The Raiders head down to the NASCAR part of Florida this week to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in what should not be a pretty affair. These two eerily similar teams will have to slug it out with a lot of running and probably a good amount of punts as well. Both are awkwardly situated in the playoff scene—Jacksonville being a new driver in their division and Oakland crammed somewhere in the backseat of theirs—and neither can afford a loss at this stage of their season. Because of both the magnitude of the game and the physical toll each team promises to deliver to its opposition, the winner may come down to as little as which team is less nervous.
The last time the Raiders needed to primarily stop the run to preserve their playoff aspirations, they failed. The Miami Dolphins ran roughshod over Oakland and proved to be a stronger and tougher team that day. Fortunately, the big win over San Diego last week propelled the Raiders back in the hunt and gives them a second chance to prove that they are the brawlers they want to be. Jacksonville is going to be a nuisance and they won't peacefully get out of the way; it's up to the silver and black bulldozers to do their thing this weekend.
Jaguars offense vs. Raiders defense
Last week, the Jags looked comfortable running on nearly every down and used multiple ball-carriers throughout the day. We all know about Maurice Jones-Drew by now—he's as easy to tackle as a fire hydrant—but it's the others that make Jacksonville's rushing attack so formidable.
First off, their quarterback, David Gerrard, has never been shy to pick up yards with his legs. His maneuverability and general strength has always reminded me of Ben Roethlisberger, and whenever he rolls out of the pocket, there's a good chance he's going to keep the ball and run. Like Big Ben, when the Raiders get a hold of Gerrard, they have to bring him down. Arguably the best facet to the Raider defense is the pressure they get on quarterbacks; there's no reason to change that approach in this match-up either, but letting Gerrard slip through the first wave of defenders could result in key Jacksonville first-downs. Keep him in the pocket and slam him to the turf as many times as possible.
Another player worth keeping your eye on is complimentary back, Rashad Jennings. I was impressed with Jennings last week as he contributed greatly to the tiring of the Titans' defensive line with his size and tough running style. Having a good pair of legs to sub in for Mojo once his battery briefly runs down, allows the Jags to remain in their base offense without resorting to any weird formations. Jennings seems to enter the game when Del Rio feels like the defense has been adequately tenderized by Mojo, and those occasions have increased recently. Jones-Drew is difficult to stop, but Jennings far less so, and he must be properly contained once in the game. Picking poisons is what football strategy is mostly about and Jennings compared to Mojo is a very attractive poison indeed.
Finally, the Jacksonville tight ends are the last focal point worth mentioning. The giraffe-like Marcedes Lewis has blossomed into a legitimate threat this season and has big-play ability firmly within his repertoire (eight touchdowns). They also feature their very own Zach Miller who is used on screens and also end-around running plays thanks to a surprisingly effective open-field running talent. Lewis should be keyed on during third-down plays and anything close to the goal-line, while Miller should be sealed to the inside when he gets the ball in the flats.
Generally speaking, the Raiders want to arise passing downs and pressure Gerrard into dangerous throws. Allowing them to get into any rhythm running the ball will make the day that much more of a pain in the ass for the Raiders.
Raiders offense vs. Jaguars defense
Of course, another way to make the Jags pass the ball is getting an early lead and not letting up. The best way to attack Jacksonville is though the air. Their secondary is well below the NFL's curve and they have allowed some big passing days this year. The problem is, when Oakland becomes a vertical passing team, they become predictable and pretty easy to stop.
First, the Raiders should set out to establish domination at the line of scrimmage by pummeling Michael Bush up the gut on first and second down. Then, once put into a passing scenario, Hue Jackson should call for shorter routes that promote yards-after-catch first-down plays and not be shy about running screens to Darren McFadden. Watching these Raider linemen get out in space on screen passes has been a real thing of beauty the last few weeks. They're an athletic bunch of mammoths that take their man completely out of the play and move with a certain fire and determination. Not only does it create big yardage, but it really allows the o-line to have fun, and typically a lineman enjoying himself, is a lineman playing well.
If the Raiders find themselves in a hole early, they shouldn't abandon who they are. It may be tempting for Jackson to want to go after the soft Jacksonville secondary on deep pass plays to Louis Murphy and Jacoby Ford, and every now and then is fine, but running over opponents is how this team wins. Using clock, wearing out the defense, and winning field position should be the priorities for the Raider game-planners. Forcing the ball deep when a check-off pass will do is getting greedy, and, in the long run, is only cheating themselves. Jason Campbell can make the long throws, but looks better throwing the safe ones.
The Raiders must play up to the seriousness of the stage of this game, but also remember to relax and play their kind of style of football. To find that emotional happy-medium with a group of 53 men isn't easy, but necessary to venture into the hallowed ground of the postseason. Rather than concern themselves with winning the next four games, they should only be worried about this one in Jacksonville because the others might not matter much anyway if they can't be successful in the short term.
To do that, they need to do their best against Mojo, but shut down the other runners almost completely. They need to be mindful of the Jags' tight ends and worry less about their receivers. They also need to stay true to the run game and use Michael Bush often. Holding the ball and settling for field goals is better than hurrying toward desperate touchdowns. Neither team is all that fast; strength should win out in this one.
So to all of my new fellow Raider fans, hear this: tomorrow's game is a landmark one that should not be taken at all lightly. There may be no other team playing that day that has more to lose than the Oakland Raiders. In reality, the playoffs begin this week and it will now require eight wins in a row to win the Super Bowl—heavy, I know, but not entirely impossible. Here's to all the far-fetched and extremely unlikely occurrences to have unfolded in the history of the world. Without them, the Earth and its football leagues would be far more dull.
Raiders 17, Jaguars 12
Mojokong—the microscope of perspective