this season. Bush has carried 10 times for 53 yards this season.
Ultimately, Cable said, the Raiders offensive success hinges upon the play of receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy, as well as tight end Zach Miller.
"They got to play big," Cable said.