The Oakland Raiders, sitting atop the AFC West at 9-2, will be facing a stiff test to stay there when the Buffalo Bills roll into town.
There is no rest for the weary. The Oakland Raiders, coming off a big, comeback win over Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, will be thrown right back into the fire when Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills come to town.
Given the dogfight for control of the AFC West, there are a lot of folks looking ahead to next Thursday’s tilt with the Kansas City Chiefs. It makes a certain amount of sense, given the absolute importance of that game and what it means for the division. But looking past the Bills to that game would be a grave mistake.
A mistake we have to hope HC Jack Del Rio doesn’t let his team make.
Though 6-5 and scuffling along through much of the season, the Bills are a very dangerous team. Dangerous because they present a number of matchup problems for the Raiders. Buffalo has the potential to expose many of the weaknesses that have plagued Oakland’s defense all season long.
In Tyrod Taylor, the Bills have a swift, mobile quarterback who can throw or run for touchdowns – and doesn’t turn the ball over all that often. On the season, Taylor has thrown for 2,100 yards and 11 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He’s also run for 439 yards – Buffalo’s second leading rusher – and has added another five touchdowns to his total.
The Bills will also have LeSean McCoy in the lineup and he’s as dangerous as they come. Having rushed for 819 yards on the year, McCoy is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has tallied nine touchdowns. Though he’s not employed in the role all that often, he should also be seen as a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, tallying 175 yards on 28 receptions and another touchdown to his credit.
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Though they have showed improvement over the last five weeks, the Raiders have had a problem stopping the run all season long. And they have allowed 120 plus yards rushing in consecutive weeks – to Houston (124) and Carolina (129).
The concern of course, is that Buffalo rolls into this game with the league’s number one rushing offense. And in just the past four games, the Bills have racked up 167 (against New England), 162 (against Seattle), 183 (against Cincinatti), and 153 (against Jacksonville) rushing yards.
Simply put, this team can run the ball. And if McCoy is healthy – which he appears to be – he could present some real problems for a Raiders defense that is succeptible to giving up a lot of yards on the ground.
That’s where Oakland’s linebackers are going to have to step and play big against the run. They absolutely must contain McCoy and Taylor if they’re going to give themselves a chance to win this game. It’s a task made a bit more difficult if Perry Riley Jr., who has been the team’s best linebacker this season, is unable to go with his hamstring injury. He’s currently listed as questionable.
Another area Oakland’s defense has struggled in this season is in defending the tight end. Again, that’s a problem coming out of the linebackers group, but one that they will need to account for.
Charles Clay, is a big, physical tight end who is Buffalo’s second leading receiver. He has 36 receptions and 323 yards on the season. But given Oakland’s problems defending the tight end – although, they are still better at it than they were last season – we should expect to see Buffalo getting him more involved in the passing game.
And speaking of that passing game – Buffalo is currently dead last in the league. However, they have some good pieces that could pose problems for Oakland’s big, physical corners. Specifically, Sammy Watkins.
Watkins isn’t the biggest receiver on the field, but is exceptionally fast. And the Raiders have had difficulty with smaller, fleet footed receivers this season. Anybody recall what Brandin Cooks did to them?
Watkins is back from his foot injury, and last week against the Jaguars, he caught three passes on three targets for – 80 yards. That’s an average of nearly 27 yards a reception. The potential for Watkins to wreak absolute havoc in Oakland’s secondary is there. They will need to find a way to lock him down and keep him from taking over the game.
The best way to do that, of course, is to put a lot of pressure on Taylor. Keep him from getting into a rhythm and keep him from finding his receivers. He can’t throw the ball if he’s got somebody in his face play in and play out.
The Raiders did a terrific job of doing just that to Cam Newton last week – at least, they did in the first half. They harried and harassed Newton throughout the first half and limited his effectiveness. Newton went into the halftime break with one of the worst performances of his career.
Of course, he came out on fire in the second half, but that’s another story for another day.
They key to shutting down Buffalo’s passing attack is to get to Taylor early and often. They’ll need to contain him because he can run. And they need to rattle him badly enough to keep him from settling into a groove.
Offensively, Oakland is going to need more from the running game. A lot more. Especially with Derek Carr and his hurt finger. Though he came out firing after suffering the gruesome injury, it was clear that he was in a lot of pain.
Oakland’s running backs are going to need to take some of the burden off of him by stepping up and playing better than they have the last two weeks when they were limited to just 30 yards by Denver and 55 by Carolina.
Buffalo is coming in with the league’s eighth ranked pass defense, but twenty-first ranked run defense, so the Raiders will need to take the opportunity to exploit the holes in the Bills defense and make some plays on the ground. It might soften up the defense enough to allow Carr to make some plays down the field to Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Seth Roberts, and Clive Walford.
Across social media, people are already looking ahead to that critical game against Kansas City. Some are writing off Buffalo, repeating the statistic that the Bills haven’t won in Oakland in 50 years as proof that there is little to worry about.
Overall, the Raiders are the better team – and they should win this game. But they can’t afford to buy into the idea that they will win this game. Not without maximum effort and focus. One bad quarter against Carolina almost cost them that game.
If the Raiders want to get to 10-2 on the season and keep their momentum heading into the game with Kansas City, they need to focus on the task at hand. And that task is the Buffalo Bills. Rex Ryan is desperate (after all, his job may be on the line) and he’s going to have his team playing that way. Having won two games in a row, the Bills put themselves back into the playoff mix. And they’re going to want to keep their own momentum rolling.
Oakland is in the middle of a brutal stretch and the NFL did them no favors. They’re running a horrific gauntlet of four games in seventeen days. This is game three of that stretch. The Raiders need to keep their focus and take things one game at a time. One series at a time. One play at a time.
The game against the Chiefs is important. But so is this game with Buffalo. The Raiders can ill-afford to slip up by looking ahead. Instead, they’re going to need to maintain a laser focus on the Bills and find ways to overcome — or at least, mitigate — all of the matchup problems they present.