ALAMEDA -- There has not been a bigger game for the Raiders since the 2002 Super Bowl season.So of course it comes down to the Raiders and San Diego.Still, the Raiders not only need to sweep the Chargers for the second straight season after dropping 13 in a row to their SoCal rivals; Oakland needs to win and hope for help.To win the AFC West, the Raiders need to win and have Kansas City beat Denverin Denver.To win a wild card spot, the Raiders need to win and have Cincinnati lose at home to Baltimore and have Tennessee lose or tie Houston or have the New York Jets win at Miami.Sounds as simple as having Mike Mitchell shut down Antonio Gates, right?A look, then, at some key on-field matchups to watch Sunday afternoon from the O.co Coliseum:Raiders running back Michael Bush (29) vs. Chargers outside linebacker Shaun Phillips (95).TALE OF THE TAPEPalmer: 6-5, 235, USC, ninth seasonPhillips: 6-3, 250, Purdue, eighth seasonPalmer has absolutely owned the Chargers in his career.Phillips has 11 12 sacks against the Raiders in his career.Something has to give, no?"It's interesting, because last year they were the No. 1 team in the league in defenseand they've got the same players, for the most part, and we have a great deal of respect for what they can do," said Raiders offensive coordinator Al Saunders. "They're 10th in the league against the pass, 212 yards a game against the pass, and those are pretty strong numbers. And they can be pretty physical up front as a defensive unit."They're a very, very good defense when they're in sync andwe're going to have our work cut out for us."The same could be said for Phillips, who is officially listed as probable with a balky back, and the entire Chargers defense, which will be without linebacker Travis LaBoy and his injured knee, against Palmer.Consider: in four career starts against the Chargers, Palmer has a 129.5 passer rating in completing 88 of 123 passes (71.5 percent) for 1,322 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.Earlier in the week, coach Hue Jackson said Palmer was acquired for precisely this type of game. No pressure, right?"Pressure is part of the position," Palmer said. "I've been playing it for a long time and understand and know that that doesn't need to be said to me by the coach, and I understand that."If anything, it's always fun to play against your hometown team, you know? For whatever reason, we've matched up well and made plays. But this is a team that can make quarterbacks look bad."On Nov. 10, Palmer threw for 299 yards on 14 of 20 passing with two TDs and an interception in the Raiders' 24-17 victory at Qualcomm Stadium.Phillips, though, did not play in that game."He's definitely a difference maker," Palmer saidOther matchups worth watching: Raiders running back Michael Bush (29) vs. Chargers inside linebacker Takeo Spikes (51) -- While Spikes' playoff-less streak has reached 14 seasons, Bush is closing in on a personal milestone -- he needs 89 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for the season. Not a shabby accomplishment considering he did not become the Raiders' starting running back until Week 9, after Darren McFadden went down.The 6-feet-2, 242-pound Spikes leads the Chargers with 111 tackles and with the 6-1, 245-pound Bush a more straight-ahead runner, they are sure to collide.Especially since Bush rumbled for 242 all-purpose yards (157 yards rushing, 85 yards receiving) the last time the two teams met, the most for a Raiders player since 1963.And Spikes missed the second half with a concussion.Raiders linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (96) vs. Chargers left tackle Jared Gaither (78) -- Wimbley had a career-high four sacks against the Chargers back on Nov. 10. Gaither was not with the Chargers at the time.In fact, Gaither was thisclose to signing with the Raiders in training camp.The 6-9, 340-pounder signed with Kansas City instead, was waived by the Chiefs on Nov. 29 and was picked up by the banged-up Chargers a day later."I don't know what we would have done had he not become available," Chargers coach Norv Turner said in a conference call with Bay Area reporters this week. "He really solidified our offensive line and we responded."Indeed. Gaither has yielded only two pressures in four games.Said the 6-4, 255-pound Wimbley: "He has all the told you need to be a successful offensive tackle and he's done well. He has played well since he's been there, and he'll continue to do so."
ALAMEDA – Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio was twice asked about making in-season changes at his Monday press conference.
He wouldn’t rule it out. Del Rio said he would do anything necessary to help the team “win now,” and later said "we're not getting into staff questions this week."
Then he fired Ken Norton Jr. the next day, hoping the dismissal will provide a spark.
It might. More likely, it might not do enough.
It is a shot across the bow at its base, a signal that subpar play won't be tolerated.
“We played under our talent level,” defensive tackle Justin Ellis said, “Those things come with consequences.”
