Both coverage teams have been pretty suspect thus far this season, with the Cardinals recently giving up a long punt return touchdown to Devin Hester of the Bears. J.J. Arrington and Troy Walters have at least been effective in the sense that they haven't coughed the ball up a lot this season, but both have yet to prove that they're truly deadly weapons in the kicking game. Chris Carr and ReShard Lee are not household names for a reason. Neither has been explosive in the return game thus far this year, either, but nor have they been a liability to their teams.
In a battle of weakness against weakness, neither team really has an edge. Don't be surprised, though, with the spotty coverage units on either side of the ball, to see a few long returns in this game.
Sebastian Janikowski (aka "The Polish Love Machine") was once a highly thought after kicker when he came out of Florida State. The Raiders invested a first round pick in him. Since that time, however, he has yet to establish himself as an elite player at the position and can't be looked at as either a benefit or a detriment at this point. And, for those of you that have been watching this season, let's just hope that Neil Rackers doesn't need to get points for the Cardinals when the game is on the line.
Oakland punter Shane Lechler has an eye-popping 50.5 per punt average coming into this game and has been one of the bright spots for the Raiders (if having a really good punter can be considered a "bright spot"). Scott Player has established himself as solidly average, and that's good enough for a team like the Cardinals that shouldn't punt too much anyway. In a game that doesn't appear to hinge on field position, the Raiders do have an edge on punters. But, since punting isn't going to be a prominent aspect of this game, it's really a wash.
The even match-up on special teams isn't going to be the story of the game. The real story is going to be how well the Cardinals take advantage of the mismatches that exist (some of them huge mismatches) on both sides of the ball.
The Cardinals would be best served being aggressive on offense and defense.
Even though pass protection has not been the offensive line's forte this season, they should seriously consider taking some shots down the field on an overmatched Oakland secondary early and often. Since the Raiders don't have an even decent pass rusher beyond Derrick Burgess, Matt Leinart should have sufficient time to sit back in the pocket and hit his man deep. The Cardinals have had success in the Leinart Era (all two games of it) on long range passes and this game should be no different.
As much as it seems like an exercise in futility, they must continue to run the ball and give Edgerrin James his touches. He's carried the ball more times than any other back in the NFL thus far this season and the law of averages says that he simply has to break through eventually for long gains. And this should be the game to do it. Oakland's front seven is miserable at best and is filled with old linemen that were never particularly adroit in run support and inexperienced, under-talented linebackers. Edge should finally find success in this game and it would behoove Coach Green to not ignore the running game simply because it hasn't been at all effective thus far.
On defense, Clancy Pendergast should feel free to call as many blitzes as he pleases. And then blitz some more. When facing a young quarterback like Andrew Walter, it is important to pressure him early, often, and up the middle, so that he's unable to step up in the pocket and throw uncontested passes in the vertical passing system that the Raiders run. As was stated before, Walter is prone to coughing the ball up and throwing ponderous interceptions. If the Cardinals can sack him early, get in his head, and make him hear footsteps, he will turn the ball over, making the 6 turnovers Rex Grossman committed last week seem like so many peanuts.
LaMont Jordan and the Raiders offensive line are simply not the same caliber collectively as are the Chiefs and Larry Johnson or the Bears and Thomas Jones. Since Arizona was able to bottle up two of the better running teams in the league in successive weeks (and even Steven Jackson and Shaun Alexander weren't really effective against the front seven), I have a hard time believing that the bunch of underachievers along Oakland's front five and Jordan will have success on Sunday.
There's no question that the Cardinals have the Raiders outmatched in every phase of the game. The true question is how well they'll be able to capitalize on it.
We've got them beat in all areas. Our receivers vs. their secondary. Our secondary vs. their receivers (and, by the way, Eric Green and Antrel Rolle are starting to get the same type of underrated hype that Adrian Wilson has been getting for years). Our front seven vs. their offensive line. Leinart vs. Walter. Even our offensive line vs. their defensive line (in a battle of weaknesses, the movable object is always defeated by the resistible force, simply because the offensive linemen at least know where they're going. It's kind of like the game is being played in the snow.)
There is no question that we should dominate this game, it's just a question of whether or not we will dominate it.
And, even though most will agree that Dennis Green has done a lousy job thus far, we still hold an advantage in coaching. Once again, Art Shell. Headset off. Talking to Randy Moss. Clock running. Inside two minutes in the first half. Shell will have his players fired up and ready to play, especially since this game is at home. But, motivation will only take this group so far. Which is where it is absolutely crucial that the Cardinals dominate the game early.
The Raiders are a team that have been embarrassed all season. They're being to fall apart at the seams. The wind is coming out of their sails. The wheels are coming off. By jumping out to a big early lead, we'll be able to take their beleaguered fans out of the game and end it before it really begins. If it's 21-3 midway through the second quarter, the sound you'll hear is the seams bursting, the sail falling uselessly to the bow, and the wheels flying off. Randy Moss, Warren Sapp, and the jovial Jerry Porter, along with the other low character players on the Raiders will begin to fight amongst themselves and give up on the game.
Once that happens, we need to keep our foot on the accelerator and make sure that we absolutely annihilate the Oakland Raiders. A few teams have had the chance so far this season and have taken advantage of that chance. The Cardinals are a team that have had too many close losses and heartbreakers thus far to not rise to the occasion and throttle an outmanned squad. It will be very cathartic for us and, hopefully, be a springboard for the rest of the season.
This is the season right here. A convincing victory will revitalize this team and give them hope for the rest of the year. The schedule gets considerably easier from here on out. If the Cardinals can take some momentum into the bye week (which means that they'll also need to beat the Packers next week), they'll be 3-5 with quite a few easy games left to play. If, however, they manage to lose to a Raider team that has no business winning, the seams, sails, and wheels effect will come down on them.
But, I just don't see how it's possible that they could flub this up.
Prediction: Cardinals 38, Raiders 10.