The Atlanta Falcons present many problems for the Raiders on Sunday – but also a weakness.
At 5-0, the Falcons have a high-powered offense let by quarterback Matt Ryan and a passing game that could overpower a Raiders patchwork secondary that hasn’t yet shown the ability to stop anyone.
But the Falcons also have a vulnerable spot on defense – their inability to stop the run.
Atlanta ranks 27th in the NFL in run defense, allowing 5.4 yards per carry and almost 143 yards per game.
Though the Raiders rushing attack has yet to get on track, Oakland has had an extra week to get its house in order after a bye week and Raiders head coach Dennis Allen says that, after “a few tweaks,” he’s seen some progress in blocking and execution in practice that he hopes will translate to more yards on the ground Sunday in Atlanta.
“I have,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Vic Tafur Wednesday. “We’ll see what it looks like when we go out and play Sunday.”
The Raiders went into the season believing that their strength would be the running game, with running back Darren McFadden back and fully healthy following an injury last season. But, so far, McFadden has had just one 100-yard game as the Raiders have crawled off to a 1-3 start and Oakland is last in the NFL in rushing, averaging just 60.8 yards per game.
Yet Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer says the team isn't going to turn away from what it believes it can do.
Against Atlanta, Palmer says the Raiders want to give the ball to McFadden and let him do his thing. Palmer is confident the Raiders can get their ground game up to running speed.
“I know a lot of people outside this facility are discouraged in our run game, but we’re not going to stop running the football,” Palmer told reporters Wednesday. “If anything, we’re going to run more. That puts the ball in our best player’s hand.”
By opening holes for McFadden, the Raiders will be able to light a fire under an offense that has shown flashes – particularly in a 34-31 win over the Steelers – but has been mostly dormant this season.
“Running the ball is what we want to do,” Palmer explained. “Obviously we want to do it better than we have and that’s why we continue to work at it. But it’s what gets the play-action game going, it’s what gets explosive plays because Darren can score from anywhere.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith, despite his team’s 5-0 start, is upset about his run defense and knows it must get better. He hopes it does against the Raiders.
“We’ve got a lot of things to improve on,” Smith told Sports Xchange this week. “First thing that comes to mind on the defensive side of the football is we’ve got to be better stopping the run. We gave up over 100 yards, 125 yards of rushing (against the Washington Redskins in their last game, a 24-17 win).”
Raiders running backs coach Kelly Skipper told the Chronicle that the Raiders need to keep giving the ball to McFadden and giving the offensive line a chance to get its rhythm.
“The more reps you get, the better you get at it,” Skipper said.
With the Raiders new zone-blocking scheme this season – which Allen says the team is not abandoning – it sometimes takes linemen time to start clicking together. Skipper says he believes if Oakland can continue pounding the ball on the ground, good things will happen.
Maybe, in fact, they’ll happen this Sunday in Georgia.
“We just need to keep grinding,” Skipper told Tafur. “And all of a sudden, it will start popping. Big runs everywhere.”