The Raiders have become comfortable in the underdog role, accomplishing things few expected while battling a brutal schedule both at home and during a five-game road trip.
They’re in the middle of the playoff hunt, with the AFC West and a wild card spot right there for the taking. It will stay that way if the Raiders can thrive in a new position.
They’re the favorites.
The Silver and Black are 10.5-point favorites against the winless Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Oakland Coliseum, a game they should win handily. Will they? They should considering Oakland was 0-10 not too long ago and those who were there remember how hungry that 2014 team was for a win. They must parry Cincinnati’s desperation to keep this good thing going and stay in the hunt.
Here are five Raiders who will be key to that effort:
RB Josh Jacobs
The Bengals are awful defending the run. Like, really, really bad, to the tune of an NFL-worst 173 yards per game. This could be an opportunity for Jacobs to set a proper tone, help establish an early lead and possibly chill if the game’s in hand. Or…this could be a chance to pad stats and generate totals that’ll help make rookie of the year voting easy. Either way, Jacobs should be a fun guy to keep an eye on in this one. The Raiders run game is strong, even against stout competition, so this should provide an opportunity to control the game with old-school football.
Jacobs is too good not to have an efficient day. He can take over this game early and control it. That would be a straightforward way to secure a relatively easy win.
DE Clelin Ferrell
The No. 4 overall NFL draft pick is back to his playing weight after a midseason illness and finding proper form working within the Raiders defense. The key here is about helping the team and building individual positive momentum for the stretch run. Ferrell had 2.5 sacks and six(!) run stops near the line of scrimmage, a complete performance the Raiders expect from their top pick and are starting to get.
“We have asked him to do a lot,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “He played inside, he played defensive tackle. I don’t know what Football Focus says, but if they focus on the numbers I bet he played inside quite a bit and that’s a real challenge for a rookie that is undersized and under his playing weight. So, we probably compromised him a little bit by asking him to do a lot, but I think last week seeing him at the outside position I think you really saw him at his normal playing strength, playing weight, playing position and played better. So, hopefully we can see more of that.”
A string of solid performances against lesser teams could build confidence and get him going down the stretch when the pass rush will be vital to late-season success.
DE Dion Jordan
The former first-round draft pick will make his Raiders debut on Sunday, just a day after being reinstated from an NFL suspension. It’s uncertain how much he’ll play, though the Raiders are hoping he can provide a spark rushing the quarterback inside and off the edge.
Jordan has massive potential yet unrealized due to a series of suspensions and substance abuse issues now firmly in his past. The nature of his position allows him to step right in and go, especially on passing downs.
“I don’t know what his overall football shape is without OTAs, training camp, missing 10 weeks of the regular season, but he did come in and really look the part,” Gruden said. “And we are going to try and ease the boat into the water and give him as much as he can take. He’s a talented kid.”
WR Zay Jones
It’s hard to call Zay Jones a newcomer anymore. The receiver was acquired nearly six weeks ago now, so integrated into the Raiders offense that his snap counts are consistently high. He has proven a solid blocker in the run game but hasn’t taken off with a big receiving game. He has six catches for 58 yards through three games played, and this could be an opportunity for him to make a mark and put enough strong play on film to become more of a coverage focus that could keep defenses honest.
Quarterback Derek Carr always looks to get multiple receivers involved, and this could be a game where he tries to build trust with the talented, shifty receiver.
S D.J. Swearinger
The Raiders need a new starting safety with Karl Joseph done for the year after suffering a foot injury. The Curtis Riley experiment has been tried once and didn’t work out, lasting just two losses where he was too often beat deep.
That means the Raiders should look to Swearinger, who will play right away against the Bengals. He’s comfortable with the scheme considering how similar it is to what he ran in Arizona before the Cardinals cut him.
He needs to be sure of his responsibilities considering mistakes in the back routinely lead to explosive plays. That’s how Cincinnati can stay in a game the Raiders should control.