The Raiders dropped to 1-4 in an emotional loss to the Falcons, today. The Raiders, coming off their bye week, looked to catch the Falcons off guard as they played physically all afternoon, especially on defense.
Matt Ryan, who many believe is the early front runner for MVP, was knocked around and ended up throwing 3 interceptions to a Raiders defense that had not had an interception for their first four games.
The Raiders also clamped down on the running game of Atlanta, with the entire Falcon team running 15 times for 45 yards, an average of only 3 yards/carry. That includes a 15 yard scramble by Matt Ryan, however, and if that is taken out the RBs ran 14 times for only 30 yards, a 2.14 yd/carry average.
In fact, the Raiders led in almost every statistical category. What did the team in, eventually, was penalties and turnovers. The Raiders had only been flagged 19 times coming into the game but drew 12 flags in this game, alone, a few of them holding plays that brought a number of long runs back. The Raiders also had 3 turnovers - 2 fumbles and and interception - all of which killed precious momentum for the squad and kept Atlanta's normally-potent offense in the game.
There are a few bright spots that can be taken from the game, even with a loss. First, the team showed that it can hang in with the best teams in the league. They were very close to beating Atlanta which remains the only unbeaten team this year.
Furthermore, the coaching staff made some decisions that many fans will be happy about. Most importantly, the team decided to take Rolando McClain out of their nickel package on defense, opting instead to keep standout SLB Philip Wheeler and rookie Miles BUrris on the field over the former first round pick McClain.
Readers of TFDS will know that this is an action I've specifically advocated for as McClain was a big liability on passing downs. Indeed the defense looked much faster and better able to react without McClain on the field and they did much better on defensive 3rd downs, too, holding Atlanta to just 2 of 9 on 3rd down.
Also, the team seemed to mix in a bit more power blocking which seemed to help the offensive line and running backs. Even so, the offensive line was not great - especially early on - allowing a lot of penetration on both running and passing plays. Still, they were okay and hung in with an above average Atlanta front 7.
Michael Huff, thrown into duty again at cornerback, looked much more comfortable lining up outside and was not the liability in this game that he's been in past weeks. He ended with a big interception as well as a few big 3rd down passes defended - including at least two 3rd down passes. The first, a long pass to Julio Jones, was initially ruled a completion but that call was overturned after Raiders head coach Dennis Allen challenged the play. The second was a great pass defense in which he had his back to the ball but read TE Tony Gonzalez's eyes and stuck his hands up to cause the incompletion.
The Raiders defensive line was inconsistent but showed a much better pass rush than they had in previous games and they were very stout against the run with the previously invisible Matt Shaughnessy really stepping up this game in run support. Shaughnessy also was awarded with the team's only sack although he just happened to be the closest player when Ryan fell down trying to escape pressure from multiple Raiders.
The fact that the Raiders seem to be improving is a good sign. I'm also appreciative of the fact that Allen and his staff are making some decisions - like the benching of McClain on 3rd down - to try different things and improve the game. They do not need to blow everything up and restart but there were definitely changes that needed to be made and, to his credit, Allen made them.
Despite the fact that the Raiders are 1-4, the AFC West is wide open, still. Playoffs by becoming the AFC West Champion are not out of the question.
Kansas City is in last place in the AFC West at 1-5 and lost 10-38 to a subpar Tampa Bay team, today. Denver and San Diego, both ahead of the Raiders in the standings, play each other tomorrow night on Monday Night Football. If the Chargers come out the victors they will be leading the division at 4-2. If Denver bests San Diego, they both will carry a 3-3 record.
If the Raiders can continue their intensity from the Atlanta game into the next few weeks they face some very beatable teams. Next week they get Jacksonville, who is also 1-4, at home although Jacksonville is coming off their bye week. That is a game the Raiders must win.
The week after, the Raiders travel to Kansas City to face a Chiefs team that is currently in shambles and without any clear QB or really any key offensive player other than RB Jamaal Charles. The Raiders must win that game as well.
They then come back home and play a Tampa Bay team that has potential but has thus far this year been unable to tap into that potential. The team really needs to win that game as well.
If the Raiders can win all three of those games - no easy task but an essential one if they have any hope of making playoffs this year - they will be at 4-4 and can potentially control their destiny through a much tougher part of the schedule.
If the team drops one or more of those three games they should start looking to next season for they will not be doing anything of note this season. That would include playing developmental players more to get them ready for the next season. Rookie OL Tony Bergstrom should get some playing time and the team should activate Terrelle Pryor and get young players like Brandion Ross and Vic So'oto time on the field to see what they have in them. Wide Receiver Juron Criner should be used more, as well.
In fact, the team may want to start using Bergstrom anyway. LG Cooper Carlisle has struggled this season and Bergstrom could potentially provide a spark for the team on the left side. Carlisle could then step into the backup role to be used as necessary.
There are a lot of decisions that coach Allen will have to make this week but he's shown to be a careful and thoughtful decision-maker and I look forward to seeing what the team does in the coming weeks. Today's team looked much more on track than in any previous week this year, including the Pittsburgh game and if the Raiders can sustain that energy and focus, they can still make a splash this year. Few if any 1-4 teams go on to make the playoffs. Let's hope the Raiders choose the road less travelled.