The Opposite Sideline: Raiders resurgent

Stu Courtney
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Each Thursday, Press-Gazette Media will get the lowdown on the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.

Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree (15) catches a pass against Titans cornerback Coty Sensabaugh (24) in their game last month.

It’s hard to believe the Oakland Raiders, once renowned for their “Commitment to Excellence,” haven’t had a winning record since 2002. But that soon may change.

The Raiders (6-7), who will host the Packers (9-4) on Sunday, are loaded with young talent under coach Jack Del Rio and scored a signature victory last Sunday by going into Denver and beating the first-place Broncos 15-12. It was Oakland’s first win over Denver since September of 2011 and was spearheaded by an aggressive defense led by pass-rushing demon Khalil Mack, who had five sacks and leads the NFL with 14.

The elder statesman of the Raiders’ defense is safety Charles Woodson, the former Packers star who still is going strong at age 39 with 62 tackles and five interceptions.

On offense, the Raiders are getting outstanding play from second-year quarterback Derek Carr, who has thrown for 3,313 yards and 28 touchdowns with only nine interceptions for a passer rating of 96.5.

Carr is blessed with an impressive array of weapons in wide receivers Michael Crabtree (70 catches for 779 yards and seven TDs) and rookie Amari Cooper (62 catches for 920 yards and four TDs) and running back Latavius Murray (215 carries for 878 yards and five TDs).

We asked beat writer Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle to answer a few questions about what the Packers can expect Sunday in Oakland:

How big was the Raiders’ win in Denver, in terms of confidence?

VT: “It was great. Jack has been preaching all along that they could be a good team and we finally saw some signs of that. The defense kept them in the game in the first half and the offense did enough in the second half, so they caught one of those all-phases-of-the-game wins that they’ve been preaching and I think everyone’s pretty happy, and pretty excited about what lies ahead.”

How good is Khalil Mack and what makes him so dominant?

VT: “He has that combination of speed and power. He was a fifth overall pick (in 2014) and he’s learning the nuances of being a top pass rusher. Plus, he was hurt, he had a groin and hamstring injury that has bugged him most of the season. He’s finally healthy. Actually, it’s kind of weird, they lost Aldon Smith (to suspension) and since then he’s been a dominant guy, he’s had nine sacks in the last four games, so I see his confidence also growing.”

How will the Raiders defense try to cope with Aaron Rodgers?

VT: “The secondary has been an issue but it hasn’t been that bad of late. (Cornerback) David Amerson has been a great pickup, he was claimed off waivers from the Redskins. He’s probably their top cornerback. So the plan will be to hopefully take away any long stuff and make Rodgers dink and dunk.”

Is Charles Woodson defying Father Time? How does he keep going at age 39?

VT: “He’s been good. I wouldn’t say he’s been great; his old age shows up in run defense sometimes. But he definitely has a knack for making a big play at the right time. He has five interceptions and four fumble recoveries and a forced fumble, so he definitely makes plays. He’s also a great leader for all the young guys on the team; he’s been a big plus this year.”

How good is quarterback Derek Carr and how good can he become?

VT: “He’s taken that big leap that guys take in their second year. It’s helped a lot that he’s had much better weapons this year. At receiver they’ve added Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, so that’s been huge. Crabtree came in and was in great shape and motivated; they just gave him a contract extension last week to reward him. They have a young tight end they’re pretty high on named Clive Walford, he had some big catches last week. So a lot of tools for Carr to work with. He always had the confidence, he always had the great arm, and he was very smart. He grew up watching film with his brother (former NFL quarterback David Carr). I think now you’re seeing him take a step as far as experience and making some big plays.”

Which has been the more potent weapon: the Cooper/Crabtree combination or Latavius Murray running the ball?

VT: “It all starts with Cooper and Crabtree. Murray has like 800 yards rushing but hasn’t really been consistently able to establish the running game. It’s been kind of hit or miss, I think it’s still a work in progress. They’re definitely a pass-first team.”

What do the Raiders still need to be a genuine playoff contender?

VT: “They need some playmakers at cornerback and linebacker. They’re making the most of what they have but they need help on the backside.”

The Raiders have been down for so long. Have they finally turned the corner?

VT: “For the first time in about 12 years, there’s finally a young foundation of good players, like Carr and Mack and Cooper. Gabe Jackson is one of the best guards in the league in only his second year. So there are probably 5-to-10 guys who are going to be elite players who are very young and that’s definitely something new here.”

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