The Raiders host the Bills on Sunday in an important tilt for both teams. The Bills are clinging to the outside of the playoff race and need every win they can get.
The Raiders hold a slim one-game lead over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West and have three divisional road games in their final four to end the season.
This one is big.
Derek Carr’s pinky finger is fine, or so he says. Khalil Mack is the AFC Defensive Player of the Month. The Raiders have won five in a row mostly in exciting, comeback fashion. They’ve secured their first winning season in fourteen years.
But all is not perfect in Oakland. It’s as close as it’s been in a long time, but there are still things this team needs to shore up if they plan a deep playoff run.
This is an important game that carries a lot of pressure for the Raiders to maintain their lead in the division and stay in play for the AFC’s #1 seed.
Who is under pressure? What aspect of the Raiders game? What are some things we saw last week that went against conventional thinking?
Let’s find out.
Latavius Murray (and Jalen Richard)
Since gaining 218 yards on the ground against the Denver Broncos, the Raiders run game has gone dormant the past two games. Against the Texans in Mexico, the Raiders had 35 yards on 15 carries. Last week at home against the Panthers, Murray and Richard combined for a mere 68 yards on 26 carries.
For those counting at home, that’s a total of 103 yards on 41 carries. That’s an astoundingly poor 2.5 yards per carry average, which just isn’t good enough to get the job done.
It’s strange. After physically dominating the Broncos up front, the line has continued to play well in pass protection but failed to open any major running lanes.
As a result, Murray has been particularly plodding. Of the past two weeks he owns 78 of those yards on 31 carries, right at the 2.5 ypc average.
The Bills come to town with the NFL’s #8 ranked passing defense. They are missing their second-best corner in Ronald Darby, who is dealing with a concussion. They still have Stephen Gilmore, and a decent pass rush up front with a healthy Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams.
Both teams injury reports are extensive this week, with Darby the most significant player officially out at this point.
The Raiders would do well do establish the run game and take pressure off Derek Carr, who is still nursing a dislocated pinky on his throwing hand that all indications say is fine. To that end, the pressure is on Murray and Richard to make some plays in the run game against a difficult Bills front seven.
The offensive line deserves some of the pressure here, as while they’ve been great at keeping it off Carr, they’ve slacked in the run game recently. That needs to change Sunday for the Raiders to have a balanced attack and win the game.
Raiders Defense – Big Plays
While Darby is out, Sammy Watkins is not and he’s poised for a big game. According to him, anyway. He’s still dealing with foot issues but the team is expecting a big day.
The Bills offense is very odd. They have the #1 rush offense in the NFL, keyed by LeSean “Shady” McCoy and QB Tyrod Taylor. But they have the #32 ranked pass offense in the NFL, as Taylor rarely tops 200 yards and makes more plays with his legs than arms.
When Taylor does make plays with his arm, they are often big plays. Taylor has a great knack for scrambling out of trouble and making big throws downfield. With Watkins back and David Amerson and D.J. Hayden nursing injuries, the Raiders could be susceptible to a big play or two.
That doesn’t account for McCoy, who was bottled up by the Jags last weekend in the first half. He had 8 rushing yards at halftime, and then took the opening play 75 yards for a weaving, jet-fueled score. Shady can break it anytime, anywhere.
He showed no ill effects of a dislocated thumb while torching the Jags and it’s healed another week now. With McCoy keeping the Raiders defense honest, Taylor will have his opportunities to make plays.
The Raiders are under pressure to limit those plays to garden-variety rather than spectacular. Against the Panthers, the Raiders gave up less than 100 yards of offense in the first half. Three big plays accounted for half of the Panthers 358 total yards. Three plays.
Without those three plays it was a blowout and defensive tour-de-force. Expect Khalil Mack to harass Taylor and drive him into the arms of Bruce Irvin once or twice. If they can limit big plays, the Bills do not have the offensive efficiency to hang with the Raiders.