For months, I’ve circled this as a trap game on the Raiders schedule. The Titans are trending in the same direction that the Raiders were a year ago. Tennessee is a young team on the rise and their looking for a statement win early. Meanwhile, the Raiders have a ton of pressure on them from an offseason filled with hype.
As a matter of fact, I actually picked against my favorite team. It should come as a surprise given that Oakland barely beat the TItans in 2015 and 2016. Not to mention, the Raiders still have the same questions, at all levels of their defense, as they did in each of those seasons. Obi Melifonwu was expected to help with some of the liability in the secondary but he is headed to IR. Gareon Conley could make his debut but it is unclear how effective he will be after missing most of the offseason.
All that pessimism aside, let’s see how Raider Nation can come home with a win. Here are the Raiders keys to a victory in Tennessee.
Defensive Tackle Play
Once again, the Raiders defense will be determined by their inside interior linemen. Especially for this game, the Raiders DTs, NTs, and DEs will need to push the pocket to create pressure on Marcus Mariota. If they can do this, Mariota will be forced to the outside which will allow Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin to finish the young stud QB. This also keeps the Raiders from having to blitz every play. Oakland will need extra help in coverage as the Titans employ Delanie Walker as one of the best TEs in the league. The Raiders are notoriously bad at covering the tight end so hopefully you have Walker in your DFS this week.
Otherwise, Mariota can step into the pocket and create himself running and passing lanes. Added time means the Raiders secondaries and corners could get beat by the likes of Corey Davis.
Moreover, the Raiders DTs will also be critical for protecting the inside backers. Derrick Henry and DeMarcco Murray might combine for the scariest backfield in the NFL. Their offensive line is just as scary and dominate as any other group in the league. Thus, the defensive line is in for a physical battle.
Depending who you ask, this defensive tackle group is either young or unproven. Between Jihad Ward, Mario Edwards Jr. Denico Autry, Treyvon Hester, Jihad Ward, Jelly Ellis, Darius Latham and Eddie Vanderdoes it is unclear if any player is ready to dominate. It remains to be seen if any of those players will ever become consistent NFL starters. Either way, they have a big opportunity this week.
Pound the Football
Much of the talk is about Murray and Henry. However, the Raiders have their own slate of backs. We finally get to see Marshawn Lynch in full Beast Mode. Much of the offseason talked about him returning home. Raiders fans finally get to see their hometown hero full speed versus another team.
Added, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington should see some run too. They will be critical to spelling Lynch and keeping the defense on their toes. Both men are great pass catchers, they’re hard to tackle and they can take it to the endzone on any touch. Washington and Richard should keep Lynch fresh. We should see a heavy dose of both until one man runs away with the second RB job.
Ultimately, expect the Raiders to pound the football. Their offensive line and running backs are too good not to run the ball 60 percent of the time in this game. This will be critical to neutralizing the Titans plethora of zone blitzes and edge rushers.
Live up to the Moment
The Raiders are in a new position. Oakland is many people’s Super Bowl pick. They have a Pro Bowl quarterback and a bunch of skills players on people’s fantasy teams. The Silver and Black will have the entire mainstream watching them as they start a quest for a Lombardi Trophy with the cloud of relocation hanging over the great city of Oakland. Can the Raiders live up to the hype?
Oakland can not run from the big moments in this game or the rest of the season. Things will go wrong in this game but the Raiders have been their before. They must play like they are a Super Bowl contender from the opening kick off versus Tennessee. The Raiders need to set the tone by playing full speed even when adversity hits on the road versus the Titans.
I don’t expect this will be a problem for them. Oakland has Jack Del Rio at head coach and Derek Carr at QB. Players will run through walls for either of those great leaders. Not to mention, that duo has already lead some great comebacks over the past two seasons. Now, they must dominate games as the favorite. They got to beat the Titans like it is no competition.
The Raiders will always be underdogs, yes. Just last week CBS Sports ranked the Chargers over the Raiders. Either way, we embrace the underdog image as Raiders fans. However, this year the Silver and Black must learn to function in the spot light. This game against the playoff contending Titans is the first step in that process.
It is pretty easy to list off the reasons why the Oakland Raiders should not keep defensive coördinator Ken Norton Jr. A recent Just Blog Baby article makes a compelling argument for firing Norton Jr.
Additionally, head coach Jack Del Rio called out the defense it in his closing press conference.
“There were far too many explosive plays allowed this year, whether it be run or pass,” Del Rio said. “That’s, you know, that’s an area that must be addressed. That might be the number one thing that we must do better going into 2017.”
Not to mention, the Raiders gave up the most yards per play in the league. They also gave up the 13th most points per game. Oakland ranked No. 4 in penalty yards for defense. The Raiders also gave up the No. 10 most rushing yards per game and the 9th most passing yards per game. They also finished last in the league with 25 sacks.
