Raiders v Falcons

The Raiders are arguably one of the five worst teams in the NFL at the moment. The Falcons are arguably the best team in the NFL right now. There might be no reason to even watch this game, unless (a) you're a closet Falcons' fan, (b) are masochistic, or (c) are just morbidly curious as to how bad it can get.

But there are upsets every week, some of which may be even more outlandish than a Raiders win over the Falcons. Washington put a scare into Atlanta last week. The week prior, Camolina nearly won at Atlanta, holding a 28-27 lead with 0:59 remaining and the Falcons pinned at their own 1 yardline; but Matt Ryan drove them on a 77 yard FG drive in 49 seconds to take the lead and win the game.

So could Week 6 be the week that the Falcons lose?

From what has been shown on the field in the first 5 weeks of the season, the Raiders have shown no reason they can play with the Falcons, much less win. So, to expect a win might be too much, but there are elements that indicate what might have to occur in order for the Raiders to get the win.

The Raiders' run game has to improve. The blocking has to be better by the entire offensive line and skill positions players. The offensive line is progressing and both their blocking and assignments are getting incrementally better. If they improve during this bye week and Willie Smith gets more comfortable understanding his role (he missed some assignments and blocks against the Broncos), there could be some running opportunities.

Brandon Myers, Marcel Reece, and the WRs are going to be called upon to be effective. Denarius Moore is a very poor blocker and seems either too disinterested or too intimidated to engage in middle-of-the-field blocking, while Hagan and Streater are willing but only moderate effective. Getting DHB back should help the WR unit's blocking and perhaps it is time for Juron Criner to get some chances. At the very least, the big WR should be able to help out in the running game (similar to Schilens last year). Brandon Myers' run blocking issues have been well-documented and that needs to be addressed. If Myers cannot consistently provide adequate blocking, Gordon or Ausberry need to step up. [link] [link] [link].

At present both FBs are major problems as run blockers. Schmitt has been awful and often gets thrown aside by the defender. Reece's problems tend to be that he runs by his assignments or gets into bad position to block. This is either mental (determining his blocking assignment) or technique (running too fast). There have been occasions when the point of attack blocker was struggling and needed a chip from the FB, but the FB just ran past. Reece's problems can be fixed, especially with two weeks of prep. Schmitt, I have less hope for.

None of that really matter is the offensive line cannot get squared away. Raider fans' only hope for that is a continued evolution in the bye week.

What also helps is that this Falcons defense has struggled against the run.

KC : 33 rushes-152 yards-4.6 avg

DEN : 27-118-4.4 avg

SD : 17-116-6.8 avg

Car : 26-113-4.3 avg (excl. Cam's runs)

Was : 21-129-6.1 avg [link]

There are yards to be had and with that everything else comes. Time of Possession. Defensive rest. Protecting Palmer. Setting up the Passing game. This is all a matter of Greg Knapp getting the offense together. If the offense can execute, they should be able to be effective. If they are not effective, this is a direct indictment to Knapp's preparation and the offensive line's execution.

The Raiders passing game will need to come off the running game. If the Raiders are ineffective running the ball or if the Raiders get behind by double digits early, it puts the Raiders into predictable passing situations. This sets up Mike Nolan's defense into their ideal mode, where they can use their various look and pressures. While they have John Abraham and Ray Edwards as two above average pass rushers, the Falcons are primarily a scheme-pressure team. They run various blitzes from all over, drop linemen, stand up linemen, and generally confuse the protections. Against no huddle, they are particularly good at disguising their intent by doing a "Muddle Huddle" of their own. This bothered Peyton and will be a problem for Carson.

In the previous game against the Broncos, the Raiders had a taste of this. Jack del Rio stole that page of the Falcons' playbook and in the 4th quarter, the Raiders saw similar looks and packages. It was EXTREMELY effective and Carson took a beating on those plays. But it gave the Raiders offense some practice against that look. Hopefully they will come out with a plan to attack that type of defense.

But Nolan's group is timing things up extremely well and making big plays all over the field. They are giving a look, shifting, moving, dropping, moving up/moving back, and then on the snap 4,5,6 guys coming from different angles. Safeties sprint at the line of scrimmage from 15 yards deep and time it up to beat recognition, a corner drops from the edge just out of view of the protection. A lesser team would get burned often doing this, but the Falcons' defense has executing as a unit. Watch this carefully and see what the Raiders' defense is hoping to get to.

