By Merlin Edwards III
When your NFL team starts off the season by going 2-1, depending on the fan base you will either be contempt or ecstatic. The ecstatic feeling comes from fans who aren't used to it, and the contempt feeling is for those fans who have enjoyed high expectations for years. The Oakland Raiders fan base has no excuse to be anything but ecstatic.
Even for those fans who are ever-optimists and think the team has been good enough to make the playoffs for years (and there are some of you out there), everyone must be happy about this start we have in Oakland. Yes, they should have had a better showing and won the very winnable Falcons game. Yes, they could have played a bit better in every other game. And no, they still haven't put a full 60 minutes of great football together. But they haven't gone 2-0 on the road to start the season since 2002 (the last time they made the playoffs). At the very least, something must be said about that accomplishment.
The Tennessee Titans are a team that the Raiders should beat, and did beat last Sunday. It wasn't a pretty game, but nobody cares about that as long as there is a check mark in the column labeled "W" and not "L." The defense looked much better, and for a couple of different reasons. Some of those reasons being that the Titans have major flaws that the Raiders were able to exploit, but also the play of new guys helped form a newfound energy, passion, and speed that the defense hadn't shown.
The coaching staff finally gave rookies Karl Joseph and Cory James a shot to make plays, and make plays they did. Karl Joseph led the team in tackles in his first week playing defensive snaps, and Cory James was right behind him. Neither of those players had played more than 10 snaps combined throughout the first two games on defense. Partly because Joseph was still nursing a knee injury, and Ben Heeney was still getting a chance to play. But when the time came for the new guys to show what they could do, they brought the heat. Joseph was all over the field and Cory James seemed like a guy who could fill holes when needed, and was able to stuff running plays at the line.
The defensive line still hasn't been able to break through and get pressure, which is a problem, but the secondary finally had a good showing and was able to keep them from making big plays through the air. Sean Smith finally came to play and even had an interception, but the story of the day was David Amerson. Amerson graded out better than any other NFL player has so far this season per Pro Football Focus. He was thrown at plenty of times, gave up less than 40 yards, and broke up 5 different passes. Without Kahlil Mack and the line getting pressure, the defensive coaching staff could not have asked for a better performance. Even though the defense finally showed up to be a less leaky group, the offense did what they could to give the team a chance to win.
Derek Carr has been able to lead the Raider offense to look like one of the top five in the league, and even with a mediocre performance, they look poised to be world beaters. After scoring 28 or more in the first two weeks, scoring 17 against the Titans wasn't so hot. On a day where the defense played much better, however, Carr and Co. scored enough to win the game and that is all that matters.
The running game still looks great, and are ranked 2nd in the league behind Denver even with 30 less total carries. (Denver has 100+ and the Raiders have 77). The rapport that Carr has with Crabtree and Cooper looks like it will be dominant and even elite for years to come. The Raiders truly do have a state-of-the-art offense and it is showing, even when they don't play their best.
So after escaping Tennessee with a win, they have the chance to start 3-0 on the road, something they haven't done since the 2000 season or the "Tuck Rule" season, as I like to call it. When the Raiders travel to face the 3-0 Baltimore Ravens, they will need to play a full 4 quarters of solid, winning football. Even though the Ravens were 5-11 last year, (with one of those losses in Oakland) this Baltimore team seems to be much further along both defensively and offensively. Last year there were major injuries to both Terrell Suggs and Joe Flacco throughout the season. Both leaders of the defense and offense, respectively, are healthy this season, and are motivating their team to play like it.
With guys like C.J. Mosley and the aforementioned Suggs, this defense is big, fast, and nasty, but they do have holes. The Ravens main focus is stopping the run, and if the Raiders can continue their success on the ground, this will be an easier game than we all can imagine. However, I do not think that will be the case. The Ravens front 7 is stout, and will hold the Raiders ground attack in check (because they are just that good), but the passing game is a vulnerability for them and can be exploited. The best coaches in the league find match ups and attack them, and that is what OC Bill Musgrave must do in order to leave victorious. Musgrave went at Titans DB Parish Cox last week, early and often. It didn't matter who Cox lined up against, whether it was Cooper, Crabtree, or even Seth Roberts in the slot, plays were called to attack him and it worked. The same thing must be done this week against Ravens DB Shareece Wright. Even though they were on the losing end, the Jaguars, last week, were very successful attacking Wright while fielding an inferior QB and Receivers than what Oakland has. It took Baltimore's awesome special teams to block a field goal attempt to keep them in the game and eventually win. If the Raiders are able to exploit the weakness of Wright, as other teams have done in the past, it won't matter if the running game gets going. Derek Carr has to show why he is considered one of the best QB's in the league, play mistake and turnover-free football, and the Raiders will have a real chance to win on Sunday.
The odds are against Oakland, as they have gone 1-16 in their last 17 road trips to the eastern time zone. They will need the offense to play flawlessly and attack favorable match ups. They need the defense to once again show up on the road and play bend-don't-break football. Lastly, the Raiders need their group to keep Devin Hester and the great Baltimore unit from making game changing plays on special teams. In other words, the Silver and Black desperately need to play a complete game, all the way through, in order to win. The Ravens haven't played any team that is nearly as good as the Raiders, and will be tested, but they are no push overs. Whomever comes out with a win will have played a more complete, mistake-free game, and the Raiders have yet to do that. Brace yourselves, because this will be an edge-of-your-seat, hard nosed, slobber-knocker of a game.
My Prediction: Raiders 17, Ravens 21