Raiders vs Ravens: Top 10 players to watch come Sunday
Can the Raiders get back on track?
The Raiders play the Baltimore Ravens at home Sunday. Putting a ‘W’ next to this contest when the schedule came out took little effort. That was before Derek Carr got hurt, before the Raiders scuffled through consecutive losses.
Strengths became suspect during a rough fortnight in Washington and Denver, leaving Raiders fans wondering how a season that started so well could’ve taken a wrong turn. This could be a game to get right – the Ravens, too, have struggled mightily in recent weeks – even if EJ Manuel starts as expected. Can the Raiders get back on track?
Here are 10 men key to Sunday’s outcome:
10. LG Kelechi Osemele
The offensive line’s tone setter gets amped for special games, and playing his former team certainly counts as one. Osemele adds a nasty edge to the Raiders offensive line, and should bring his best against defensive lineman he practiced against for years. The Raiders run game is out of rhythm, and all aspects of it must improve to get it going again. The offensive line will lead the way, with Osemele as its standard bearer.
9. TE Benjamin Watson
The Raiders still haven’t figured how to consistently cover tight ends. It’s been an issue for years including this one. Washington’s Vernon Davis and Denver’s A.J. Derby made big plays aplenty over the past few weeks. Baltimore veteran Benjamin Watson is up next. He has 18 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown over four games, with the savvy to create separation and made plays in big spots. Can the Raiders slow him down, especially in the red zone?
8. CB Sean Smith
The well-paid veteran had a rocky start to the season, losing a starting spot to TJ Carrie this summer while dealing with legal issues stemming from a July 4 incident where he allegedly beat his sister’s boyfriend. Smith, however, had his best day a week past a Denver. He was excellent in coverage, and kept the secondary going with Gareon Conley inactive and David Amerson concussed. It’ll be important to cover well again when called upon, even if Amerson and Conley can go.
7. OLB Terrell Suggs
Suggs is getting up there in age, but can still get after the quarterback. He has three sacks, two forced fumbles and nine other quarterback pressures thus far, while playing solid run defense off his edge. He can create havoc and game-changing plays in the backfield to even the Raiders’ edge in talent. Suggs should primarily be Donald Penn’s responsibility. The Raiders left tackle handles top rushers well, and must be on point when matched up with one of the best.
6. DL Mario Edwards Jr.
The Raiders pass rush is going strong because Khalil Mack has help on the inside. Edwards Jr. has created a strong interior push, with three sacks, six other pressures and six run stops. He’s healthy and playing his best football, keying a defensive line that has become a team strength. Baltimore’s offensive line is in shambles right now, with exploitable members on the interior. Edwards Jr. can capitalize on favorable matchups in this one to make plays in the backfield.
5. WR Amari Cooper
The Raiders’ top receiver is in a slump. His drops are up and production’s down, leaving a hole in the Raiders passing game. He needs to get involved early and often in this often, even when covered well. Quarterbacks and coordinators can help jump start this elite talent, which could boost confidence the rest of the way. Cooper is a home-run hitter after the catch. Getting the ball in his hands with space to create is important for the Raiders fortunes, and to kickstart their best skill player.
4. QB Joe Flacco
Flacco gets paid like a top-flight signal caller, but isn’t playing like one. He sports a 65 passer rating, with 601 yards, four touchdowns and six picks through four games. He has been particularly bad under pressure, with a 23.2 passer rating in those spots. That puts importance on Khalil Mack and Co. to get in Flacco’s face and force errant throws. An early Raiders lead and solid run defense will allow the pass rush to take control. Be wary of Flacco in a close game. Despite recent struggles, he can perform well down the stretch and steal a win if the Raiders aren’t careful.
3. RB Marshawn Lynch
Marshawn Lynch has struggled to get rolling lately, with just 30 yards in his last two games. He’s often hit early in runs, forcing him to break tackles even for minimal gains. He may not feature breakaway speed, but efficient runs are vital to an offense that has struggled on third down. Lynch can keep the Raiders on schedule and close out a game the silver and black are leading. Assuming, of course, Lynch is going strong.
2. Raiders starting quarterback
EJ Manuel should start Sunday’s game against the Ravens. That’s been the plan since a transverse process fracture was discovered in Derek Carr’s back. Carr is ahead of schedule, practiced twice this week and is pushing to play. That’s why he’s questionable on the injury report. His return is likely next week against the Chargers, but he can’t be ruled out of this one yet. Manuel inspired confidence after Carr got hurt in Denver, and the veteran seems comfortable in the offense. His arm strength is unquestioned, and is capable of beating Baltimore. Assuming, of course, he’s given the chance as expected.
1. OC Todd Downing
The rookie play caller drew praise for his work in consecutive wins to start the season. The tide has turned during a two-game losing streak where a talented offense has struggled. Hero or goat. Such is life for a coordinator. Downing can help this week with an EJ Manuel-friendly game plan if the backup’s service is required. The run game seems off and Amari Cooper needs a boost, with fans looking to Downing for a spark. The Ravens can’t keep pace with a Raiders offense maximizing potential. Few teams can. As we’ve seen recently, Silver and Black are vulnerable when it isn’t.