Despite losing their starting quarterback in Week 6 and then having to deal with injuries to key offensive players such as Darren McFadden (+5.8) and Jacoby Ford, the Raiders sit atop the AFC West with the Chiefs and Chargers fading fast. It wasn’t pretty at first, the home shutout against Kansas City and another home loss to Denver, but the Raiders got back on track in San Diego and took control of their own destiny. Michael Bush (+11.1) and Denarius Moore (+6.3) have thrived filling in for McFadden and Ford, and Carson Palmer is getting better every week. After two embarrassing home losses and a big win on the road, will the Raiders continue building momentum as they travel to the Metrodome, or will the Vikings be the next team to pump the brakes on the Raiders’ playoff aspirations?
Even if they aren’t able to achieve the latter, the Vikings need to be competitive in this one after an ugly blowout on Monday night at the hands of the undefeated Packers. At 2-7, they certainly aren’t going anywhere this season, but marginal players know they need to perform well to have a chance at having a big role in 2012.
Both of these teams field a quarterback who has been starting for less than a month and favor their effective running games. Both have the pieces to effectively stop the run, though the Raiders sometimes lapse in that department as was the case two weeks ago against the Broncos. If neither team is able to impose their will in the ground game, it’ll come down to who is able to make the throws when they have to, especially on third-and-intermediate distance downs. That doesn’t bode well for Minnesota.
Vikings offensive line vs. Raiders pass rush
Unless you’re the Denver Broncos, you’re going to have to throw the ball sometimes no matter how heavily your game plan favors the run. When Christian Ponder does drop back to pass, he’ll need to get the ball out quickly or risk taking some shots from a physical and talented Oakland defensive line. Minnesota’s offensive line hasn’t given Ponder – or Donavan McNabb before him – the greatest protection this season and anything less than their best efforts here could cause problems. The Vikings are especially weak in pass protection off the edge. Tackles Charlie Johnson and Phil Loadholt have allowed a combined 12 sacks and their cumulative pass protection grades (-8.7 and -14.9 respectively) leave much to be desired.
Kamerion Wimbley (+28.4) will look to take advantage of this when he rushes from the edge in the nickel. Second only to Von Miller in our 4-3 OLB rankings, Wimbley put on a dominant four-sack performance on Thursday Night Football in his last appearance and though he won’t be rushing against backups this time around, he’s more than capable of making disruptive plays against this pair of tackles. On the interior, long-time stars Richard Seymour (+15.1) and Steve Hutchinson (+10.2) will have the opportunity to try and beat each other. Even without taking Wimbley into consideration, all four starting Raiders defensive linemen grade out well in pass rushing, while only Hutchinson has graded in the green in pass protection for the Vikings.
Raiders offensive line vs. Vikings defensive line
In both the running and passing games, Minnesota’s defensive line has a distinct advantage over the Raiders’ offensive line. The most interesting battle in the trenches is between left tackle Jared Veldheer (+3.2) and DRE Jared Allen (+25.6), with rookie left guard Stefen Wisniewski providing help. Veldheer grades out as the Raiders’ best offensive lineman with Wisniewski being the only other starter with a positive grade, while Allen would be the best player on most defensive lines.
While the rest of the Raiders offensive line grades out poorly, Allen has plenty of help. DLE Brian Robison (+9.4) has cooled off considerably after a sizzling start, but showed he could be a pass-rushing menace over the first five games. Kevin Williams has been one of the best interior rushers in the league his entire career and plays the run effectively as well. Players like Erin Henderson (+15.7) have no trouble filling the gap and finishing plays. Bush isn’t really the type of runner to force a lot of missed tackles, so the Raiders’ rushing attack could be in trouble if his line can’t keep the Vikings out of the backfield.
Raiders wide receivers vs. Vikings secondary
As Palmer becomes more and more comfortable with his talented young receivers, the Raiders passing game should become more and more proficient. Will this be the week it breaks out? Against a Vikings secondary that has been one of the worst in the league this year, it’s certainly possible. The Vikings have lost their veteran leader in the defensive backfield, Antoine Winfield, not to mention their best-performing cornerback, so Cedric Griffin (-1.0) and especially Asher Allen (-12.4) need to play better than they have to keep the Vikings’ secondary from being victimized. Allen has allowed 26 of 36 balls thrown into his coverage to be completed this season and though he hasn’t allowed a catch of more than 26 yards, those small chunks of yardage add up quickly.
With Ford out, Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey will shoulder the receiving load for the Raiders. The rookie Moore seems to be emerging as Palmer’s favorite receiver and should have some playmaking opportunities against a Vikings secondary that has only one active player, Griffin, with a positive grade in pass coverage, and he has been penalized eight times. Heyward-Bey wasn’t even targeted once against San Diego despite playing 59 snaps. He was beginning to emerge as a reliable target when Jason Campbell went down, but he hasn’t been on the same page with Palmer yet. With Ford out, it’s time for Heyward-Bey to get back on track or risk losing a role in the offense.
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