CINCINNATI – The Raiders are playing their best football down the stretch. They hung extremely tough against Kansas City, and then erased two fourth quarter deficits to beat Pittsburgh at home last week.
Cincinnati has lost five straight and look lost on defense these days, with Bengals fans here clamoring to hear that longtime head coach Marvin Lewis has been fired.
The Raiders could help secure such a fate with a victory at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals are 3.5-point favorites entering this game, which makes sense considering the Silver and Black’s overall performance this season and issues on the interior offensive line.
These teams are evenly matched, so it could very well be an entertaining game, even it’s not necessarily well played. The Bengals are working without receiver A.J. Green, quarterback Andy Dalton and middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The Raiders won’t have Kelechi Osemele and maybe Gabe Jackson at guard to deal with Geno Atkins.
Here are four Raiders to watch on Sunday morning -- guys who must perform well for the Raiders to notch a fourth victory.
LB Tahir Whitehead
The veteran linebacker and the team’s only three-down defender was justifiably criticized heavily this season for missed tackles and poor coverage. He has been much better of late, and a key cog in improved play against the run and pass. He had 16 tackles without a miss in Baltimore. He had a big quarterback hit and a forced fumble against Kansas City and had an interception against Pittsburgh.
“A couple of weeks ago, he couldn’t cover. He was [terrible in] coverage on Pro Football Focus,” head coach Jon Gruden said, sarcastically. “He just keeps playing, keeps hustling. …His effort level is great. I just think he’s a good player no matter who he plays for and what scheme he’s in. He just stays true to himself and trusts his abilities and makes plays.”
Whitehead’s ever-positive outlook has kept him on track towards improvement.
“I always tell the guys, ‘The same guy that’s rubbing the back, he is going to stick the knife in the same spot,’” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “Never listen to the outside noise and keep trying to get better as an individual, and that’s what he has done. He’s been a positive guy and a great asset for us. Hopefully he will continue to get better.”
He’ll need to make some big plays against Mixon, tight end C.J. Uzomah and athletic quarterback Jeff Driskel to keep the Bengals contained and lead the middle of the Raiders defense in what should be a competitive game.
NT Justin Ellis
The Raiders run defense has been better the past two weeks. The Chiefs had some yards piled up, but running backs didn’t have many. Pittsburgh barely moved on the ground, and it’s no surprise those improvements have come with Ellis back off injured reserve.
“It’s amazing how Justin Ellis has a factor in that,” Gruden said. “He’s helped us. Paul Guenther’s scheme is catching on I think. Yes, they have played better.”
He isn’t playing many snaps, but he spells others and plugs gaps for others to make plays. He and Johnathan Hankins must clog the middle and force Mixon to work for production outside.
Expect his playing time to move up a smidge this week as his conditioning has improved. Slowing Mixon is essential on Sunday, given that everything stems from him, especially considering Cincinnati’s offensive injuries.
“I know they have been putting an emphasis on that, trying to get him more touches, so we are going to have to deal with him,” Guenther said. “That’s not an easy task.”
LG Chaz Green
Recently signed Chaz Green will play in place of Osemele, despite being commonly viewed as a tackle. He has three professional games at left guard, so the position isn’t foreign -- although, he wasn’t good in those outings -- but he’s stepping into a difficult spot considering the opposition.
Dallas’ 2015 third-round pick must deal with elite Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who rotates on both sides of center but primarily plays against the left guard. Green will have help from Raiders Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson, but it’s still a difficult task going against game-changer like Atkins.
Quarterback Derek Carr has been excellent of late, which Gruden credits in part to solid protection up front. Interior pressure is the most troublesome kind, so the Raiders must find ways to keep Green going strong.
RB Doug Martin
The Raiders' run defense has been better lately, but remains statistically awful on the year. That said, they've been superior to the Bengals in that department. Cincinnati ranks dead last in the NFL with an average of 144.5 rushing yards allowed per game.
That means this could be a time for Doug Martin to lead the offense by steadily churning out yards. He has been solid since Marshawn Lynch went on injured reserve, primarily working on first and second down. Keeping the offense on schedule and on the field will be key in this one. If Martin ends up carrying the ball 20-plus times, that likely means things are going well.