Meanwhile, on the backend, when there's a pressured throw, the Falcons are fantastic at chasing the ball; they have 10 interceptions on the year (second only to the Bears), with most of those coming from the safety position (7 of them, led by Decoud's 4). We've seen what they did to Peyton Manning, confusing him with their defensive look and then anticipating his throws. Against Rivers and Cassel, and Cousins they put pressure and forced bad throws or hit the QB on the throw. [link]

The Raiders' offensive line is not in shape to stand up 40+ times against this pass rush. With Myers often in the pattern and McFadden's pass protection being so poor this year (his pick up is fine, but he has been blown up trying to make the block), there's going to be pressure. And with the youth at the WR position, the WR often misses the blitz read, fails to run the hot route, and leaves Palmer with nowhere to outlet.

If the Raiders are forced to pass, this could be problematic. Note that the short passing game (swing, wheel, screen) are also effective as run-substitutes; the Falcons' defense has had similar problems with those routes as they have with the running game. They could be very effective if designed and timed well. The Redskins also had some success with the draw play against this pressure look.

The best way for the Raiders to put themselves in position to win this game is with the offense; they have to dominate; getting into a shootout is going to make things exciting but also sets the team up for a potential big mistake.

The Raiders' run defense has been a bright spot this year. Well, not ALL year, but much of it. Second half of Miami and second half of Denver were pretty bad. In the first halves, though, the Raiders have been very strong defending the run and overall has been solid in maintaining their disciplines. The front four have been playing more 2-gap this year, setting up the LB to make the plays. While Burris has missed some assignments and McClain has been a step slow in his reads at times, the group as a whole has played solidly. At times, when they are working together, the unit looks very good. At other times, when they are out of sync (and you can see this where the group are not running together) it looks bad and leaves big holes.

Michael Turner has good stats for the year, but those have been helped out by a fantastic game against Carolina and a great 2nd half against SD. In the rest of the games, he has been well-contained.

His stats against KC, Den, Was, and 1st half of SD is 54, 157, 2.9 avg.

As a frame of reference, DMC's stats for the year excluding his 64 yarder against Pitt : 56-137, 2.5 avg

Jacquizz Rodgers has not yet really broken through, but is adequate; he is also very dangerous in the passing game in the flat and is so quick in his cuts. Tackling in space must be sound against him or else risk a huge play.

Roddy White is an excellent run blocker. And it's not always "downfield". White will close motion and crack back on the safety (Branch?) and sometimes take on a linebacker. He's big, strong, and willing and that makes for some nice blocks that are key for the running game. While Julio Jones is also big and strong, he's not used as much in the box; he's more on the outside and, yes, DBs have trouble with him. This may be a key. If the Falcons' running game gets off to a good start and if they break off some big runs, watch for the WR blocking to spring them.

Overall, though, this is a good matchup for the Raiders. if the defense can stay fresh (and motivated), they certainly can win this and hold these two runners down and force long distances. And with Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith more interested in the passing game anyway, it might not take much to get the Falcons to abandon the run.

The Raiders' pass defense is bad. Worse than that it plays soft and scared. Short on depth and then depleted by injuries, the secondary has shows little confidence in covering receivers like Eric Decker, Brian Hartline, Demaryius Thomas, Malcolm Floyd, Antonio Brown, and Mike Wallace . Instead, they choose to play soft and allow 10-15 yard throws in front of them, instead of surrendering the possible 40 yarder. Will this change against Roddy White and Julio Jones?

With a team like the Falcons and the state of the Raiders as it is, it may be time to take some gambles and force the Falcons to go "over the top" with their throws and hope the safeties can make some plays. If Huff is playing CB again, these bigger receivers might be a better matchup than the smaller quicker types liek Antonio Brown and maybe DC Tarver will allow for more press coverage. If Huff is moved back to safety, he and Branch have good range and might be able to make some plays on deep balls, but would Joselio Hanson be able to do anything in coverage?

