In the most important game of the year for both of these teams, the 2-2 Chargers come into Oakland Coliseum to face an upstart Raiders team. After a rough week 4, the Raiders could use an offensive spark, so seeing Terrelle Pryor return should be good news. The Chargers, meanwhile, are a few fourth-quarter blown leads away from being 4-0, thanks to a resurgent year for Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense. Rather than simply listing a few things that the Raiders could do to win in Week 5, I decided to dig deep into more complicated statistics. I stumbled across an absolutely fantastic article by Reuben Fischer-Baum that visually describes how effective each team’s offense has been through the first four weeks of the season.
To summarize that article, for those that don’t want to read it, he charted the offensive success of each team’s collective unit (comparing all of the Raiders’ receivers instead of just looking at Denarius Moore, for example) when compared to “replacement-level” players, or basically players that a team could sign at any point in free agency. He believed that the successful teams should have players that are way above replacement level, and that the more unsuccessful teams should be willing to part with certain players that aren’t even performing at an average level. For the sake of the pictures, a bigger colored circle means a highly productive unit, while a bigger red circle means that the team is struggling pretty hard in that area. Offensive line grading is a bit weird, since there aren’t really a whole lot of stats available on pass protection, so the line only grades runblocking. Other than that, though, it is an incredibly solid way to see how effective each team is, and what areas they may need improvement. Using this article and some of my own findings, let’s look at an in-depth preview of this important AFC West matchup.
San Diego Chargers
Since his infographics are set to his site and I don’t want to steal them, I’ll just summarize and say that the Chargers offense has much better than many expected in this season. Despite a rash of injuries to the wide receiver position, Philip Rivers is playing at an extremely high level. In fact, this stat says that he has been outperforming any quarterback not named Peyton Manning. While surprising, it seems to be accurate this season, which should give a bit of concern to Raiders fans. While the Raiders’ defensive line and linebackers have been exceeding expectations, the secondary again seems like it is struggling. In order to slow down this San Diego offense, the Raiders need to be able to pressure Rivers into playing like the Rivers of the past two seasons, throwing off his timing with his receivers and Antonio Gates. This may be difficult to do, however, as the Chargers have allowed the third-least sacks and quarterback hits this season.
While Rivers has been playing at a fantastic level, the Chargers backfield hasn’t been asked to do a whole lot. Still, they are effective enough to keep defenses honest. Danny Woodhead caught two touchdowns last week and looked like the player that New England used all over their backfield; he is likely the biggest threat to the Raiders on Sunday. First-round pick Ryan Mathews has averaged 3.5 yards per carry in a limited role and is probable for Sunday’s game. The Chargers have been careful with Mathews this season, making sure that he doesn’t end up breaking anything and keeping him healthy for the first time in his career.
Most concerning to Raiders fans, however, should be the return of a healthy Antonio Gates. He hadn’t been much of a factor in the past few matchups due to chronic foot injuries, but Gates has enjoyed a trip back in time and elevated himself to one of the best TE’s in the game through the first quarter of the season. He is second only to Jimmy Graham in yards on the season and third behind him and Jordan Cameron in receptions. The Chargers have done an excellent job this season using Gates as both a receiving threat and a decoy, freeing up the other receiving threats and letting Rivers get the ball out quickly and effectively.
After looking at this offense, the Raiders need to gameplan very well to beat the Chargers. They need to tighten up the short passing game and not let the Chargers move the ball downfield at their own pace. Force them to try to go long a few plays, where the Raiders will have time to bring delayed blitzes and stunts to throw Rivers off of his timing. The Raiders also cannot allow the Chargers to establish a run game. The Raiders rank in run defense, but they have not allowed a run over twenty yards this season. If they can keep everything in front of them, they may slow down the Chargers offense enough for Pryor and the Raiders to employ their offense. The Raiders also have successfully forced two turnovers in back-to-back games, although one was ruled as an incomplete pass last week. Forcing the Chargers into mistakes and letting the Raiders’ offense shine could be key this week.
The Raiders have enjoyed much more success as an offense than many pundits believed going into the season. More importantly, however, is the fact that Terrelle Pryor has shown visible signs of growth with every game he has played so far. He had his best game running against the Colts, his best game management (and first career win) against Jacksonville, and his best game passing against the Broncos. He was forced to sit out last week after asking for a tinted visor, hinting at signs of his concussion still bothering him, and the Raiders quickly plummeted in many offensive rankings. Matt Flynn was completely ineffective in moving the ball, taking a sack any time his receiver wasn’t wide open and thus dropping the Raiders to 24th overall in these adjusted offensive rankings. It’s worth noting, however, that Pryor’s adjusted passer rating, according to this statistic, is better than a number of successful quarterbacks through the first four weeks, including Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, RG3, and even Colin Kapernick. I don’t know if this stat accounts for rushing yardage for a QB, but Pryor has shown signs that the Raiders can develop behind him and grow this offense around his talents. Knapp has been effective in designing game plans for Pryor so far, and it should be interesting to see him play against a very vulnerable San Diego defense.
Pryor’s receivers have been less than reliable this season, but there are signs of growth and chemistry developing between the quarterback and his team. After a shaky start in Week 3, the receivers settled down and made plays for Pryor, clawing their way back and at least giving the Broncos their only remotely competitive game of the season. They weren’t as effective with Flynn throwing them the ball, since he couldn’t really get it to them, but they still made plays and were able to help carry the team for most of the game. San Diego’s most vulnerable spot on the defense is their pass defense, which should be even weaker with the loss of Dwight Freeney for the season after last week’s game. On paper, the defense seems like it should be better, as Cox and Marshall were both pretty successful with their last teams. However, the team ranks near or at the bottom in pretty much every defensive statistic and has given up two critical late-game drives to lose the game.
The loss of Freeney should be good news for the Raiders’ often-criticized offensive line, who should also be seeing the return of Menelik Watson this week. The line hasn’t been able to get much of a push this season, but it has stood up well against teams without an elite pass rusher. The Raiders will likely aim to improve this line in the offseason, but it is worth noting that they have been playing more effectively than many people give them credit for. Tony Pashos, in particular, has been a wonderful surprise for the Raiders, allowing Pryor to only be pressured once on his side. Pashos slipped a bit last week having to protect a much-less-mobile Flynn, but I expect him to recover this week. The line hasn’t been very good in run-blocking, especially interior run-blocking, but Rashad Jennings had perhaps a career game last week, posting over 100 all-purpose yards and blocking the punt for the Raiders’ first touchdown. With Marcel Reece looking more and more likely to suit up on Sunday, I expect the run-blocking of the line to look better than it had the first three weeks. (PS: I’m glad that the statistics also noted that McFadden has been playing at a below-replacement level. Unless he turns it around after his injury, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him leave next season.)
All in all, this should prove to be an exciting game on Sunday night. I’m glad that this game got pushed to a primetime slot, since the Raiders have shown signs of being a competitive (or at least entertaining) team to watch so far this season. This game could serve as the Raiders’ coming-out party if they are able to pull all of the pieces together. The team has shown, at various times, an ability to pass, run, stop the pass, stop the run, force turnovers, and even have impact special teams play. If they can pull it together and play a complete game, the Raiders may be able to establish themselves as the surprise team of 2013.