Early this season, one of the more common issues for the Raiders has been their run defense. While it has improved overall since the first month, this week they face by far their toughest opponent in the Buffalo Bills.
For the second season in a row, the Bills lead the league in rushing. This season, they are head and shoulder ahead of the rest of the NFL in rushing. Their 5.3 yards per carry average is a half yard better than any other team and the only team to average over five yards per carry.
That rush offense starts with LeSean McCoy, but is followed closely by quarterback Tyrod Taylor. McCoy’s 819 rushing yards is 8th in the league and his 5.2 yards per carry is second among backs with at least 100 carries this season. Even backup running back Mike Gillislee has run for 326 yards and averages 5.8 yards per carry.
That’s just the running backs. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor is the team’s second leading rusher and leads all quarterbacks this season with 439 rushing yards and averages 6.3 yards per carry.
“He’s got some ‘make you miss, outrun you’ a little bit,” Jack Del Rio said of Taylor. “It’s a good group. That’s why I said, we’re looking forward to a good game. Going to be a real physical game.”
“Well you can see he’s a hard guy to catch,” said Ken Norton Jr. “He’s fast. He’s elusive. He extends plays. He has a great arm. It kind of comes for us right after playing Cam [Newton] with Carolina, so it kind of falls into that category.”
Unlike Newton, the Bills don’t discourage Taylor from tucking it and using his speed, so it’s something the Raiders must constantly be wary of.
The Bills are a run first team all the way and it has served them well.
The last team the Raiders faced who focused on the run this much was the Titans. The Raiders were able to win a low scoring game that week, but they also gave up 6.2 yards per carry in that game. The Titans average 4.8 yards per carry on the season which tied for second in the league.
So, what’s the key for the Raiders? This is what Ken Norton Jr says is the key
“Playing together,” said Norton. “Everybody understands it’s a disciplined type game plan. It’s a disciplined type team you’re playing. You have to be connected across the board. [LeSean] McCoy is a type of runner, he can start to the right and he could end up on the left. It kind of reminds you of the old days, Barry Sanders. He could be anywhere. It’s important each player who’s involved in the defense and in charge of the gap, you have to be solid, you have to sound and you have to be disciplined and understand that we’re all connected. Everybody plays together. Not one guy tackles him. The whole unit is responsible for the running game.”
Typically it’s the defensive line that gets the credit or the blame for run defense. The middle linebacker matters as well. Both those areas are suspect for the Raiders right now.
The interior defensive line has been shuffling around all season. This week they will be without Stacy McGee and Darius Latham. Dan Williams and Justin Ellis rotate at the nose tackle while Denico Autry and rookie Jihad Ward aren’t known for their run stopping abilities.
The key could be the health of middle linebacker Perry Riley Jr who missed last week against the Panthers with a hamstring issue despite practicing limited all week. Riley is limited again this week so his status is in doubt.
For an idea of his worth to this run defense, you need only look at the numbers with him and the numbers without him. In the five games this season he wasn’t in the lineup (first four weeks before he was signed and last week when he was injured), the Raiders gave up 5.1 yards per carry to opposing running backs. With him in the lineup, they have given up 4.2 yards per carry. The overall average of those opposing teams was essentially the same in both samples, so it isn’t a matter of match-ups.
That’s a full yard less per carry with him than without him. That’s the difference of a near league best rushing performance without Riley and a middle of the road one with him.
If he can’t go again, Cory James will step in once again. James is versatile, but he is not a pure middle linebacker. He’s also a rookie sixth round pick, which is not ideal.
Another key to stopping the Bills rushing attack could be the Raiders offense. Their two worst games versus the run this season against the Titans (181 yards) and Chiefs (183 yards) were the Raiders two lowest scoring games on offense – they scored 17 against the Titans and 10 against the Chiefs. When the Raiders offense sputters — which they haven’t done much of this season — the other team tries to take advantage and wear down the defense.
This is a game the Raiders are favored and should win. But there is no question the Bills run offense is scary and the Raiders will need to be on their toes to keep from getting gouged.