All that said, Ken Norton Jr. deserves to keep his job for another season.
Placing the blame on him for the poor defensive play is irresponsible. Norton Jr. is merely the figurehead, coordinator and collaborator. He is not out there to execute plays, although he did once roam NFL fields.
Now, let’s look at why Ken Norton Jr. should stay another season in Oakland.
Defense played well in stretches
We all remember the horrible outings versus the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons. It has also been cited that the Raiders gave up more points than any other team during the third quarter.
However, the Raiders played well in stretches. Quarterback Derek Carr led many fourth quarter comebacks but the defense put him in a position to do that. The defense clinched victories versus the Baltimore Ravens, Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans.
Not to mention, the team led the league in turnover differential. That is precisely the culture Norton Jr. was supposed to bring with him from the Seattle Seahawks.
It is not all Ken Norton Jr.’s fault
Ken Norton Jr. earned some criticism for his play calling this season. There were times where he needed to blitz and didn’t. There were other times he made questionable coverage calls.
However, Norton was not out there missing tackles on big plays. He was not out there holding receivers and committing pass interference. That is execution.
Something all the Raiders defenders could have done better.
Not to mention, Jack Del Rio is a defensive mind. Therefore, I’d put some blame on him too. I’m sure Del Rio hired Norton Jr. as a first-time coordinator so the defensive head coach could still have some say in the day-to-day operations of the defense.
I don’t want to overlook the Raiders terrible defensive standings. However, let’s remember this team played with a ton of defensive linemen and linebackers. On-field adjustments are difficult when you go through three starting middle linebackers and play callers via Ben Heeney, Cory James and Pat Riley Jr.
It is hard to do anything when your interior players are either true defensive ends or out of shape. Denico Autry, Jihad Ward, Mario Edwards Jr., Dan Williams, Justin Ellis, Darius Latham, and Stacy McGee all took turns playing injured and inconsistent.
As for coverage, the Raiders lost their nickel corner to injured reserve and went through three starting strong safeties. You can blame play calling for poor coverage assignments, but corners David Amerson and Sean Smith are paid well enough. They should cover anyone via any scheme.
I’m not saying Ken Norton Jr. doesn’t deserve any blame, but he does not deserve all of it. This team featured new starters at both safeties, corner, two linebackers spots and two defensive line positions. Give Norton Jr. a break. These guys should improve with playoff experience and another year in the scheme.
There is no better replacement
Don’t give me your Wade Phillips rumors. No disrespect to him, he is a great football mind.. However, the Raiders need a coördinator who is more connected with their players like Norton Jr.
The only name that might be better is Gus Bradley, who also has a Seahawks pedigree.
Remember, Del Rio has maintained that he is building a winning culture. Part of that culture includes updating the facilities and playing music at practice. Another part of it is winning.
Phillips may know about defense and winning, but they do not know about this new Raiders culture. Del Rio does not need the old heads stepping on his toes.
Further, Norton Jr. and Del Rio played and coached together. Entering a third season with the Raiders, the duo will develop more chemistry and make better adjustments next season.
The team could roll the dice on an internal candidate, but you’re still talking about a team adjusting to a new leader and play caller. Let the defense continue to develop under Norton Jr. in 2017.
The defense will improve in 2017
I get the frustration. The defense did not make a sack in the last three games. They failed to rise to the occasion in the last regular season game versus the Denver Broncos and against the Texans.They also did not recover a couple of fumbles versus Houston.
Plus, the defense did not grow enough in year two of Norton Jr. This is especially true when you factor in offseason additions like draft picks Jihad Ward, Karl Joseph and Cory James and free agents Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson.
Still, championships are not won in free agency. The Raiders should finally address the middle of their defense with the No. 24 pick in the NFL Draft.
Expect them to take a linebacker and/or defensive tackle with the first couple of picks, like I’ve said for three seasons.
Del Rio even admitted that the team did not get enough push in the middle via ESPN. He called out the whole defensive tackle group for not being factors this season.
Therefore, this team will get better when they get some consistency at middle backer and defensive tackle.
Plus, the Raiders should see Aldon Smith finally reinstated. That could allow Bruce Irvin or Khalil Mack to concentrate more on linebacker duties.
Further, Smith’s presence on the edge may slide Jihad Ward or Mario Edwards Jr. into full-time defensive tackle play. Both players could use some bulk to better anchor against the run, but they both have the god-given traits to terrorize guards in a pass rush situation.
Additionally, I expect Joseph and James to improve with another year in the system.
In the end, I believe Ken Norton Jr. deserves some blame for the poor defensive play. However, firing Norton Jr. will not solve all the Raiders problems. Give him one more season so this unit can develop together.
Good teams do not fire their defensive coordinators. The Raiders are finally a perennial playoff team and firing Norton would only set them back.