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Raiders-Ravens: Five key match-ups

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NFL: Oakland Raiders at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Based on the season trajectory of these two teams, they seem pretty evenly matched. Both started the season 2-0 and have lost two-straight to fall to 2-2. Both have struggled mightily on offense in their 2-game losing streaks. Something’s got to give. Whoever wins these match-ups could be the deciding factor.

EJ Manuel vs Eric Weddle

The last meaningful start Manuel had was two years ago. The last time he led a team to a win was week two of the 2014 season. Now he takes the field with the hopes of a franchise looking to get back to their winning ways and keep pace in a tough division.

Last week, Manuel looked like he could handle this responsibility. Right up until his final pass, he was driving the Raiders down the field and looking like he might pull off the win in relief of the injured Derek Carr. That ended when he threw late and short for Amari Cooper up the left sideline and safety Justin Simmons swooped over to pick it off. The man patrolling the deep middle for the Ravens is Pro Bowler and 2-time All Pro Eric Weddle who already has two interceptions this season.

It will be up to Manuel to not stare down his receivers and perhaps add in a couple pump fakes to keep Weddle from getting a jump on his passes.

Amari Cooper vs Marlon Humphrey

Starting corner Jimmy Smith missed practice Wednesday and Thursday and only participated in light work during warmups Friday. He is officially questionable for the game. Should he not go, it will be a Crimson Tide face off between Coop and rookie top pick Humphrey.

We keep thinking Coop is going to get back on track any moment now. Only because there’s plenty more evidence in his first couple seasons that he is better than this. He keeps starting the week on the injury report with a knee issue and then getting removed by week’s end. If he’s really ready to go, he needs to show it.

Humphrey is still an unproven product. He has appeared in all four games this season, but has not started a game yet with 3 passes defended this season.

Nicholas Morrow vs Ben Watson

The Ravens don’t have a single wide receiver on pace for even 500 yards this season. The closest is Jeremy Maclin, who is on pace for 464 yards and he has had issues with an injured hand. Making the Ravens’ top receiving target tight end Ben Watson.

As it happens, tight end remains the bugaboo of the Raiders defense. The only touchdown they gave up last week was to Broncos’ tight end AJ Derby from 22 yards out. That came just after giving up a 29-yard catch to Derby.

The week before 33-year-old Vernon Davis ripped the Raiders for 5 catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. And of course Delanie Walker had 7 catches for 76 yards in the season opener in Tennessee. The only game the Raiders were able to keep the tight end under wraps was against an injury depleted Jets team and it was Morrow who stepped up in coverage. They’ll need him again against a talented tight end in Watson.

Khalil Mack vs Austin Howard

For the second game in a row Mack will be looking at a familar face across the line of scrimmage. Last week he destroyed former Raiders second round pick Menelik Watson. This week he gets former oft utilized insurance plan, Austin Howard.

Howard has shown himself to be far more formidable than Watson. But as we detailed this week, the familiarity between these two works in Mack’s favor. We’ll see if he can mow down Howard as well as he did Watson and basically every other tackle he’ faced this season. So far he has 4.0 sacks in four games. Howard has not allowed a sack this season but has allowed 7 pressures.

Rodney Hudson vs Michael Pierce

Monstrous 335-pound nose tackle Brandon Williams has a foot injury and won’t play for a third straight game. Somehow the Ravens have the even more massive 339-pound Pierce ready to pick up the slack. Last week Pierce had a career high seven tackles against the Steelers, but running back Le’Veon Bell was still able to rack up 144 yards on 35 carries and the Steelers won going away.

The week before the Ravens’ defense gave up 166 yards on the ground. They have given up an average of 170 yards the past two weeks which is as much as they had given up in the first two games combined. One would have to think Brandon Williams’ absence factors into that. The Raiders’ once elite interior must start playing like it to get the running game going again. Hudson leads the way in the middle for those efforts.