Few teams have been as frenetic this season as the Oakland Raiders. Every time they look like they could be a serious playoff contender, they hit a road block that derails their progress. Yet, as they come into the Metrodome Sunday with a record of 5-4, they are alone in first place in the parity-laden AFC West. They haven't won more than two straight games and haven't lost more than two straight, but it's how they've arrived to this point of the season that has been the most impressive.
The Raiders thought they had their quarterback of the future when they gave a modest king's ransom to the Redskins to acquire Jason Campbell. Everything was on track until Week 6 against Cleveland. That was when Campbell suffered a collarbone injury that, while not season-ending yet (he's still got a spot on the 53-man roster), perhaps in the memory of Al Davis, the Raiders traded away one and possibly two first-round draft picks to get Carson Palmer out of mothballs. Palmer had been in a bitter dispute with the Bengals, who refused to trade him and opted to let him retire after drafting QB Andy Dalton, and the Raiders made an offer the Bengals couldn't refuse.
His comeback hasn't been as splashy as Brett Favre's was with the Vikings in 2009, but there has been steady improvement. In his first game against Kansas City, he was dismal, completing just eight of 21 passes for 116 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a pee-wee passer rating of 17.9. He threw three picks the following week against Denver, but threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns with a passer rating of 79.7 – not great, but a big improvement. Last week at San Diego, he looked like the Palmer of Cincinnati vintage, completing 14 of 20 passes for 299 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 125.0. The NFL considers an explosive play to be one of 20 yards or more. Palmer averaged more than 21 yards per completion last week and appears to be in a zone that the Vikings will have to deal with. He won't have speedy playmaking wide receiver Jacoby Ford, who has been ruled out, but the Raiders' offensive bread and butter is their running game.
The Vikings have yet to face a team that has been more prolific running the ball than the Vikes have been … until Sunday. The Vikings are rated fifth in rush offense, but the Raiders are fourth – thanks in large part to a two-headed beast in the backfield with Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. McFadden has drawn a lot of comparisons to Peterson, but he has been sidelined the last three games with a foot injury and won't play this week, either. Bush is a punishing runner who earns his money in between the tackles and, coming off a 30-carry game against the Chargers, with 10 days rest heading into this game, if the Raiders can establish the run, he will likely get plenty of carries and the Vikings will have to stop him early to prevent a similar type of ground-and-pound assault.
The Raiders have done enough offensively to be a 7-2 or 6-3 team. They have scored 23 or more points in seven of their nine games, but they have allowed 28 or more points in all four of their losses. Like the Vikings, their biggest issue defensively has been in the second halves of games. They have been outscored 148-84 in the second half – erasing leads and making deficits even deeper.
The Raiders have the 26th-ranked defense in the league – 25th vs. the run and 22nd vs. the pass. They have struggled in both aspects of their defense and teams have been able to exploit both the run and the pass.
Opponents are averaging 5.2 yards per rushing attempt against the Raiders and have thrown twice as many touchdowns as interceptions (16-8). The one aspect of the Raiders defense that has been the big equalizer is that they bring the pressure on the opposing quarterback and, seeing a rookie under center on the other side of the ball, they are looking to pad their 23 sacks they have recorded to date. Ten different Raiders have recorded sacks – led by Kamerion Wimbley with six and Richard Seymour with five – because the team blitzes consistently. It's a risk-taking defense that makes big plays, but also gets burned in the "live by the sword-die by the sword" scheme. They can be dominant at times, but are susceptible to the big play going against them, something the Vikings will be tuned into.
If the game is close, it could be bad news for the Vikings, because the Raiders have arguably the best special teams in the league – by design. The Raiders shocked the world in 2000, drafting kicker Sebastian Janikowski in the first round and punter Shane Lechler in the second. Twelve seasons later, both are still fixtures with the Raiders. Janikowski has arguably the strongest leg among kickers in the NFL, proving that with a 63-yard field goal in Week 1 that had room to spare. The Raiders barely have to get to midfield to legitimately be in his range. Lechler is averaging almost 52 yards per punt, which give the Raiders an incredible advantage when playing a field position game.
Given their inexperience with the Raiders, the Vikings have committed a lot of time to film study to try to crack the weaknesses of both the Raiders offense and defense. What they have learned is that Oakland isn't all that complicated. They approach football like they are a 53-man UFC fighter. The Vikings will be sore on Monday. That's a given. But, Oakland has a team that has its share of weaknesses and the home-field advantage could be the difference between winning and losing.
Preview: Raiders aggressive risk-takers
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