Because quarterback Drew Brees has shown he can pick apart any NFL defense, the New Orleans Saints pose a challenge each week for every team in the league.
But when the Saints come marching into Oakland Sunday, the Raiders will face a Herculean task.
First, the Saints are red hot, having won four of five games, including a victory over the previously unbeaten Atlanta Falcons last week.
And second, the Raiders go into this game in a tailspin, having given up 97 points in losing two straight games and with a roster depleted by injuries.
Oakland, now 3-6, will likely be without defensive tackle Richard Seymour, strong safety Tyvon Branch, running backs Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson and, perhaps, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. None of the five has practiced this week, though Heyward-Bey (sore right hamstring) has the best chance of playing Sunday, reports Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group.
Oddsmakers have made the Saints 4½-point favorites – but that seems generous to the Raiders.
After losing their first four games of the season, the Saints have turned their season around and would reach .500 with a victory Sunday.
“We knew we dug ourselves a hole,” Brees told reporters this week. “We knew we had a mountain to climb, but we also knew we have the right type of people. Good things are starting to happen.”
In the past five games, Brees has 15 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. He’s been connecting with tight end Jimmy Graham, who has four TD catches in his last three games, and also has a hot running back in Chris Ivory, who’s averaged 7.1 yards per carry in the Saints’ past two games.
It’s Graham, however, who might give the Raiders the most problems Sunday.
This season, Oakland has had trouble covering tight ends and now, with Branch out, the Raiders may be even more vulnerable.
Against the Ravens last week in a 55-20 loss, the Raiders allowed tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson seven catches for 126 yards and two TDs, with many of those receptions coming in wide-open areas in the middle of the secondary. Against the Broncos earlier this season, the Raiders had similar problems with Broncos tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dressen.
Graham, a 6-foot-7 former basketball player at Miami, can be a difficult matchup for any secondary, much less one hobbled by injuries.
“He’s one of the toughest matchups that we’ve seen,” Raiders head coach Dennis Allen told reporters this week.
Oakland cornerback Michael Huff says the Raiders defense must improve this week against the Saints, because if it shows any weaknesses, Brees will take advantage of them.
“Oh, boy, it can’t happen this week,” Huff said of recent breakdowns. “He’s one of the smartest, one of the greatest quarterbacks out there. Pre-snap, he kind of knows already what you’re in, so we’ve got to hopefully disguise a little bit and make him think a little bit and let our pressure get him.”
Pressure hardly is a word associated with the Raiders defense this year, though. Oakland has just 11 sacks in nine games.
Offensively, the Raiders have been moving the ball on Carson Palmer’s passing, but the running game has disappeared – and may be missing again this Sunday without McFadden or Goodson.