Stephen Ellison

Raiders Players to Watch Against the Chargers

LOS ANGELES -- The Raiders will face adversity turning their lone victory into a winning streak. They’re beat up in certain spots -- especially on the offensive line -- and are going young in other positions while trying to figure how to slow big plays and finish offensive drives.

They’ll try to fix those problems Sunday against the dynamic Los Angeles Chargers, who, like the Raiders, always seem to shoot themselves in the foot.

The Raiders have played good football in spurts, yet they remained wildly inconsistent even in a victory over the Cleveland Browns.

The Silver and Black need solid performances from several to overcome the Chargers challenge, but here are four players in particular to watch in this AFC West contest.

DT Maurice Hurst: The rookie fifth-round pick has come on strong in recent weeks, making a profound impact against the Browns especially. Hurst had three tackles, a strip sack, a quarterback hit and a batted pass versus Cleveland. The Michigan product is making strides that immediate impact later-round rookies rarely make. He should’ve been drafted much higher, but fell due to health concerns that have had zero impact since turning pro.

Hurst needs to bust up the Chargers interior line, and create inside pressure that pocket passer Philip Rivers hates. He’s also a solid run player from several defensive-line techniques, and must help corral Melvin Gordon when he runs inside. Hurst is the Raiders most productive all-around lineman at this stage, and coaches have been impressed.

“He’s just getting better every week,” Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “He’s understanding the techniques in there, both in the run and the pass game. He’s a bright guy. There’s a bright future ahead of him. I’m really glad we have him.”

RT Brandon Parker: The Raiders hope to develop this third-round pick behind the scenes, over a longer haul, to ease the transition from small-school North Carolina A&T to the pros. That’s no longer an option, not with Donald Penn on injured reserve with a groin injury.

Parker will make his first NFL start against Melvin Ingram and the Chargers pass rush, a difficult task even with star pressure generator Joey Bosa out a while longer.

He took over for Penn midway through the last game, and fared generally well despite allowing two sacks. He’ll get lots of help in this matchup from tight ends and running backs and double teams up front, but will have to stand on his own at times and thrive.

Protecting franchise quarterback Derek Carr is the offense line's most important job. While Parker may not be perfect in that effort, he must avoid the catastrophic mistakes that would put Carr’s health at risk.

CB Gareon Conley: The 2017 first-round draft pick is immensely talented. There’s no arguing that. Coaches have questioned his tackling ability, and it cost the team last week on a long pass play to Cleveland’s Antonio Callaway that set up an easy Browns touchdown. He didn’t play after that, though head coach Jon Gruden said his absence was part of a normal cornerback rotation.

Still, Conley has to be better to stave off competition for snaps from Daryl Worley – he’s fresh off a four-game suspension – and veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Conley will draw a tough assignment at times, working against Chargers receiver Keenan Allen. He needs to be tougher in coverage and a surer tackler to maintain his post as starting cornerback over the long term.

TE Jared Cook: The Silver and Black’s most consistent receiver is a tight end. Cook has been awesome thus far, with 26 catches for 370 yards and two touchdowns through four games. He’s ninth overall in receiving yards, a total tops among tight ends.

He has been sure handed and aggressive taking yards after the catch, traits that create trust with Carr and ensure the targets will keep coming.

Cook’s role is particularly important with Amari Cooper in an unfavorable matchup. He has struggled against Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward, meaning Cook might be the best option with Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant commanding respect in coverage. Cook can also move all around the formation, and often plays as much receiver as in-line tight end.

“Coaches love him because you create mismatches and problems and things like that,” Carr said. “At the same time when you get him the ball he can do some things after the catch, too. Kind of like a receiver, almost, that not a lot of tight ends can do.”

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