Oakland may be one of the worst teams in the league; this is beyond a trap game. What may have otherwise proven difficult, mainly because of a 4pm game in Northern California, has been negated by both a bye week to allow the team to be well rested for travel, and by Oakland's own implosion.
The team fired Lane Kiffin in a move some expected last year, midseason this year; Tom Cable, the team's line coach and former UCLA coordinator, is the new steward of the offense and in theory the team as a whole; however, Kiffin never really had autonomy over the defense and some say that Rob Ryan himself only has so much control. Cable was chosen over a number of other somewhat hand-picked Al Davis assistants - Greg Knapp, former SF and ATL coordinator, who received playcalling duties back after Kiffin was fired; James Lofton, a potential future head coach who was hired on without Kiffin's approval , and Ryan himself, who Kiffin wanted to fire and Davis forced to stay. Cable is 1-3 as head coach, just as Kiffin was before being fired.
There will be some matchup info following, but the critical thing for an emerging Carolina team this week should be fundamentals. Do your job right, beat the guy across from you, and then go find someone else to beat. Matchups won't win this game, better talent and coaching will; putting a lot into this game schematically will be wasted effort and drilling fundamentals this week will help both this game and future games. Overlooking the Raiders isn't what I'm suggesting, but there aren't any secrets here on how to beat them or what they try to do.
Oakland's defense, ranked 28th in yards/23rd in points, is ripe for the picking this week. Already down, the defense seems to be demoralized over the release of troubled DB Deangelo Hall. The Raiders defense has given up over 375 yards each over the last four games, and six of eight overall; they look on the verge of collapse and have had numerous personnel changes trying to fix the bleeding.
They were, in theory, built from the front back - the team that finished 3rd in total defense in 2006, though, looks nothing like this one. Tommy Kelly, some suggest, would be a top notch DT on a more well built team, and is an asset when healthy (a problem last year). The 6'6, 300 lb tackle is always a concern for batted passes and inside pressure. Gerard Warren, whose #1 overall selection was a failure in Cleveland and his punishment is apparently floating from one awful AFC West team to another, does have three sacks and puts up good pressure numbers, but seems to loaf and doesn't play the run well. They bring in their expensive backup Terdell Sands (6'7, 335) to replace the 325 lb Warren against the run.
At end, they play Jay Richardson (6'6, 280, 2nd year out of Ohio State/5th round pick) at left end on run downs and liberally substitute Kalimba Edwards, the former Gamecock and Lion, in passing situations. Edwards has started the last few weeks for the injured Derrick Burgess, who's doubtful for this game, which puts Edwards on Jordan Gross and the Raiders low in depth.
The Raiders have a very underrated pair of contain/coverage linebackers in Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard. Morrison finished over 110 tackles in each of his four years, and finished with 10 defensed passes/4 INT. Howard had 95 tackles as a 2nd year in 2007 and had 6 INT, including 2 TD. Remarkably unimpressive Ricky Brown is a runstopper at the other spot, another third year. The middle will be tested with any TE or back pass, dangerous territory if the Panthers try to pass short.
Their secondary is a point of concern - spending huge on Gibril Wilson and franchising Nnamadi Asomugha dropped them from 8th in pass defense in 2007 to 16th in 2008 so far. Hall being cut leaves the Raiders throwing a mess of Stanford Routt, Chris Johnson, and converted S Michael Huff to the task of playing the other corner. Asomugha will play Steve Smith, and the other spots are contested at this point, but none of them as good as Muhsin Muhammad by a longshot. The Raiders generally play Asomugha in man coverage, and don't give him any help, but also don't believe in blitzing, so the Panthers will see a mix of doubling Muhammad and just generic zone on the other side. One effective tool may be to put a slot WR inside Smith, to force the safety over, and use that to setup things on the other side with Muhammad.
It's not realistic to expect to hold the Raiders' offense to the 10 yards passing or 77 yards total offense from last week, but it is realistic to expect the Carolina defense, ranked 6th in the league, to be a good matchup against the 30th ranked Oakland offense. Oakland's scoring average since their bye week is under five points per game, a mark that includes last week's shutout and a 3 point performance coming off the bye.
