For years, seeing the Oakland Raiders on a team’s schedule typically translated into a win. Since losing the Super Bowl in 2002, the Raiders have never had a winning record in the last 12 years and have lost 11 or more games in 10 of those seasons, including a dismal record of 11-37 from 2012-14.
But the Raiders team the Minnesota Vikings are going to face Sunday have apparently turned a corner. After years of bad drafting, the team has a young core of players that is going to lead them into the future a lot brighter than its recent past. That starts with quarterback Derek Carr.
In his second season, Carr is playing at a Pro Bowl level, having thrown for 2,094 yards with 19 touchdowns, just four interceptions and a passer rating of 104.3. He has topped 300 yards in four of those games and, since Week 1, has thrown more than 30 times in every game. If the Vikings are to slow down a Raiders offense that has gone from the bottom of the league in scoring last year to seventh this season, it will start with getting pressure on Carr. He has been sacked just eight times in eight games – and just once in the last three games, despite dropping back to pass 112 times in that span.
The running game is the domain of Latavius Murray. He has almost every carry the Raiders running game has produced this year and has been compiling some impressive numbers. Despite carrying the ball more than 15 times in just three games, he leads the AFC in rushing with 630 yards, which ranks him sixth overall and, as the Vikings continually say, the first goal of the defense is to stop the run and that starts and ends with Murray. In the three games in which the Raiders have committed more than 15 carries to him, he has rushed 63 times for 348 yards. It will be incumbent on the Vikings to keep him in check or the Raiders will be able to diversify the offense and pick and choose when they take deep shots to their playmaking receivers.
Few teams have the number of targets and receptions than the Raiders have with free agent signee Michael Crabtree and rookie Amari Cooper. The two have combined to catch more than half of the passes thrown by Carr. Crabtree has 47 catches for 591 yards and five touchdowns and Cooper has caught 45 passes for 653 yards and four TDs. Vikings cornerbacks need to pick their poison because both of them are capable of making the big play that can tilt the momentum of a game. Between them, they have played 16 games this season and have at least one reception of more than 20 yards in 13 of them, including six touchdowns of 25 yards or more.
Depth behind them isn’t strong. Rod Streater is seen as the No. 3 wide receiver and tight ends Lee Smith, Mychal Rivera and rookie Clive Walford have made minimal offensive contributions. The focus for the Vikings is going to be on Crabtree and Cooper because nobody else has stepped up to make a big impact on the offense.
The biggest injury news of the week is the expectation that center Rodney Hudson, the rock in the middle of the Raiders offensive line, is doubtful to play Sunday, which could create a huge disadvantage for the Raiders since Linval Joseph is coming off a career day and Sharrif Floyd is expected back in the starting lineup. The Raiders offensive line isn’t studded with high draft picks or star talent outside of Hudson. In fact, there is a Vikings connection along the line, as two former Vikings – left tackle Donald Penn and right guard J’Marcus Webb – are in the starting lineup. Neither of them are dominant players, which, especially without Hudson, could make the Raiders vulnerable to the Vikings’ attack defense and could give Minnesota a distinct advantage.
As the Oakland offense has made a meteoric rise from the bottom of the league to respectability, the Oakland defense has been on the other end of that spectrum. The Raiders are 30th in total defense and dead last in pass defense, which has allowed several teams to carve them up.
The Raiders run a hybrid defense that alternates from a 3-4 to a 4-3, depending on where second-year phenom Khalil Mack lines up. The front line is young and got younger when Justin Tuck was placed on injured reserve. He was replaced by rookie Mario Edwards Jr., who will spend most of his time going up against Matt Kalil and Brandon Fusco. The only veteran among the group is Dan Williams, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals. This is a young group that is learning on the job together that the Vikings have the talent to neutralize. But when in a 3-4 setting, the linebackers take over.
When Mack is standing at the line, he and outside linebacker Aldon Smith, formerly of the 49ers, are a lethal duo and the vast majority of the sacks have come from their linebackers. Between Mack, Aldon Smith and former Seahawk Malcolm Smith, they have 9½ of the Raiders’ sacks. Throw in run-stuffer Curtis Lofton in the middle and you have a group that is capable of dominating games and blowing up plays. The Raiders like to vary up their blitz packages, so the Vikings will have to be pre-snap cognizant of where the pressure will be coming from.
The secondary is a hodgepodge work in progress that is headed up by future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson at safety. When he signed with the Raiders after spending years with Green Bay, it was thought that his homecoming to the team that drafted him was simply a move made out of loyalty and history. Woodson’s career has shown no signs of falling off. In fact, he is tied for the league lead with five interceptions and remains one the premier ball hawks in the NFL despite turning 39 last month. He is joined by fellow starter Larry Asante and former Viking cup-of-coffee safety Taylor Mays. At cornerback, the future resides with left corner D.J. Hayden, a first-round pick in 2013. Depth behind him is very thin, with former Redskin David Amerson and unproven youngsters Keith McGill, Neiko Thorpe and seventh-round rookie Dexter McDonald. This is a group that has been lit up often during the season and, while the deep pass hasn’t been a staple of the Vikings’ offensive arsenal, that may change this week.
At the beginning of the 2014 season, both the Vikings and the Raiders were viewed as two of the worst teams in the NFL. Less than two years later, both organizations would appear to have turned a corner and may both be on the cusp of big things. Which team is further ahead? The records would indicate that it is the Vikings, but we may find out otherwise Sunday, as both teams look at each other as a team they need to beat to achieve their mutual playoff goals.