The Raiders head to Minnesota this week to face the 2-7 Vikings. On the surface, the 5-4 Raiders appear to be the odds-on favorite. But this one is about matchups. And in today's NFL, parity is the law of the land. The Raiders know this full well with the AFC West in a tight race from top to bottom. Here are the areas of interest to watch closely as the game unfolds.
Lito's back in the Land-o-Lakes
The last uniform Lito Sheppard put on before the Silver and Black was a purple and yellow one (I won't say purple and gold because it isn't gold... it's yellow). He played in 13 games in 2010 for the Vikings, starting two. They didn't re-sign him after that as they thought he couldn't play at a high level anymore.
Whether Sheppard is of NFL starting quality or not won't matter in this game. He will be starting for the Raiders and will be looking to show the Vikings that they made a mistake in letting him go. He was signed off the street prior to last week's game and was immediately inserted as the starter. He played a great game versus the Chargers though he did drop an interception that was as easy as they come.
With one game under his belt and health on his side, Sheppard has an ideal opportunity to perform at a high level against his former team and perhaps exorcise a few demons.
Return of DHB?
The past two weeks Darrius Heyward-Bey has not had a single catch, after he was in the midst of a career year. He averaged 96 yards per game in the previous four games, and there appeared to be no reason it would stop. But since the bye week, and the acclimation of Carson Palmer into the offense, DHB has barely even seen the field.
This week, the Raiders will be without Jacoby Ford who went down with a sprained foot early in last week's win in San Diego. This means that if DHB is going to find his way back into the Raiders' offense, this would be the most opportune time.
Hue Jackson said in his press conference Friday that Darrius has gotten in sync with the Raiders' new big armed quarterback and he expects DHB to return to form and have a big game. The previous week he had said the reason Darrius was not starting and didn't see much time was the Raiders were simply running different offensive schemes--ones that apparently DHB didn't fit into. So as a way of making it appear he was being honest, DHB came out on the first play. But even so, he didn't see a single target in the game.
This leads me to believe that we shouldn't expect to see much more in this game. I would put the over under for DHB at 1.5 catches, 17 yards.
Adrian Peterson all day
The Raiders should expect a heavy dose of runs from NFL top five rusher Adrian Peterson on Sunday. This would likely be the case for the Vikings regardless, but with a rookie quarterback behind center, it is even more so.
The Raiders' run defense has been up and down this year. They are still susceptible to being picked apart by the run. The game against the Broncos is the most recent example of this. Granted it was more a product of the zone read option that stumped and bewildered the Raiders defense. However, there is a lot the Vikings can learn from watching the tape of that game.
The Vikings will be studying the tape of the Broncos game as well as the Bills game in week two where Fred Jackson ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns and the Patriots game in week four in which Stevan Ridley and Benjarvis Green-Ellis combined for 172 yards rushing and two TD's.
The Raiders have had some good games versus the run this season, but it won't be too hard for the Vikings to find the chinks in their armor. Especially when they have Adrian Peterson there to make chinks where there might not otherwise be any.
The fightin' Jareds
Raiders starting left tackle, Jared Veldheer, will face his toughest challenge yet. He will be lining up against the NFL's sack leader, Jared Allen.
Veldheer is entering his second season in the NFL. He has been the Raiders' everyday starting left tackle for going on 20 games now. This season through nine games, he had yet to give up a single sack. It wasn't until last week that he gave up his first sack of the 2011 season, and even that one was borderline his fault. He blocked his defender as if he was protecting the pocket. Unfortunately Carson Palmer had escaped the pocket and ran to the right. At which point, his man ran full speed and got to Palmer just as he was throwing to force a sack/fumble.
There has been nothing accidental and very little borderline about Jared Allen's sack numbers this season. He has 13.5 sacks already this season. That is more than any Raider player had all season last year. The battle between these two will be epic.
How Veldheer handles himself against the relentless pass rush of Allen could say a lot. Most expect Allen will beat the young Veldheer at least a couple times. If Veldheer can keep Palmer clean, he will have earned the right to play in the Pro Bowl this season. If not, then we will know he still has a lot of work to do and Jared Allen is who we all know he is—a beast.
Raiders pro bowl defensive tackle Richard Seymour hasn't practiced all week. Every day through Thursday, Hue Jackson blew it off saying, "He's fine." But when Seymour missed practice on Friday, Hue was not so optimistic.
Up to this point, it appeared Seymour just had nagging nicks that older players such as him are known to get. Having days off of practice is a good thing to keep him rested and ready and give him a chance to be at his most healthy come game day. Now there is a chance he may not play.
If he can't go, he will be replaced by another veteran, John Henderson, who has also missed some practice. Henderson returned to practice on Friday and should be plenty ready to go. He had a great game against the Chargers last week and the dropoff shouldn't be too significant. But when you are facing Adrian Peterson, you can't afford any sort of dropoff.
I still see Seymour able to play Sunday with little or no issues. But we won't know until game time if that is the case.
Follow me on Twitter @LeviDamien or befriend me on facebook.