While we’ve written a great deal about the Raiders first two preseason games, and have had an opportunity to see potential future franchise stars in their first NFL action, it should be remembered that preseason games do not count. They don’t have any impact on the final standings, the stats are not recorded for tracking season or career totals, and for the most part the games are played by players who will not see the field very often in the regular season, if at all. But there is one exception to that axiom: for almost every team, the third game of preseason DOES matter. Tomorrow night will tell us quite a bit about the 2014 Raiders.
In one of the most honest press conference rants of all-time (and one of the most memorable),Dennis Green said: “who the hell takes a third game of the preseason like it’s bullsh*t? Bullsh*t! We played them in the third game — everybody played three quarters…” and thus explained the significance of third preseason games. For many teams, especially young teams or teams full of newer acquisitions like the Raiders, the starters do not come out after a a couple of series. Routinely, even the established stars around the league will play the entire first half of the third week of preseason, and often well into the third quarter.
Last year’s third preseason game for the Raiders was a tough 34-26 loss to the Bears, but was also one of the most memorable preseason games of recent years. It might be best remembered as the Terrelle Pryor game, because it marked the real end of the Matt Flynn era in Oakland and the beginning of Terrelle Pryor’s exciting run. Matt Flynn, brought in from Seattle to be the Raiders starter, was 3 or 9 with two interceptions midway through the second quarter of the game, and the Raiders trailed 24-0 in front of a furious home crowd. In a surprising move, Dennis Allen pulled Flynn and replaced him with Pryor, who stepped in and took over the first team offense. After failing to pick up a 1st down on his first drive, Pryor got the ball with a minute left in the half down 27-0, facing most of the Bears first team defense, and led the Raiders offense on a four play, 40 yard drive that included a 13 yard scramble and a 26 yard pass completion to Mychael Rivera, setting up the Raiders’ first points of the day, a 58 yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski.
After the half, the Bears pulled many of their starters, but Pryor and most of the first team offense returned to the field and reeled off three consecutive scoring drives. Pryor completed all four of his third quarter pass attempts, including one touchdown pass, and turned in a memorable 25 yard rushing touchdown. When Pryor turned the reins over to Matt McGloin, the Raiders had cut the Bears lead to 27-20. Matt McGloin would go on to finish the game by throwing one TD and two INT’s, the last of which sealed the Raider loss.
The following week, Pryor would have a forgettable outing against the Seahawks in the final game of preseason, but by then the Raiders QB situation had been sealed. Because of his exciting performance in the key third preseason game, he had been named the starting QB, a role he did not relinquish until November.
What to Look for Friday
Tomorrow night against Green Bay, we can expect to see Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and most of their first team offense – as well as defense – on the field throughout the entire first half. The Raiders starting secondary that has already been picked apart by Matt Cassel (5/6, 62 yds) and Matt Stafford (9/10, 88 yds, 2 TDs) can either redeem themselves or will get even further humiliated by playing a full half against one of the four best quarterbacks in the NFL. The Raiders defensive front seven will also get a chance to prove themselves against a very mediocre Packers offensive front in the running game and in pass rushing, and may help their secondary out if they can get some hits on Rodgers and cause Packer coach Mike McCarthy to consider pulling him early. And we should get to see a whole lot of Khalil Mack.
The new-look Raider offense will also have a chance to show something tomorrow night. Green Bay, despite having one of the game’s most exciting defensive stars in Clay Matthews, does not have an excellent defense. Matt Schaub, who has had two very mediocre performances in his limited action in the first two preseason games, will likely play the entire first half, and there’s a good chance Derek Carr steps in after halftime with the first team unit around him. James Jones will have an opportunity to show up his former teammates, and the Schaub-Jones connection will have more opportunities to show up on the field. With only about a half dozen full practices left before the start of the regular season, expect Greg Olson to open up a bit more of the playbook to make sure his offense can execute, both with Schaub and Carr on the field.
Key position battles will likely be decided on the field of play tomorrow night, and with first roster cuts coming on August 26th, expect many players on the bottom of the depth chart to show up and show out. If corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers struggle early, expect to see TJ Carrie and Chimdi Chekwa get on the field with the #1′s as early as the 2nd quarter. Gabe Jackson and Khalif Barnes will compete for the starting left guard spot, and may split time throughout the early going. The Raiders will likely go to a rotation of backup running backs fairly early to reduce the injury risk on McFadden and Jones-Drew, so Kory Sheets, Jeremy Stewart and George Atkinson III will have one more opportunity to fight to take the last remaining running back roster spot behind Latavius Murray.
Win or lose, we will have a chance to learn a lot about the 2014 Raiders tomorrow night. We will see them play “ones versus ones” for a long stretch of game against one of the best teams in the NFC, and we will see careers begin and end on the field as erstwhile starters get knocked off by up and comers and young players get one last chance to prove they belong.