The Oakland Raiders have an average offense if you look at their production over the entire season, with their 21.8 points per game ranking 17th overall, but New England Patriots fans can appreciate that performances in the first quarter of the season can be greatly different from the current level of play and still drag down the season-long figures.
According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Raiders have the 7th ranked passing offense and 11th ranked rushing offense, along with the 31st ranked variance, implying a vastly different offensive production on a week-to-week basis.
The Raiders offense opened up the year by scoring an average of 35.5 points in the first two weeks, but bottomed out in weeks 3-6 with 13.3 points per game. They’ve rebounded over the past three weeks with 24.0 points per game.
This low-level of production in the middle of their season aligns with a chest injury to wide receiver Michael Crabtree, a back injury to quarterback Derek Carr, a foot injury to guard Gabe Jackson, and a hamstring injury to running back DeAndre Washington. Jackson remains on the injury report with an ankle injury, but the others returned to health and the Raiders offense returned to relevance.
“We’re going against probably one of the best groups we’ve played all year from top to bottom,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said on Thursday. “I think everyone talks about [RB Marshawn] Lynch, but they have two other backs that can come in and make huge plays in the running game and the passing game. [There are] four or five receivers that can come in. So, you put that with Carr playing quarterback, anytime they can go out there and play like they played against the Jets. I think it was 42 points. We have to be prepared. They have a great offense. I say it all the time – Sunday’s, records, all that stuff doesn’t matter. You have two teams. Whoever prepares the best and plays the best usually wins.”
The five receivers that McCourty alludes to are Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Seth Roberts, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Johnny Holton. Cooper is an every down receiver and, when healthy, Crabtree plays opposite with Roberts more of a slot receiver. Patterson plays a considerable amount for not very much production.
But it’s Cooper and Crabtree that deserve the majority of the Patriots attention.
“They’re more similar than what you can see in some different wide receiver sets whereas you’ve got to kind of play them tough the whole way,” McCourty added. “You can’t say, ‘This guy’s only going short and this guy’s only going deep.’ You know, both of those guys have the full route tree, so it really comes down to just competing against them, trying to make it tough. There’s no one thing that we can do to kind of cancel one of them out of the game. They’re just tough receivers.
“I think one of the hard things is they’re everywhere. It’s not like one guy’s going to be at the Z, one’s going to be at the X and one’s on the left and they’re in the slot, they’re the third guy in trey formation, so we’ve got to have a high awareness of where those guys are at at all times. It’s a lot of different guys they have offensively that we want to be aware of where they’re at and try to understand what they’re going to try to hurt us with.”
The Raiders had been looking to get Cooper more involved after a slow start and they’ve decided to use him more in the slot more since week 7. He’s seen his opportunities skyrocket from 18 receptions on 39 targets (46.2%) for 146 yards and 1 touchdown over the first six games to 20 receptions on 38 targets (52.6%) for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns over the past three games, helping to revitalize the offense.
And Crabtree is arguably the superior receiver and certainly the more consistent this season. Crabtree and Cooper both rank in the top 20 most productive receivers in the NFL since the start of the 2015 season, joining Broncos duo Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas (and technically Giants duo Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall) as the only teams with two receivers in the top 20.
So the Raiders are top heavy and rely on Cooper and Crabtree in the passing game, which means that Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler will have their hands full. The Patriots have made the decision to allow Gilmore to shadow one receiver all game and it’s honestly a toss-up if they want to give him to Cooper or Crabtree. I think Gilmore matches up better with Crabtree and that Butler can handle the shorter Cooper, but we’ll have to wait until Sunday to see.
And then it’s also important to highlight how the Raiders offense goes far beyond just Cooper and Crabtree now. Tight end Jared Cook actually leads the team with 499 receiving yards this year, including an impressive 18 catches for 290 yards over the past three games. Patrick Chung will have his hands full all evening.
Beyond those top three receivers, and the clear threat of Roberts or Patterson as targets when they’re on the field, the Raiders have a trio of running backs that offer varying skill sets.
Marshawn Lynch is the lead back with 323 rushing yards and just 6 receptions on the year, while Jalen Richard is the back-up with 193 rushing yards and 188 receiving yards. DeAndre Washington rotates in, too, and have 95 rushing yards and 134 receiving yards. The Patriots will need to be aware of all their potential as both runners and receivers.
Much like how the Patriots defended against the Denver Broncos last week, the Raiders don’t have any wasted players on the field; everyone is a potential target on the field. The Patriots will need to be at their best from a communication standpoint and they cannot allow any errors on the back-end.
Of course, if the Patriots limit their errors and take advantage of the Raiders’, they could be at a huge advantage. Oakland has turned the ball over 13 times over their past seven games, nearly two per game, and rank 32nd in the league in takeaways. If the Patriots can build up an early lead, the Raiders will have an extremely difficult time clawing back.