The Raiders, who are coming off their first win of the season, are in St Louis this weekend to face the 4-7 Rams coming off a late loss to the Chargers last week.
Both teams, it could be said, are better than their records indicate. The Raiders have the toughest schedule in the NFL and have played better of late on defense. The Rams have beaten the likes of the Seahawks, 49ers, and Broncos. And barring a late interception, very nearly beat the Chargers last week.
The game kicks off at 10:00am Pacific time (1:00pm Eastern) in St Louis. Here are the key storylines, things to look for, and match-ups.
For the first time this season, the Raiders can say they are trying to build off the momentum formed in a WIN. They took down the Chiefs on Thursday Night Football and have had a long week to think about. Tony Sparano said the players were focused and wanted that feeling again. Though I don't think that is even possible considering the weight that was lifted that night. They did, however, show what this team is capable of accomplishing when they play a complete game. The last time the word ‘momentum' was even uttered this season was after the heartbreaking loss to the Patriots in a defensive stand in New England. The result was a blowout loss in London to the Dolphins. In that case, it was a ‘moral victory' that created a bit of a flimsy momentum. This week they come off and ACTUAL victory. How they respond will be telling.
Raiders run game
A large part of why the Raiders were able to play that complete game was the addition of the run game which was non-existent through the first ten games of the season. The problem is most of that came from Latavius Murray who is not available due to a concussion he suffered in that game. So, now what? Marcel Reece was able to grind it out late to help put the game away against the Chiefs, but that was against a team that had been beaten up all day and were coming off a short week. You earn drives like that one. The way you earn it is by punishing the other team on the ground the rest of the game. The Raiders haven't done that all season with Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew. There is little reason to think that will suddenly change now.
Shaking Shaun Hill
The Raiders defense has been stepping up in the past five weeks. They did it with pass rush and have rattled several very good quarterbacks including Brian Hoyer, Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, and Alex Smith. Manning was the only one able to shake it off and return to form after the Raiders held him out of the endzone for the first 27 minutes of that game. Shaun Hill is nowhere near on the same level as most of those quarterbacks. He can be rattled and he will make mistakes. Expect the pressure to come from all over the place. Khalil Mack got his first sack two weeks ago on Philip Rivers and very nearly had another last week on Alex Smith. Sio Moore leads the team with 3.0 sacks. Antonio Smith and Justin Tuck have both had good games of late. You can bet they smell blood in the water getting ready to face Hill.
There is very much a flip side to the Raiders getting some pressure on Shaun Hill. That would be the Rams ability to get pressure on Derek Carr. The Rams front is downright terrifying. The combination of Robert Quinn, Chris Long, and Aaron Donald. There is no doubt this will be the toughest pass rushing trio the Raiders have faced all season long. Sparano says the Raiders have prepared to face them, but we have seen what the Raiders offense does when they are trying to eliminate the pass rush - a litany of short passes and dumps which are very hard to sustain, leading to stalled drives. They have tried screens as well, but for some reason the defense always sees it coming. Will the Raiders try anything different to eliminate the pass rush of the Rams? They better.
Ghost of mistakes past
Rams starting right tackle Joe Barksdale was a former Raiders fifth round draft pick. He was drafted during Al Davis' era and was cut by the new regime after just one season in Oakland. He was scooped up by the Rams and has been their starter since the beginning of last season. He has been a pretty good right tackle since leaving the Raiders, who just a season after cutting Barksdale used a second round pick to draft a very raw Menelik Watson. That round two pick could have been used elsewhere had they kept Barksdale. Watson has struggled when he hasn't been injured and facing Barksdale acts as a reminder of another mistake made by this new regime.
Jared Cook vs Charles Woodson
Yet another really good tight end for Charles Woodson to match-up with in this one. He faced Travis Kelce last week and Antonio Gates the week before that. Overall he has played well against them. Cook leads the team in catches (37) and is just four yards behind wide receiver Kenny Britt for the team lead in receiving yards (473). There is no doubt he is a big part of the Rams offensive game plan, making him Woodson's top priority. Take Cook out of the picture and it keeps Hill in the pocket longer as he will have to make another read to find a receiver. That could be all it takes to get the pressure the Raiders need.
Raiders Legendary bloodlines
This game will be a meeting of Raiders Legend players. George Atkinson III was activated for the game and will make his debut as a Raider where his father spent his entire NFL career (1968-77) and was on the Raiders first Super Bowl team. Chris Long has been activated off of partial season injured reserve. He is, of course, the son of Hall of Fame Raiders defensive end, Howie Long, who also spent his entire career with the Raiders, and was on the 1983 Super Bowl squad. Then, of course there's Stefen Wisniewski, nephew or Steve Wisniewski. The All Pro left guard also spent his entire career with the Raiders. If you wanted to go a step farther, the Rams have T.J. McDonald, son of NFL great, Tim McDonald who is a native of Fresno California, attended USC, and later played seven seasons for the 49ers (1993-99).
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