The overly deliberate version of the WCO that has been run under, and after, Kiffin has featured a lot of TE dumpoffs (Zach Miller leads the team with 22 receptions) and RBs (backs account for 36% of completions), while battling WR injuries and turmoil.
Despite the nature of the offense and the method, it's not working - to the tune of a 48% completion percentage. The deliberate calls for deep passes don't work in their favor, and relatively easy to both judge and expect from Chad Schillens and Ashley Lelie. Schillens, at 6'4, 225, is a hefty receiver; Lelie's 6'3 makes him a theoretical matchup issue for most teams. Not for Carolina, and in reality not for most teams anyway. Javon Walker is their primary intermediate receiving target, and takes a lot of the shorter attention from DBs, but has only as many receptions as their backup RB, Michael Bush.
Setting aside the deliberate deep pass comes toward the overly deliberate run play - the wildcat formation. Oakland generally puts Darren McFadden in the shotgun on this play, with Bush in alongside. To this point, McFadden doesn't have the latitude with the play that Ronnie Brown has - McFadden hasn't handed off, hasn't run an option play, hasn't attempted a pass. Tape study shows that the entire formation series so far has been one call - a straight-ahead blocked zone read that allows McFadden the opportunity to pick and choose his hole. It's curious to not give the veteran of this scheme more looks, given that Arkansas used this with McFadden last year, but there may be thought that the rookie doesn't need too much added to his plate. Regardless, while this adds another thing for the defense to practice against (actually, that could be considered "one thing", not "another"), the defense's job to defend Wildcat is simply to play a less attacking front and flow to the football.
There's no trick to defend, there's no other concern. The Raiders don't even unbalance the line like other teams tend to do with this formation. Waiting for McFadden to start chucking a sideline lateral to Russell, who would then be able to pass deep off the playaction and flow to the ball, is very very unlikely at this point and it's doubtful the Raiders could pull it off right now. McFadden may not play (toe injury), so this may be a moot point anyway.
Past that, the Raiders run the ball well (10th in the league; 8th in yards/attempt) but rarely get the chance thanks to its 32nd pass offense. They've given up 22 sacks on the year, and blitzing them works well despite the dumpoffs.
Russell missed some practices this week, giving the Raiders the option of putting Andrew Walter out there instead. Walter's last significant action was 2006, when he had a 55.8 rating and completed passes at 53.3%. Like Russell, Walter was touted coming out of school as a big armed QB, that has a lot of pocket presence and size. Both have had problems in the pros setting up in the pocket fast enough, having good footwork, and getting good fundamentals into throws. Walter is not the accurate passer you'd expect from a tall drop back passer, and he's not the veteran that would be able to aid Russell. 3rd QB is Marques Tuiasosopo, the career Raider project, is a runner first and a passer second - he's been in three games in the last four years and has thrown 39 passes in that time.
On the OL, the Robert Gallery - Jake Grove combination is starting to finally come to fruition - instead of it being the LT-LG or LT-C franchise combination it was touted as, it's now an underwhelming guard-center tandem. Gallery at LG is finally working, and Grove is a steady center. Kwame Harris, another former first rounder, is at LT going up against Julius Peppers; Harris has given up 5 sacks so far this year and has committed 8 penalties. 6'6. 315 lb Cornell Green is the RT, and has given up 6 sacks already this year. RG Cooper Carlisle is a more steady vet than Green, underpowered but not holding the team back with mistakes.
Shane Lechler and Sebastian Janikowski are solid specialists; Lechler's nearly 49 yards per punt is excellent. Janikowski's averages aren't great, but part of that's trying unrealistic field goals. Johnnie Lee Higgins is their primary returner, at 9.1 yards per punt and 24.0 per return. Their coverage units, as well, give up 24.1 yards per return.
There's a chance these words will come back to haunt me - this should be a fantastic blowout, paced more by how conservative the Panthers will be when up than by the Raiders. The chance that Oakland wins this game is about as likely as the chance that Carolina wins this by enough that Al Davis throws something from his booth at booing Raider fans. If Carolina can't win this ballgame, they don't deserve postseason.