HOUSTON -- The Raiders started playing games away from Oakland on Sept. 22 and haven't stopped. Sunday's game against the Houston Texans represents the final leg of this exhaustive road swing that ran through the Midwest, the United Kingdom, back to the Midwest again and now down south.
The Raiders have gone 2-2 over this grueling stretch against playoff contenders, with a chance to punctuate it with a pivotal win. The Texans are hovering around .500 but have immense talent, and an excellent quarterback in DeShaun Watson. The Raiders haven't beaten a signal-caller of his quality all season and will need strong showings from several players to improve to 4-3 on the season.
And as a note, Derek Carr is always a player to watch but rarely included in this weekly series to highlight others who must make positive contributions.
TE Darren Waller
The dynamic receiver and hard-nosed blocker is in the midst of a breakout year. Waller has been the Raiders' best receiver to this point and has been a real asset in the run game. He rarely comes off the field and seems to make positive contributions on every play.
Waller's numbers are impressive, ranking second among tight ends with 44 receptions and third with 485 yards. The Raiders finally got him into the end zone last week in Green Bay, where he had two scores but could've had five. He is proving unstoppable despite significant attention paid to him, and coach Jon Gruden's telling the truth by saying he might be the NFL's best all-around tight end.
The Raiders will need another strong showing against the Texans, especially if Josh Jacobs is banged up and leaves the run game at less than full power. Wide receiver Tyrell Williams is also fighting to come back from injury, leaving Waller to be the consistent steadying on offense who can keep the unit running strong in another potential high-scoring affair.
CB Trayvon Mullen
The rookie cover man was thrust into the starting lineup following Monday's trade with the Texans, which sent Gareon Conley to Houston for a 2020 third-round pick. Mullen hasn't played much the past month but will get the first crack at Conley's gig, a vital role in the Raiders secondary. Conley had struggled this season despite clear lockdown talent, clearly not in lockstep with how the coaching staff prefers cornerbacks to play.
Enter Mullen, a long, fast and physical cornerback selected No. 40 overall in this year's draft, someone still developing over early portions of his rookie season. Now he'll submit to a trial by fire, matching up with DeAndre Hopkins, who might be the NFL's best receiver. Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson's unafraid to chuck it deep and will certainly challenge Mullen at the outset. And, look, Mullen's going to get beat sometimes. He is, however, a resilient sort and must rebound quickly from mistakes to avoid the poor individual performance that can get a team beat.
Veteran Nevin Lawson's waiting in the wings, with years of starting experience making him ready to fill in at a moment's notice. The Raiders don't want to pull that fire alarm, crossing fingers that Mullen will respond to a tremendous challenge.
DE Maxx Crosby
The fourth-round draft pick has come on strong lately, stringing three quality games together. He has two sacks, two batted passes and a forced fumble in that stretch, earning increased snaps in the process. That will continue Sunday against the Texans, especially with Clelin Ferrell struggling some against the Packers.
Watson's the type to hang in the pocket and take a big hit to make a big throw, so Crosby must punish him for such patience. The QB is also elusive, meaning Crosby's signature relentlessness will be vital to the pass rush being successful.
The Eastern Michigan product seems to be improving each week, though there's certainly more room to improve. A few impact plays are required yet again, especially if one is a game-altering takeaway.
WR Zay Jones
The new receiver was on this list last week and didn't play. Jones expected to, but Raiders didn't deem him fluent enough to activate him in Green Bay. That won't be the case this week. All signs point to Jones making his Raiders debut in this game. While expectations should be managed some for a player acquired in a trade from Buffalo fewer than three weeks ago, Jones is a talented player who instantly upgrades the receiver corps.
This is an important outing for Jones in terms of production and building trust with Carr. The Raiders quarterback is by far the best passer Jones has worked with, but Carr needs to know if Jones is reliable. That is proven on game day, and that process formally starts Sunday.
It's possible we see Jones and Williams at the same time, though the Raiders' No. 1 receiver remains questionable. If that happens, Houston would have to respect those guys in addition to a stacked group of tight ends and running backs. That could open up the passing game for Carr and make the Raiders attack difficult to stop.
LT Kolton Miller
Last year's first-round draft pick has been excellent in his second season, allowing just two sacks all season. Both of them came in one game, meaning he has a clean sheet in five games already despite facing some tremendous pass rushers. Miller will have to deal with another one on Sunday, with edge rusher Whitney Mercilus in the midst of a career renaissance.
Mercilus took over Jadeveon Clowney's post off the Texans defense's right edge, generally speaking, and already has 5.5 sacks this season. He brings speed and tenacity off the edge, though Miller's as athletic as they get at 330 pounds and will have to be quick, smart and technically sound to keep this run of solid play going.
Miller and Richie Incognito have formed a powerful duo in the run game as well, and that must continue to keep the run-heavy Raiders going strong.