The Los Angeles Chargers make a short trip on a short week up to play the Oakland Raiders on Thursday Night Football (5:20 P.M. Pacific on Fox/NFL Network).
Both teams are coming off emotional, possibly season-saving home victories. Both have newfound hope in a wide-open AFC playoff race. And it’s the last time these two teams will play one another in Oakland. One of the NFL’s quietly great rivalries will take a new form next season.
With so much on the line — including nearly eternal bragging rights — Thursday’s game sets up to be a classic...or at least it would be if it were not being played on a Thursday night.
It doesn’t take a PhD in Football Theory to know that most Thursday night games are sloppier than a pig’s pen after a tropical storm. Coaches have so little of their beloved preparation time, and thus, game plans are scaled down to their bare bones.
The Chargers come in with an offensive coordinator who called plays in an NFL game for the first time this past Sunday, Shane Steichen. Because it was a nationally televised game against the beloved Green Bay Packers, and the Chargers’ offense looked improved over its previous form — which frankly isn’t saying much — Steichen is now the hot offseason head coaching candidate (I kid, sort of).
The Raiders continue to be the girl next door at the dance that you’re afraid to admit is kind of cute, but only kind of, and you really want to see how she develops over the next year or two — or in the Raiders’ case, next week or two — before you actually ask her to dance.
Injuries give you pause especially. And overcoming them is undoubtedly one of the Raiders’ keys to victory for Thursday night.
All that is to say, there are a lot of unknowns headed into this all-important, winner-take-all battle to the death. But there are three key matchups that likely will determine who ends the night feeling more excited about their playoff chances and which one sighs about what could have been.
Josh Jacobs versus Chargers linebackers
The rookie running back has arguably been the most exciting skill player among all rookies this season. He’s already one of the best running backs in the NFL despite his inexperience at this level, and has been aided by one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the league.
The Raiders are fourth in the NFL in adjusted line yards, and only 18th in second-level yards, which proves that the offensive line has been most responsible for Oakland’s rushing success this season (so does the fact they’re the second best pass protection unit in the league).
But that doesn’t mean Jacobs is merely a replacement level player. There is no doubt his vision, speed, and power, along with his ability to make quick cuts, further enables the success of the Raider running game. And it is exactly at that second-level where this game can change offensively for the Raiders.
The Chargers will likely be starting rookie Drue Tranquill at middle linebacker after veteran Denzel Perryman left Sunday’s contest with an injury. The Chargers are also quite beat up at the safety spot—starting their 97th backup headed into the season. If the Raiders’ OL can do what it’s done most of this season to get Jacobs to the second-level, the rookie could be in for some long gains.
It’s more likely he will see the ageless wonder Thomas Davis when he comes out of the backfield to catch a pass. As good as Davis has been in his career when healthy, the new wheels of Jacobs could definitely present for him a big problem.
David Sharpe/Trent Brown versus Joey Bosa/Melvin Ingram III
With all respect due to David Sharpe, and ALL respect due to the uninspired play of the Detroit Lions’ pass rush, this is a different challenge coming up. Trent Brown was listed on the injury report this week, and may not play.
And even if he did, would he, at less than 100 percent, have any better shot at slowing down one of the game’s most dynamic pass rush duos? (Probably. He’s Trent Brown)
One of the nice things about replacing a right tackle is you can make little adjustments, like sliding a tight end over to his side (though that brings with it potential issues), or having a back chip on the end before getting out in the passing game.
But the NFL is the place where you have to win one-on-one matchups. At some point, you have to allow Jacobs or Derek Carrier to get out into the passing game.
And that means at some point, if Sharpe is forced into action, he’s going to go face-to-face with Joey Bosa and/or Melvin Ingram III.
Bosa presents the ideal combination of power and speed from the edge, while Ingram is more of a speed rusher. With the latter, you know you have a pretty good chance if you take a quick pass-set and require him to run around in a big circle. But with Bosa, it almost doesn’t matter what you do.
My guess is Jon Gruden will call a fair amount of runs and screens AT Bosa early in the game to tire him out physically. This should limit his stamina and quick-twitch ability in the pass rush game later on and be a huge aid for either Sharpe or the ailing Brown.
Trayvon Mullen versus Mike Williams/Keenan Allen
You can’t hide rookies in the NFL. If a rookie is playing, he’s going to get picked on, especially when the opposing quarterback is a veteran like Philip Rivers. Sure, the veteran quarterback isn’t having his best season. But he looked much better on Sunday against the Packers — perhaps rejuvenated by someone calling plays who actually had a game plan.
That all means rookie cornerback Trayvon Mullen is going to have a bullseye on his back, or helmet, or jersey, or whatever... you get the point.
With Ken Whisenhunt as coordinator, the Chargers preferred to stack receivers and line up in tight splits to attack corners.
My guess, however, is they won’t try to hide their intentions as much in this game. They’ll find where Mullen is lining up, motion Williams or Allen over there, and throw that guy the ball.
Second-game offensive coordinator Shane Steichen’s job isn’t to call the perfect play, it’s to get Williams and Allen matched up against Mullen.
Then again, with Daryl Worley questionable, Mullen may be the No. 1 corner option for the Raiders, meaning Nevin Lawson and Keisean Nixon are going to be thrown into the fire against one of the most physically imposing wide receiver duos in the league.
I’d expect Paul Guenther to call a lot of zone coverage and to try to heat up Rivers to get the ball out of his hands quickly. But it’s still going to come down to Mullen, Lawson, and Nixon holding their own, or else passing yards may come easily for the Chargers.
Which key matchup is most important for a Raiders victory?
This poll is closed
Jacobs vs. LAC LBs
Sharpe vs. Bosa/Ingram III
Mullen/Other CBs vs. Allen/Williams
If the Raiders win all three matchups, they will assuredly win the game. If they win two of three, they have more than a fighting shot. If they win one of the three, it will take a miracle, likely coming from the right arm of Derek Carr.
If they don’t win any of the three, it may be a long night for Jon Gruden’s team.