Five things to watch: Patriots at Raiders
When the Patriots invade The Black Hole in Oakland for the first time since 2008, the pressure will be on their highly scrutinized defense to turn things around. Up until this point the Patriots have played with the lead for the majority of their games, so opponents’ rushing statistics do not pop off the page. Don’t let that fool you. As bad as New England’s secondary has been, the Patriots have given up the most yards through the air in the NFL, their run defense has been nearly as porous on a per-carry basis, though the fact that New England has faced the 26th most carries in the league masks this fact quite well.
The Patriots have given up 4.3 yards per carry against the Dolphins, Chargers and Bills, good for 19th best in the league. The Raiders come in leading the league in rushing and averaging 5.5 yards a pop, best among teams with at least 90 attempts. Look for Oakland to attempt to establish their ground game early, that means a heavy dosage of league-leader Darren McFadden in an attempt to keep Tom Brady off the field and out of rhythm.
Can Devin McCourty turn it around?
Cornerback Devin McCourty has struggled early this season, but, in his defense, he has faced three pretty good receivers. Brandon Marshall of the Dolphins and Vincent Jackson of the Chargers are both big, physical receivers that are virtually impossible to defend one-on-one in the intermediate range, but that is exactly what the Patriots coaching staff asked McCourty to do, leading to performances of 139 and 172 yards respectively. McCourty bounced back a bit last week, holding the Bills’ Stevie Johnson, a good receiver in his own right, to 94 yards. He did, however, get beaten badly on a fade route for a touchdown to Johnson.
This week McCourty will not be staring across the line at a star receiver. Rather, he will likely be matched up with one of Oakland’s trio of young speedters in Jacoby Ford, Louis Murphy or Denarious Moore. Ford and Murphy’s statuses are unknown for Sunday, but all three are pretty similar in that they are undersized but very, very fast. Quite the opposite of the three large targets McCourty has faced this year. If there was ever a week for McCourty to prove he is back, it will be this week against a corps of receivers he can match up with physically and an offense that does not throw all that much on the whole.
Will Brady be Brady?
Listen, as bad as the Patriots pass defense has been, the Raiders have not been much better. That is why they will hope to run the ball and construct long drives to keep quarterback Tom Brady on the sidelines. Like the Patriots, the Raiders were the victims of a second half Bills comeback and could not stop Buffalo signal caller Ryan Fitzpatrick. Oakland gives up nearly 290 passing yards a game, good for 28th in the league and only marginally better than the Miami defense that Brady absolutely torched to open the season.
Like Miami, Oakland has a front seven that can rush the passer, but only one standout player in their secondary. As in Miami, where Brady simply avoided Vontae Davis, look for New England to steer clear of Stanford Routt and exploit matchups over the middle to receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski. This could mean another quiet day for Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco, but it could be by design.
Will Richard get revenge?
The Raiders are enjoying a great season from their defensive line, and a big part of it is the play of former Patriot Richard Seymour. Early in the 2009 season, the Patriots sent Seymour to Oakland in exchange for a 2010 first round pick, and this will be his first chance to dish out a little revenge. He has played very well to date, leading the Raiders with 2.5 sacks in only three games, and has helped change the culture of the Raiders defense. As Trent Dilfer said during the September 12 broadcast of the Raiders and Broncos Monday night game, they have “built a bully” in Oakland.
The Patriots have done a very good job protecting Brady early on. Rookie tackle Nate Solder has looked great in pass protection, and veteran Brian Waters seems to be picking up right where he left off as a Pro Bowl player in Kansas City. The Patriots have only allowed three sacks this year but the Raiders come in as a top-5 team rushing the passer, amassing 10 sacks on the young season. Brady getting the ball out of his hands quickly will help, but the Patriots’ offensive line is going to have its hands full with Seymour and his band of bullies.
It is not very often that you go into a game actively worried about an opponent’s kicking game. It is also not very often that a team uses a first round pick on a kicker, as Oakland did in 2000 with Sebastian Janikowski. While the merits of that selection can still be debated, it cannot be argued that Oakland has the strongest pair of legs in football. Along with their controversial kicker, who tied an NFL record with a 63-yard field goal in week one in Denver, the Raiders boast the league’s best punter.
Shane Lechler has been changing field position in Oakland since he arrived in 2000 as a fifth-round pick, but he has never started better than he has this year. Lechler is averaging 56.2 yards per punt, including a 77-yard bomb against the Broncos. The former Texas A&M all purpose kicker is on his way to a year of averaging over 50 yards a punt. If he is able to do this it will be only the third time in NFL history the feat has been accomplished. The others? Shane Lechler in 2009 and Sammy Baugh in 1940. Oh, and he has been All-Pro every year since entering the league with the exception of 2005.
While the thin air in Colorado does make it slightly easier to boom record-setting kicks, both of these talented kickers can change the game. Lechler makes three-and-outs by the Raider offense less of a problem and Janikowski’s range out to 63 yards gives Oakland more options around midfield. It will be on the Patriots offense to dig out of these holes when they are put in them, and the defense to tighten up before the Raiders reach the New England 45-yard line.