New play caller John Pagano has a unique style and knows how to bring creative pressure, disguise a simple play as complex and exploit weak links, but he won’t be using his system this season. He’ll still be working within Norton/Del Rio’s scheme and, more importantly, he’s still playing chess with existing, often inferior pieces. The Raiders understand that, and likely won't judge him on this final stretch alone.
Why? The defense doesn’t have enough talent in the secondary, the interior defensive line or the inside linebacker corps. That’s not on Norton or Pagano.
Pagano can’t do a thing about an offense struggling mightily to catch passes, block consistently and let plays develop downfield.
The Raiders have some major talent problems, with rush and coverage rarely working together as desired. That, and some uninspired schematics, have produced awful statistics.
The Raiders don’t have an interception, and are the first team to go 10 games without a pick. They’re on track to have the second-worst opposing completion percentage (72.3) and passer rating (113.3) in NFL history, per the Associated Press.
They’re also last in sacks for the second straight year, with just 14 this season despite having reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack.
They're thin because last year's second and third round picks, Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun aren't contributing. This year's draft class had to make an immediate impact, but Gareon Conley played two games, Obi Melifonwu spent eight games on IR and Eddie Vanderdoes as underwhelmed after a promising start.
Highly paid free agents haven't performed well enough, and many could be shown the door.
It’s possible roughly half of the starting lineup doesn’t return next season, with Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, Bruce Irvin and NaVorro Bowman likely out the door as free agents or roster cuts.
In sum, this isn’t all Norton’s fault.
He was, however, the easiest cut. You can’t fire players en masse during the year, and Pagano was an easy replacement without disrupting the position coaches. Pagano has extensive experience calling plays. He was the then-San Diego Chargers’ defensive coordinator from 2012-16.
Norton wasn’t an innovative play caller. He was passed over for coordinator jobs while serving as Seattle’s linebackers coach, after Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn were hired as head coaches. Del Rio, who played with Norton in Dallas back from 1989-91, hired Norton shortly after being hired by the Raiders.
The Raiders' defense has never been good under Norton/Del Rio, and Norton was on a hot seat most of last season. It was surprising when Pagano was hired that Norton was retained and allowed to continue despite underwhelming performance.
Norton was immensely popular in the locker room, especially with members of the front seven. Mack and Irvin in particular were Norton guys. Norton and Irvin go way back to Irvin’s Seattle days, where the coach helped the player get and stay on the right path.
That’s why this firing was deeply felt on Tuesday. The players were told in an afternoon meeting, following a walk-through focused on corrections from Sunday’s New England loss.
"The axe came down on everybody," free safety Reggie Nelson said. "Everybody felt it in this building. Players, we love Norton, regardless. Unfortunately, the production wasn't a high standard this year and it's a production league. He's not playing. We are.”
The Raiders are 4-6, and can’t afford to lose many more games. They might need to be perfect down the stretch to avoid a messy tiebreaker situation. That’s a tough ask for a team that’s been woefully inconsistent on both sides. This team was always expected to shoot for the middle defensively and have a potentially great offense score points by the bushel.
The offense has been most disappointing, performing far below its pay grade and talent level. There was no movement on that side of the ball. The Raiders hope, with fingers firmly crossed, this defensive change provide the spark necessary to create turnovers and quarterback pressure than has been lacking in a disastrous season to this point.
Ken Norton Jr.'s time with the Raiders is up.
With the team underperforming, Oakland has fired Norton as the defensive coordinator, the team announced Tuesday afternoon. John Pagano will handle the play calling duties when the Raiders take on the Broncos this Sunday.
Head coach Jack Del Rio issued the following statement regarding the news:
“After careful thought, I have made a difficult decision to part ways with Ken Norton, Jr. as defensive coordinator. I have the utmost respect for Ken as a person and as a coach, but I feel that moving John Pagano into the play-calling role will best utilize his wealth of experience. I appreciate Ken’s passion and commitment to the Raiders since coming aboard and wish him the best going forward.”
The Raiders defense under Norton this season ranks 26th in the NFL in yards allow per game (367.0), is allowing 24.7 points per game and has yet to record an interception through 10 games.
"We played under our talent level. Those things come with consequences," defensive lineman Justin Ellis told reporters shortly after the news broke.
"The axe fell on all of us. We love Coach Norton. We didn’t want to see this happen," safety Reggie Nelson said.
Norton joined Del Rio's staff prior to the 2015 season.