The Falcons passing game has been a nightmare, but they are not perfect. All of the receivers have had trouble with drops. Roddy White led the NFL with 14 last year and Julio Jones can let the ball get away from him at times as well. Against the Redskins, for whatever reason, Matt Ryan was leaving the ball high on his throws; this was without in-his-face pressure that generally causes high throws. High throws are ripe for turnovers, sometimes by overthrowing the receiver, at others by tipping the ball up. If Ryan is again leaving the balls up, there's a chance. Of course, this requires that the defenders are near the receiver (which has not generally been true in the first 4 games).

Tony Gonzalez is still a superior receiver and this year Tyvon Branch has had problems in coverage, notably against Gates. McClain and Wheeler are other choices for man coverage. Against zones, Gonzalez is great at settling into holes and converting 3rd downs. If the Raiders are effective at stopping the run and deploying defenders to contain the WRs, then Gonzalez may end up killing the Raiders across the middle of the field.

The Raiders will likely spend most of the day playing zone. The problem is that the Falcons have 3 legitimate zone-beaters.

The way to really help out the backend is to have a dominant pass rush. The Raiders do not have that and so far in 2012, they have not shown to be able to scheme any pressure. Tarver has not been calling many blitzes and they are often rather basic and picked up. This is a formula for failure against the Falcons. Since none of the Raiders defensive linemen and linebackers are really able to beat one-on-one protections, the scheme has to get free runners.

The Falcons' offensive line is fantastic and generally gives Matt Ryan plenty of time to make his reads. They give a nice pocket and Ryan is great at shifting within that pocket to avoid pressure. At times when the pocket does collapse, Ryan shows off his understated athleticism. He's not Mike Vick or Cam Newton, but he's not far from Roethliseberger or Rodgers; he's able to break contain to throw or run. And if there is clear field, Ryan can break a good run, often (frustratingly for opponents) on 3rd-and-long. The Raiders have continued to have problems containing opposing QBs in key situations.

If the Raiders cannot pressure Ryan and is forced to play coverage on the backend, then the main hope is that the Falcons make mistakes. High throws, drops, tipped passes, missed reads. That's not really the best way to play defense, but that may be what the Raiders are reduced to. If that is the case, then (again) what's to lose by gambling? Heck, if the raiders offense is doing well, it may even be beneficial for the Raiders' defense to give up a big play instead of a 7:00 long drive (that's the Tarkanian UNLV Running Rebels-type defense).

The Raiders' Special Teams is in shambles and the Falcons have a very good unit. If Coach Steve Hoffman has not fixed many of the problems plaguing that unit (some of it may be personnel based), then it could be a problem. For the Raiders to have a chance, they need to get a great game out of the special teams. Excellent coverage for field position and excellent returns for field position. There can be no blocked punts this week.

Last week, the Broncos Defense had the distinct advantage of playing the Houston Texans' Offense prior to the Raiders' offense. That meant that Del Rio had two weeks of prep and didn't need to have a new Defense Install for the week. This time, the Raiders' opponent did not play the Texans previously. However, the Falcons did play the Mike Shanahan Redskins offense last week. The offense are clearly different, but there's a common lineage and so the Falcons have had an extra week of preparation for the zone run. The Redskins' run blocking is clearly better than the Raiders and Alfred Morris is a perfect fit; this may benefit the Falcons' D since they may be more prepared for a good zone blocking unit and thus may be able to defeat the current Raiders' implementation.

For the Raiders to win this game, things have to go right. But as the saying goes, "You make your own luck." The Raiders have to play with a higher level of intensity than showed up in Denver. Wasn't it shocking to most that the Raiders seemed to be so flat against such an intense rival? (It's too bad the Broncos didn't fire Allen without paying him). And this week, it's an early game in the Eastern Time zone, something that has been a problem for the Raiders in years past.

Raiders have to be effective in their running thus motivating their passing game and they have to be able to do something on defense. With two weeks to prepare, we should see what the depths of Tarver and Allen's knowledge and creativity are. The Raiders need to play with a lead or within striking distance. If they fall behind, this forces passing and plays into Mike Nolan's hands.

A Raiders win is unlikely. But then so was the Chiefs' win against Green Bay in 2011. For the Raiders to have any chance, they have to play hard and play well. And really, just doing that will be a welcome sight. I'm less concerned about the final score and the win-loss than the progression of the team. Is there hope for the rest of the season or are the players ready to be the 2011 Buccaneers that quit? (Maybe Richard Seymour needs to give this speech to the team : [link] )

for more Ninja Goro thoughts :

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