The Oakland Raiders want to make the playoffs in 2014. It’s no secret. The massive overturn in personnel this offseason, the excellent draft, and all the chatter coming out of camp all point toward that goal. Some might even say that General Manager Reggie McKenzie and Head Coach Dennis Allen’s future careers will be evaluated based on this metric.
This is no easy achievement. Raiders’ home division, the AFC West, was the best division in the AFC last season. The three teams not hailing from Oakland made it to the playoffs. The Denver Broncos made it to the Super Bowl while rewriting the offensive record books. The Chargers were deadly in the last third of the season – racking up 5 wins in six weeks, including wins over the Broncos and twice against the Chiefs. The Chiefs started the season 9-0. Yet, even with all that power in the division, the AFC West was not the best conference in football. Enter the NFC West.
All the AFC West teams have to play the NFC West this year and all of their win totals are expected to drop this year as a result. These NFC West games will be the key obstruction to the Raiders’ playoff hopes. There are several reasons the NFC West is considered the best division in football:
1. Most wins of any division in football in 2013 with 42 wins. Next closest: AFC West (37)
2. 3 of 4 teams (SEA, SF, AZ) ranked top 10 in weighted DVOA. (STL ranked 14)
3. 3 of 4 teams with double-digit wins.
4. All teams have top 5 pass rush, top 5 pass coverage, and/or top 5 overall defense (Per Pro Football Focus)
5. 2013 Super Bowl winners: SEA, NFC Conference Game: SEA-SF
Needless to say, the NFC West is a monster division. They play efficient, ultra-physical football, and have lock down defenses. However, they are not without weaknesses. If the Raiders want to make it to the playoffs they will have to steal a game or two from the NFC West.
Here’s what they’ll have to do to make that happen.
• August 28 – Seattle at Oakland
Key Matchup: Oakland D-line vs. Seattle O-line & Russell Wilson
Key Contributors: Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley
Seattle has the best secondary in the league, a top 5 pass rush, and a top 5 run defense. That side of the ball is clearly not where Seattle’s weakness lies. Oakland will have its hands full finding any way to put points on the board. Expect to see a lot of Janikowski during this game.
The other side of the ball is where Oakland will have to do its damage. With Percy Harvin healthy, Marshawn Lynch in the backfield, and superstar QB Russell Wilson, Seattle has plenty of talent in their offense. Where they are severely lacking in talent however is their offensive line – especially at the guard position. Oakland needs to put relentless pressure on Seattle’s interior’s offensive line to give them a good shot at stuffing many of Lynch’s runs before they get started.
While Seattle was an average run blocking team, they were an atrocious pass blocking team, with Football Outsiders ranking them dead last in Adjusted Sack Rate. This is where Justin Tuck and Lamarr Woodley come in. Getting all that pressure in the middle does nothing if Russ Wilson uses his feet to get outside the pocket where he’s most comfortable inflicting damage. At 5’10” Wilson has a hard time seeing over his line and when faced with pressure he tends to immediately escape the pocket even when he has the option of stepping into it.
If Justin Tuck and Lamarr Woodley manage to contain Wilson to the pocket he’ll be forced into much tougher throws than he is comfortable with and play into his bad habit of running backward and taking his eyes off the field in front of him in attempts to escape the pressure. The result: sacks and better field position for the Raiders.
• October 19 – Arizona at Oakland
Key Matchup: Raiders DBs vs Carson Palmer
Key Contributors: Jason Tarver, Charles Woodson, Tyvon Branch
Arizona continues a defensive trend that the NFC West excels at. Top 3 pass coverage, Top 10 run defense, and top 5 overall defense according to Pro Football Focus. The run defense should be a little weaker this year with the loss of stud linebacker Daryl Washington (suspended for full season), yet formidable all the same.
Offense is a different story. Even with a healthy Fitzgerald and Floyd out wide and Andre Ellington in the backfield this is a mediocre offense at best. The offensive line is generally average and shouldn’t see much line-wide improvement, even with ex-Raider Jared Veldheer on the roster.
