First of all: WOOOOOO! The Oakland Raiders’ 2013 season officially kicks off in just over an hour!
For those of you that have been reading a lot of mainstream media, the Raiders stand no chance of being productive and should just roll over to Indy’s high-octane offense. I don’t think this matchup is necessarily this cut and dry, though; did everyone think that the Seahawks were a better team when they Beast Moded the Saints? Were Tebow’s Broncos a better team than the Steelers? Upsets happen every week in the NFL, and it’s normally the games that people just assume are such an obvious win that they don’t bother to delve into analyzing both teams. I believe that this Raiders/Colts game could be a huge upset, and I have identified four key matchups for this game that could swing the tide in the favor of the Silver and Black.
1. Can the Raiders’ run game find success against the Colts?
The Raiders face a number of difficult teams on the road this year, so it isn’t much of a stretch to say that this week 1 Colts game is one of the easier ones for the team. It is absolutely essential that the beat-up offensive line is able to find some rhythm against this Colts defense. Last year, the Colts ranked 29th in run defense. Their inability to stop the run was overshadowed by Luck’s ability to take over a game, but it is critical that the Raiders seize this opportunity and run wild. It may prove to be difficult with the state of the offensive line, but the Raiders need to get their star players into this game. I’ve only watched one preseason game with the Colts, so it is tough to say if their defense has massively improved this offseason, but the stats are in Oakland’s favor if they can get the ball moving. Oakland is 10-2 in games where McFadden has been able to rush for over 100 yards.
2. Can the Raiders’ run defense stop Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard?
In further proof that Luck alone carried a 2-14 team to the playoffs last year, Pep Hamilton was hired in the offseason to help the Colts develop a more consistent ground game. The team seemed to lack a lot of explosiveness at the runningback position,with their longest rush of the season being just 26 yards (dead last in the NFL) and only five 20+ yard rushes all season (tied for 30th in the NFL). To help, the Colts signed Ahmad Bradshaw, the talented runner from the New York Giants, and everyone assumes that he will have a huge season, starting with the “terrible” Raiders defense. While memories of Doug Martin running wild are still probably burned into Raiders’ fans’ minds everywhere, it should be encouraging to know that the team’s run defense should improve dramatically this season if everyone can stay healthy. After a disastrous middle of the season, Dennis Allen started getting more hands-on with the offense. While the offense sputtered out of control until Pryor took over, the defense actually improved significantly, culminating in a shutout of the Chiefs.
Preseason has been a mixed bag defensively, but one thing that has really stood out to me is the solid play when the starters have been healthy. With 9 new starters on defense comes a complete shift in defensive play, so last year’s statistics are useless on a player-by-player level. Instead, it is important to look at the schemes that are being used. The packages and blitzes being used should be very effective, and with hand-picked personnel, they should be even more effective than last year. Combined with Tarver’s knowledge of Luck, I expect the defense to look better than anticipated.
3. Can the cornerbacks contain the receivers?
…and this is why. Andrew Luck is likely going to have a lot of time to throw if the Raiders stick with their base 4-3 personnel, so it is likely that Tarver tries to come at Luck with a variety of blitzes. In order for these blitzes to work, however, the cornerbacks for the Silver and Black must be able to run with the receivers and blanket them. Reggie Wayne, TY Hilton, and ex-Raider DHB are all solid receiving options for Luck, but the Raiders have significantly improved their CB depth and should be up to the challenge. Last year, these receivers would’ve lined up across from Michael Huff (last seen Thursday getting scorched by Julius Thomas) and a bunch of completely unproven corners. This year, the Colts will see DJ Hayden, who in limited action has looked phenomenal, a couple of capable but uninspiring veterans in Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter, and a group of young talented corners. From top to bottom, this is the best I have seen the Raiders’ cornerback options look in a long while. Hayden has looked the part of the 12th overall pick so far, and while our veterans haven’t been inspiring a whole lot of confidence for consistent play (I’m looking at you, Tracy Porter), they should still be much more solid than the veterans we were relying on this time last year. With Charles Woodson at free safety to play Luck directly, the Raiders have at least one superstar in the backfield to keep Luck busy, and turnovers would go a long, long way in helping this game turn in favor of Oakland. It may be too much to ask to completely shut down such a lethal passing offense, but slowing it down and getting a turnover or two would greatly help.
4. Can the patchwork offensive line hold?
Depth is essential in the NFL for enduring the rigors of a full season, but relying on third- and fourth-string players for an extended period of time is trouble, no matter what team or what position. This is unfortunately doubly true when these injuries have occurred across the entire offensive line, and infinitely more true if they are supposed to be protecting your quarterback’s…back. The Raiders’ first- and second-string left tackles are both injured and will not be playing this week (and it’s sounding likely like it might be longer than that…), so fan “favorite” Khalif Barnes will be starting at left tackle. Accounting for the four false starts that Barnes will be getting in this game, the Raiders have to also hope that newly signed Tony Pashos can start right away at right tackle. It is interesting that Pashos and Barnes have actually played together in the NFL on the same offensive line, though; they started all sixteen games together for the 2008 Jacksonville Jaguars, paving the way for Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor to rush for 1,380 yards. Raiders fans have to hope that the tackles can regain their form for at least part of the season until the team can start getting healthy again.
The guards aren’t in much of a better position. Reggie’s first draft pick, Tony Bergstrom, landed on IR a few weeks ago and will miss the season. There has been a battle all offseason on who will man the left and right guard positions, with free-agent bust Mike Brisiel supposedly manning one spot and Lucas Nix manning the other. Andre Gurode, who hasn’t seen a regular season snap in two seasons, could be pushing for one of the spots soon enough. It is a bit difficult to be terribly excited about any of the available options, but injuries have forced the Raiders to adjust. The line looked awful for most of the preseason, but it did seem to hold better when Pryor was in and the defense wasn’t sending everyone they had at Flynn. Here’s to hoping that they are able to do so.