The Oakland Raiders wrapped up their bye week Sunday and have a 10-game stretch in front of them. The good news is they have completed what appears to be the toughest part of their schedule.
The bad news is that their 2-4 record leaves the Raiders trailing every other team in the AFC West.
Though their record doesn’t indicate much success, the Raiders have actually outperformed general expectations. Terrelle Pryor has taken the league aback with his play-making abilities, something he credits mentorer Tom House for, and the defense has improved greatly after finishing 2012 as one of the league’s worst units.
Any road to the postseason will be tough and grueling, yet the Raiders still stand a chance of making it. It’s a long shot, but a shot nonetheless.
If the Raiders are to make it, there are crucial things they will need to improve upon — and a few key members of the team that will need to get healthy.
The maturation of D.J. Hayden and the 2013 rookie class
Much has been made of the progress of rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden. Some consider it more of a lack of progress.
The fact is that being a rookie is difficult, and being a rookie cornerback in the NFL is even harder. Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said:
“You turn bad into good, and good into great. … I’m encouraged (by Hayden) in that he learns from things to happen to him. He missed a tackle (against Kansas City) on a screen to start a two-minute drive during the second quarter. The next time he had an opportunity to tackle in space, it was a perfect form tackle and he knocked the ball out. That’s the life of an NFL rookie.”
Linebacker Sio Moore has proven his worth thus far in the young season and seemingly gets better with every play. Though he has only one sack and six tackles, Moore has been a force to be reckoned with.
When running the ball, opposing offenses have avoided Moore, surely not coincidentally, and instead have gone towards the weak side. Tarver says he likes what he sees from Moore, but that there is still much to improve upon:
“Sio needs to be consistent in setting edges, using his hands in the run game and not overreacting too fast in the pass game. He’s very instinctive and he can move in space.”
One player absent so far in the regular season is Menelik Watson, originally slated to start in place of left tackle Jared Veldheer after a triceps injury curbed him for the majority of the season.
Watson suffered a knee injury in a preseason loss to Seattle that was serious enough to warrant surgery. He will surely be welcomed back by the makeshift line that the Raiders currently have in place, as will Veldheer.
One solid truth that has emerged is the Raiders appear to be deep at the offensive line. A healthy personnel group could allow for a decent rotation in the future, keeping players like Veldheer healthy for longer.
What to do with the run game
Darren McFadden has shown more life when his lower body is churning than he had in 2012, but it still hasn’t been the same that fans remember from seasons past.
Pryor has been a factor in opening the run, leading the team in rushing, but McFadden entered the bye with nearly four yards per carry. Second string running back Rashad Jennings has the same average, but with a scant 34 attempts on the season.
A healthy offensive line would improve these numbers but, until that time, there seems to be little reason for optimism. Perhaps the best test will come against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 8 at home, with fresh sod over the dirt and a team that ranks 22nd in rushing yards allowed.
Then, they have the Eagles and Giants, two other teams that have had virtually no luck stopping the run.
If the team can get Veldheer and Watson back by Week 12, then both the run and pass could open up dramatically.
You said you were a wide receiver. Prove it
Denarius Moore is the receiving leader by far, and has more yards after the catch (158) than any other player has in total receiving yards, Rod Streater excluded.
When the team released Darrius Heyward-Bey, Moore was asked to step up to be the No. 1 wide out. Standing at a near-average six feet tall and weighing 190 pounds, Moore is hardly the typical No. 1. In fact, he’s not far off from the typical slot receiver, a position usually held by smaller, sure-handed receivers.
Considering the lack of depth, both Moore and Streater have answered the call in a huge way. Neither player had ever been projected to play the roles asked of them, yet both are putting up numbers similar to top players in the league.
The caveat for the Raiders’ offense is on the scoreboard: They have not put up enough points to win four of their six games. And while they might be a low-budget, ragtag bunch of misfits, they need to find a way to produce more points in order for the playoffs to be a possibility.
More special plays from special teams
The Raiders punt coverage unit has fared well against the opposition thus far in the young season, but not too well when returning kicks. Jacoby Ford has a long of only 30 yards, similar to his 23-yard return average on kickoffs. AFC West foes have three returns for touchdowns and all three have out-returned Oakland.
An often overlooked element of football, returning kickoffs and punts for good field position can be critical to a teams success.
It’s a topic that head coach Dennis Allen has brought up in nearly all post-game press conferences this season. Situational football is a trait that all winning teams have in common: They do it very, very, well.
The Raiders on the other hand, have not. They haven’t been awful, but far from avant-garde.
From Sio Moore learning how to set the an edge effectively, to Rod Streater getting in the perfect position to box out a defender on third down, every member of the team will need to improve on this element of their game moving forward.
“Like coach Allen says, there’s no moral victories in the NFL. We’re about winning. We need to play better situationally. We need to play better down at the goal line, especially.”
The Raiders are second in the AFC West in points allowed (132), but are allowing the 10th fewest rushing yards and 15th fewest passing yards. If the team was able to shore up the defense in purely a situational aspect, there’s no telling how much much more effective the unit could be.
The tests will be there during the upcoming four weeks, with the Raiders hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles, then going on the road to face the New York Giants and Houston Texans.