Then there is Carson Palmer. The epitome of perennial mediocrity. The interception machine. If the Raiders want to beat Arizona the easiest way will be through Carson Palmer turnovers. Carson Palmer’s main weaknesses are that he struggles throwing passes deep, he has difficultly against defensive schemes with 5 or more DBs (11 of his 22 interceptions are against these schemes), and he is the WORST QB IN THE LEAGUE WHEN FACING PRESSURE.
Raiders Defensive Coordinator Jason Tarver will have to get creative with bringing the pressure with only 5-6 in the box. Get that slow developing pressure on Palmer and he’ll be forced into sloppy throws on his deeper passes. This allows safeties Woodson and Branch to play the center field role and pick off Palmer’s errant throws.
• November 30 – Oakland at St. Louis
Key Matchup: Raiders Offensive Line vs. Rams Defensive Line
Key Contributers: Donald Penn and Khalif Barnes
If there’s any game against an NFC West team the Raiders should win it’s this one. The Rams are generally average to below average in most categories. Where do they excel? Special teams and defensive live. Speedster Tavon Austin is a major threat to score on punt returns which makes Step 1 to shut that down. However, the bigger problem is arguably the league’s best pass rush. All the excitement about Andre Holmes, the signing of James Jones, and the return of competent QB play has no relevance if Schaub doesn’t have any time to throw.
St. Louis racked up 53 sacks last year, good for 3rd in the league. They were 1st place in adjusted sack rate. Then they drafted Aaron Donald 13th overall to add to their already impressive D-line. There’s also this guy, 1st team All-Pro DE Robert Quinn. He put up 19 sacks last season, and was generally disruptive on seemingly every possible play.
Newcomer Donald Penn (LT) and Raider veteran Khalif Barnes (LG) will have their hands full with Quinn. Each of them have at least 40 pounds on Quinn but his speed and strength are too much to handle individually. It will take both of them to keep Quinn away from Schaub and the Oakland backfield. Luckily, this game is in Week 13 which gives them plenty of time to get their teamwork dialed in. They will have already been tested by Seattle and Arizona at this point, but if they stay healthy and play well this game is easily within Oakland’s reach.
• December 7 – Oakland at San Francisco
Key Matchup: Oakland front 7 vs. Colin Kaepernick
Key Contributors: Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley, Khalil Mack, Sio Moore
San Francisco and Seattle are two very similar teams. Amazing defenses. Strong run game. Young athletic quarterbacks. Similar to Seattle, this will be a very tough game. The differences are small but important.
San Francisco focuses more on power running vs. Seattle’s zone running to play into the strengths of Frank Gore and SF has a better offensive line to help achieve this end. As of this year they also have more options at receiver than Seattle does with the addition of Stevie Johnson, rookie speedster Bruce Ellington, and Brandon Lloyd, combined with the rise of Quinton Patton.
Kaepernick is not as good a passer as Wilson, but is much more dangerous on the ground. Kap struggles with touch passes and has a tendency to get in trouble when trying to throw passes over defenders’ heads. He is also heavily criticized for not checking down to running backs and has a pretty sketchy success rate when he does throw to them. He also throws the league’s highest percentage of passes outside the numbers.
Defensively, San Francisco doesn’t compare to Seattle in the secondary, but they have the best linebackers in the league and an amazing pass rush to make up for it. Pro Football Focus ranked them top 3 in Pass Coverage, Pass Rush, and Overall Defense, and 7th in Run Defense in 2013.
As a result the game plan is similar to Seattle’s but with a twist. Do everything possible to get pressure on Kaepernick but keep him in the pocket. Here’s where Khalil Mack and Sio Moore come into play. When in trouble Kap often looks to his trusty tight end out routes or comeback routes from the wide receivers. He loves to throw back-shoulder passes and often does so with disregard for outside linebackers or safeties moving outside to cover the wide zones. If Khalil Mack and Sio Moore can keep an eye on Kap and disrupt many of his bread and butter outside passing plays they will have an excellent shot at ending drives early and sending Phil Dawson or Andy Lee onto the field.
• The Last Word
The bottom line is that most of these games will be won by keeping the scores low and stealing a play here and there. The Raiders offensive line will have its work cut out for it with these amazing defensive lines attacking them, but if they can hold on it dramatically improves chances of victory. With solid play from the Raiders’ defensive ends and focused offense they might win a couple of these games and greatly improve their chances at making a playoff run in 2014.