After breaking a six-week winless streak, the Oakland Raiders are back at it on Sunday — traveling across the country to play the 5-5 Baltimore Ravens, who are desperate for a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Ravens are coming off of a 24-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, breaking a three-game winless streak of their own behind the debut of Lamar Jackson at quarterback.
With just five games remaining during the 2018 NFL season, here are five things to watch for on Sunday (as well as a prediction):
1) Lamar Jackson Experience
In his first career start, rookie Lamar Jackson threw just 19 passes while tucking the ball and running 26 times — a modern-day NFL record for quarterbacks. Trying to prepare for this type of attack with just one week of warning makes the Raiders defense’s job especially challenging (not to mention they aren’t a good unit to begin with). If the Raiders want to keep this game close, it’s going to start with trying to force Jackson to beat them through the air.
2) Three-headed monster
Last week, the Raiders presented one of the most fascinating box scores I’ve seen from a backfield: three different running backs with 10+ carries. While rotating guys and keeping them fresh worked last week (they combined to average 4.6 YPC), it was against a Cardinals team that ranks 29th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. The Ravens, on the other hand, rank fourth in the league in that category — meaning the Raiders will find out this week whether last week’s success was something they can really build on moving forward.
3) Marcell Ateman, real deal?
Last week was the seventh round pick’s NFL debut and he was the team’s best receiver (which, admittedly, wasn’t saying much). He was targeted five times and caught four passes for a team-high 50 yards. Perhaps most importantly is the fact that three of those targets (and two of his catches) came on the game’s final, game-winning drive — including a 32-yard catch that moved the Raiders into field goal range.
The point is that when the Raiders and Derek Carr needed to move the ball, it was Ateman who found himself at the center of the offense. With Jordy Nelson playing this week and Baltimore having an opportunity to see some film on Ateman, it will be fascinating to see whether his trajectory goes up or down from here.
4) Defensive building blocks
Hands-down the most important thing for the Raiders to focus on for the final five weeks is finding some pieces (particularly on defense) that they believe can be a part of the future turn-around. Last week, the Raiders saw some flashes — with Maurice Hurst and PJ Hall putting in their best shift of the season (again, we have to note it was against the lowly Cardinals) — as well as positive signs from guys like Karl Joseph (5 tackles, 1 INT), Marquel Lee (4 tackles), Nicholas Morrow (3 tackles, 1 TFL) and Gareon Conley (1 INT). If this group of youngsters can put in an equally impressive shift this Sunday against a much better team, it’ll go a long way towards quelling the fears about a dreadfully long rebuild.
5) Ruining the draft pick
It was an interesting moment when Derek Carr acknowledged his goal was to ruin the team’s draft pick for next year’s draft — but one that made sense. Carr recognizes that he’s playing for his own future, with no guarantee that he’d be here to see the other side of a full rebuild. That said, this team is desperately in need of difference makers and every time they win, they make the rebuild longer and longer. Here’s to hoping for a valiant effort, some impressive performances from Carr plus the young guns, as well as a close loss.
Prediction: 24-17, Ravens
Call me an optimist but I think the Raiders cover the 11-point spread this week with a healthy dose of momentum after last week’s victory. In the end, however, the defense won’t be able to hold up and their lack of offensive playmakers will reveal itself as the team gets a late back-door cover in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests.