Will the Raiders be able to run the ball?
Can the Oakland secondary put the clamps on Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ passing game? Can the Raiders get to the quarterback? Is there any chance – after a bye week with extra time to refine what they’re doing – the Raiders can figure out how to convert a third-down play?
The questions are many for the 1-3 Raiders as they prepare to face the 5-0 Falcons in Atlanta Sunday. Whether they can come up with some correct answers in Game No. 5 of their 2012 season may give their fans an indication what to expect in the remaining 11 games this year.
Another spanking will likely mean a long, slogging road in a rebuilding season and a focus on how high Oakland’s first-round draft pick may be in April.
But if the Raiders can show some life and pull an upset in the Deep South Sunday, perhaps they can pick up some momentum with the Jaguars (1-4), Chiefs (1-4) and Bucs (1-3) standing next in line on their schedule.
Though oddsmakers have made the Falcons a nine-point favorite, Falcons coach Mike Smith looks at the Raiders and sees a team with one of the most talented running backs in the NFL in Darren McFadden, a veteran quarterback in Carson Palmer and some veterans on defense such as linemen Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour, and says his team could go down if it doesn’t take care of its business.
Also, Smith knows the Falcons defense has been vulnerable against the run (27th in the league), so he expects the Raiders to come right at them with McFadden.
“I think the running back (McFadden) is probably the guy that you have to stop not only carrying the ball, but catching the ball,” Smith told reporters this week. “He is a leading receiver and leading rusher and he can run around you, over you and past you. He has got that kind of skill set.”
So far, the Raiders have been able to run the ball well in only one game, a 34-31 victory over Pittsburgh. But offensive coordinator Greg Knapp believes the Raiders’ running game is about to break out. Some extra time over the bye week to solve some issues has him feeling confident.
“I’m excited,” Knapp told Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group. “I’m looking forward to see the results of the good work that’s been put in.”
McFadden, too, says he’s excited hearing that coaches and teammates believe they need to focus on the running game to have any success. McFadden is ready for Sunday’s opportunity to run, run and run some more.
“Oh yeah, I’m always up for that,” McFadden told Corkran. “You want to put it in my hands more, I’m loving it. It’s something a running back likes – the more carries, the better the chances are of getting big runs.”
Outscoring the Falcons is going to be difficult, however. Atlanta is averaging 29.6 points per game, fifth in the NFL, and Ryan already has thrown for 1,507 yards and 13 TDs. Against an Oakland secondary that has been torched in the past three games by Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and rookie Ryan Tannehill, Ryan may put up some big numbers Sunday. With receivers such as Julio Jones, Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, Ryan has a flock of excellent targets to choose from.
If Oakland can’t get pressure on Ryan – the Raiders hope new addition Andre Carter will provide that from his defensive end spot – the silver and black defenders may be in for a long day. Especially if the D can’t play better on third down.
Oakland has allowed opponents to convert 53.3 percent of third-down opportunities.
“You’re not going to win many games in this league if you can’t win on third down,” says Seymour.
On Sunday, Raiders fans will see if their team is ready to step up – or stumble again in what so far has been a painful start to the 2012 schedule.