This Sunday, the 2-1 Houston Texans will come to Oakland to face the 1-2 Raiders in a game that could potentially let both teams know where they stand as contenders in the AFC this year. After waiting all summer in anticipation of the first game of the year, the Texans opened their season by dismantling the defending AFC Champion Indianapolis Colts. The Texans couldn't miss in their opener; jumping out to a large lead from the get go and not letting up until the final whistle blew. Since then, however, not so hot; after needing an impressive comeback to beat the Redskins in week two, the Texans flopped in week three's "Battle for Texas" at home against the Cowboys. The game was literally so boring that it put me to sleep when I watched it on NFL's game rewind...seriously.
Meanwhile the Raiders are in a battle with themselves---a never ending battle of epic proportions. Perhaps Donna Crain said it best when she commented on our Facebook page, saying simply, "These guys are the BIGGEST DARN DARNS." There's really no better way to put it. Fix the quarterback problem and the kicker can't hit from 32 yards...a high school chip shot. Yes, regardless of how much the Cardinals shot their toes off, the Raiders just found a way to continue beating themselves.It's a new week, a new day, maybe the dawn of a new era for one of these two teams. So what do the Raiders have to do to ensure it will be them and not the Houston Texans who attempt to prove themselves worthy of a divisional crown this year?
Head Coach Tom Cable believes that the Raiders are going to have to attack the Texans' zone blocking scheme if they want to be effective stopping their running game Sunday. Cable compared his favorite scheme to a rope, to keep it simple. He said to think of the lineman as a rope that moves back and forth together, and said the way to disrupt the zone blocking scheme is to make the rope not straight anymore, or break the rope.
Defensive coordinator John Marshall looked back at where Texans' head coach Gary Kubiak came from as the reason for their success on the ground more than the emergence of Arian Foster, "If you look back to Denver, when they had a different halfback getting 1,500/1,800 yards on the ground each year...it's the system." Still, Foster leads the league in rushing this year and this Sunday the Raiders defense will have an opportunity to show that they really have improved against the run. If they can shut Foster down and Darren McFadden can get to 100 yards again, the defense could help him move up the list en route to the 2010 NFL rushing title. That's always a good teaser; a battle within the battle.
Both Cable and Marshall think that their defense should have a good grasp of the ZBS, being that the Raiders have been running that system since Tom Cable became the offensive line coach for them in 2007. Marshall, though, is more worried about the Texans' passing attack.
Kevin Walter is "hell on wheels" according to Marshall, who compared Walter to former Denver Bronco and New York Giants' receiver Ed McCaffery. Marshall said Walter is a big-time player who blocks and isn't afraid to go after the ball, saying "He's like, ‘If the ball is in the air, it's mine.'" Marshall also gave credit to youngster Jacoby Jones, saying that Jones is most dangerous after a catch. Marshall believes this will be his defense's biggest challenge so far this season; that challenge being the Texans' offense. He called their trio of wide receivers, including four-time Pro Bowler Andre Johnson, "outstanding" and says the Raiders' also need to worry about tight end Owen Daniels in the passing game if they do manage to shut down the Texans' wide outs.
The Texans' offensive line has been poor this year at protecting quarterback Matt Shaub. So far, they've given up 11 sacks and 17 quarterback hits. They are so bad in pass protection that they are actually ranked below the Raiders in overall performance---and the Raiders are ranked 30th in the league. They are also without their left tackle Duane Brown, who was suspended last week (4 games) for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Brown is responsible for his quarterback's blind side and is the reason why Cowboys' defensive end DeMarcus Ware teed off on Shaub last Sunday.
Speaking of Shaub, he has been impressive since joining the Texans. He and the aforementioned receivers were the top passing offense in the league last season. This year the Texans have been taking advantage of their ground game more often and the pass game has dropped to 8th overall with 260.7 yards per game. That number is just about the same as the total yards the Raiders' defense has been giving up per game through the first three. Shaub is completing 69.7 percent of his passes, but the Raiders' pass defense is only allowing 57.3 percent completions to their opponents. Shaub has thrown just five touchdown passes to four interceptions, but has still played well enough to garner a rating of 94.7 this year. Something's got to give, what will it be?
On defense, the Texans are weak and sloppy this season. They are ranked 31st overall and even at the best of times all you can really say is ‘That's a little better.' They are giving up 423 yards per game and 6.9 yards per play. That's almost a first down every snap. They've also committed 20 penalties for 180 yards against them and are giving up 22-plus first downs per game.
Coach Kubiak knows they need to get better, "We've had spots where we've played well, and we've had spots where we've played very poorly and given up a lot of big plays. So, we're looking for consistency in what we're doing and we're struggling with that. We've been tested three weeks in a row, and I'm sure we're going to be tested again this week. The bottom line is you have got to stop the bleeding and quit giving up the big plays. People have thrown the ball extremely well against us."
They need to get better and it will be tough to do this week as a hungry Raiders team with a hangover prepares to clash with their dreams of becoming playoff contenders. Defense is said to win championships and the Texans' aren't buying any of that non-sense.
The Raiders are coming into this game with the 10th best offense in the league and they will look to continue Houston's ineptitude for pass coverage while they try to spark their red zone offense to score more touchdowns. This would be a good week to practice against a team that has given up nine touchdowns this year. The Raiders will try to make it 10, 11, and 12 as they attempt to get to that "hard to beat" 24 point game for the first time this year.
One person they will have to account for is Mario Williams. He will be doing his battling with the Mario Henderson/ Jared Veldheer combination that the Raiders have been experimenting with. Williams has a combination of speed, size, and strength that is hard to match, even at this level. The Raiders will have to chip him with halfbacks and tight ends if they intend to keep him off of Bruce Gradkowski this week.
In the Texans' secondary, rookie cornerback Kareem Jackson will have his hands full with emerging wide receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy. Jackson is a 5'10" 196 pound corner who was made the Texans' number one pick this year and was said to be "NFL ready" after playing with Raiders' MLB Rolando McClain in Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide defense. If the Raiders' receivers and offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, are wise they will plug a man who knows Jackson better than the Texans do for information about the rookie. So far this year, Jackson is more of a liability than a help to the Texans' secondary unit.
The Texans' do have an outstanding group of linebackers with DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing, and Zach Diles. Unfortunately for them, Cushing got wrapped up in a soap opera this offseason regarding performance enhancing drugs he supposedly used last season. Therefore, he will not be available until after their week five bye. Ryans is a Pro Bowler and Diles is a great supporting cast member who is coming into his own. They are attacking linebackers who can cover well and are hard hitters.
Safety Bernard Pollard joined the squad last season after being cut abruptly by the Kansas City Chiefs. He currently leads the Texans' defense with 30 tackles on the season. He and fellow safety Eugene Wilson are experienced players who also hit really hard. But they aren't as good in coverage as they are in run support.
I originally thought this game was definitely going to get chalked up in the loss column, especially after the Texans walloped the Colts in the season opener. Now, however, I think it is a really good match-up and will be a heck of a game that I can't wait to watch. The game could very well end up being that tie breaker that decides who gets that final wild card spot in the AFC this year. Little early to be talking playoffs, but it's never too early to think big.
Prediction: Raiders 27-Texans 26. The Raiders shock the NFL world and keep their home win streak alive at two in a row.
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