The Oakland Raiders’ defense has been a model of inconsistency.
One week, the Raiders are suffocating, holding opponents to fewer than 100 yards on the ground and 300 yards overall. The next, well ... they look like they did last week.
Tampa Bay rookie tailback Doug Martin has been the talk of the NFL after running for 251 yards and four touchdowns against Oakland.
When the Raiders (3-5) arrive at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, the Ravens have to hope they’ll be getting the team that was torched by Tampa rather than the far more competent version.
The 42-32 loss to the Buccaneers marked the second time this season the Raiders allowed more than 250 yards on the ground and 500 overall. Oakland has surrendered more than 400 yards on two other occasions.
In their other four contests, the Raiders haven’t let teams reach 300 yards overall. Also four times - but not in all the same games - Oakland has kept an opponent to 54 rushing yards or less.
Perhaps in the Ravens’ favor is that the Raiders are coming off their most atrocious performance of the year (515 total yards allowed, 278 rushing yards allowed). Also in Baltimore’s favor: Martin, the centerpiece of the ground onslaught, is a similarly sized back to the Ravens’ Ray Rice.
Seeing that unfold has Rice geared up for what could be a big day.
“Obviously, you look at it, and you do start getting excited when you see it happening,” Rice told reporters. “First off, you want to know what happened - why these kind of things happen. After looking at the film, it was just a lot of them missing tackles. It wasn’t a lot of schemed-up things. There were a few where there were some schemes. Anybody goes for over 200 yards, you have to figure out there is a problem there.
“The problem that I saw on film was tackling. The guys were in position. I guess his height helped him out. They say he’s about 5-9, 215 (pounds), but I think he’s a little bigger than that. I’m saying height-wise, but from an inside source, they say the guy’s about 225. I said maybe his size helped him out a little bit, too. To see him get out in the open field with guys making guys miss - a little center of gravity was pretty exciting to see from a rookie running back.”
To be fair, Martin and Rice are among the most prolific backs in the league. Martin leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage and Rice ranks fourth.
But if the Ravens are looking for a specific hole in the Raiders’ defense to expose, it could be in the running game. Overall, Oakland ranks 21st in the league in rush defense and coach Dennis Allen isn’t sure the team has fixed the problems that let Martin break free.
“We’ll find that out on Sunday,” Allen said via conference call. “We got a chance to look at the tape. We got a chance to talk about what we need to do and how we need to get things corrected. We have to tackle better. We’ve got another huge challenge this week, because we have another outstanding back in Ray Rice. He’s been in this league for a long time. We’ve got our work cut out for us, not only against Ray Rice, but against the whole Baltimore team.”
While that could prove to be the Ravens’ offensive focus, the defense will reacquaint itself with an old division foe in Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer.
The former Bengals quarterback ranks seventh in the NFL in passing yards per game (294.4) while standing tied for 10th with 13 touchdown throws and eight interceptions.
“He’s not going to be intimidated by the environment at all,” coach John Harbaugh told reporters. “He’s been in it many times. He manages and operates the offense as well as anybody, and some of the same things he did in Cincinnati, he’s doing now. He can make every throw. There’s not a throw he can’t make, and when he’s on, he’s on time; he can really stick it in a tight window. He’s a fearless competitor. You watch him play with tremendous enthusiasm out there, and he loves to compete. So we’ve got a lot of respect for Carson Palmer.”
The Ravens offense will also look to improve on its third-down efficiency. The unit’s 35 percent conversion rate ranks 22nd in the league.
That led offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to call it a “major” issue.
“It’s our No. 1 critical issue - I’d put it that way - that we need to continue to work on,” Cameron said. “It’s no one thing. Maybe we need a little better protection one week. The next week maybe we need a little more separation. Again, uncharacteristically, maybe one week we won’t catch the ball as well. So, it’s one thing here and there. If you have that problem, now is the time to have it, because from now forward, that problem isn’t going to allow you to get done what you want to get done.
“Confidence is everything. It really is.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco hopes to see the team do a better job on third down as well.
“We just have to give ourselves better situations,” he told reporters. “Obviously, we would have liked to convert a couple of those. When you leave yourselves at third-and-long and those guys have a lot of momentum, they are feeling good about themselves, the crowd is into it, and it becomes tough to convert. That’s kind of what happened (last) game. We definitely need to do things more precise and be better at first and second down to limit those circumstances.”
So the Ravens open the second half of their schedule seeking their sixth win in seven games and a 7-2 record. It will be Baltimore’s last game at M&T Bank Stadium until Dec.2, and the team will be looking to add a win to the NFL’s best home record since 2008 (31-5).
The Ravens have won a league-high 14 consecutive games in Baltimore and have been especially good there versus the Raiders, with a 4-0 record against them in the all-time series. Also, Baltimore is 8-1 against the AFC West under Harbaugh.
With a victory, the Ravens will remain atop the AFC North for at least another week. Baltimore leads Pittsburgh by one game in the division race and plays the Steelers twice in the three games after hosting Oakland.