INDIANAPOLIS – The Raiders won't be in a must-win situation Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. That overused term rarely applies when used, too dramatic for most circumstances outside an elimination game.
It certainly doesn't fit in Week 4. It's fair to say, when applying proper context, that the Raiders would really, really like to get this one at Lucas Oil Stadium. They left Minnesota with an upset stomach after the Vikings worked them over, and beating the Colts would be a soothing tonic.
That especially true given this grueling road slate, which extends four more games into early November. The Raiders won't want to leave for London on a three-game losing streak, prepping for a faceoff with Khalil Mack's Chicago Bears.
That would be rough. They could enter that hyped affair on a positive note if these five Raiders have strong showings against the Colts:
P.S. Quarterback Derek Carr won't ever appear on these lists. He's a top player to watch every week, so we focus on others who need to make big contributions.
5. LB Tahir Whitehead
Every Raiders linebacker on still the roster from last week is ailing. Save one. Tahir Whitehead has been a stabilizing force while Vontaze Burfict, Nicholas Morrow, Marquel Lee (now on IR) and Kyle Wilber got hurt last week against the Vikings. He played every linebacker spot in the base defense and sub packages, taking over play relays and pre-snap instruction when Burfict went out a while with an elbow injury.
All of those linebackers are expected to play, though some are playing below full health. That puts an onus on Whitehead to tackle well, fly to the ball and stay available against the Colts. Indy's offensive line is awesome, meaning linebackers need to be aggressive making tackles on backs sliding through gaps.
Colts runner Marlon Mack has been excellent to start the season, and slowing him will be key and Minnesota's Dalvin Cook sliced through the defense a week ago. Defenders were too often out of gaps then, and Whitehead has been preaching discipline throughout the practice week. That has to hold up on game day for the Raiders defense to show improvement.
4. DE Clelin Ferrell
The Clemson product plays more than any other defensive lineman, often outside in the base defense and pass-rushing from the interior in the sub package. He's capable of producing from both spots, but must make some big plays to energize a defensive line that hasn't been great.
The onus falls on the team's No. 4 overall NFL draft pick, expected to make a dramatic immediate impact. He has a sack and seven total pressure through three games, a sum that has to increase to spark this defensive line. It'll be tough sledding against the Colts' front, but Ferrell must be a factor inside and out, especially if the Colts follow the Vikings formula and try to lock the Raiders into a base defense.
It's always tough, and at times unfair, to expect big things from rookies this early, but really needs Ferrell to make his mark against Indy.
3. WR J.J. Nelson
Nelson is just getting back into the flow after an ankle injury stole nearly a month's prep, but the Raiders need his speed change things up in the passing game. Defenses can focus on Tyrell Williams and Darren Waller without another obvious threat in the pattern, and Nelson must command respect with an impactful catch volume.
Antonio Brown's departure forced the Raiders to adjust their offense, though it came too late to add a threatening presence in his place. They'll go with the corps available now, and Nelson offers the best chance to capitalize on some favorable matchups.
He caught a flea flicker touchdown pass, but had four catches for just 36 yards. He needs to do more against the Colts.
2. DB Lamarcus Joyner
The Raiders are expanding Joyner's role, to make sure the Raiders' best defensive back isn't glued to the sideline like he was against the Vikings. Playing slot cornerback means you step out in the base defense, but he's expected to move mack to a safety/hybrid DB spot in the base defense to take greater advantage of his versatility and experience.
It will be Joyner's job to make plays with the extra time, no matter where he lines up. Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett can sling it, and Joyner must lead the secondary, make plays on the ball and help kept Colts' tight end contributions to a minimum.
RB 1. Josh Jacobs
The Raiders must feed Jacobs early, both as a runner and receiver. Feature backs like getting into a good rhythm, something hard to find after the Raiders fell multiple scores behind early in the last two games.
He's capable of popping big runs if given opportunities, and could do so often against a Colts defense allowing 5.3 yards per carry and four 20-yards-plus runs in three games.
Jacobs is healthy, though still dealing with remnants of an illness, but is ready to handle a heavy workload the Raiders would be wise to give him.