Thursday Night Football Preview: Showdown In Oakland
With the NFL regular season winding down, this week's Thursday Night Football matchup features two AFC West teams well out of the playoff picture.
However, with the intense rivalry that exists between the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders, don't expect either squad to hold anything back when they meet on the gridiron in this contest.
What can we expect when the Chargers come into Oakland this Thursday night?
The Pre-Game Rundown
For the Raiders, the early season hope that they might have their first playoff appearance since 2002 has all but faded with the team losing five of their past seven games.
However, with a strong young nucleus that includes much-improved Derek Carr, talented rookie wideout Amari Cooper, and emerging lead tailback Latavius Murray, there's still reason for optimism in Oakland despite the team guaranteed to go a 13th straight season without a winning record.
Carr's 0.09 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back is a vast improvement over his -0.07 mark from his rookie season that had him end the year as one of the least efficient quarterbacks in the league. As for Cooper, the Raiders first-round draft pick has solidified himself as one of the best receivers in his class, with his 0.72 Reception NEP per target that ranks him in the top five in receiving efficiency among all rookie wideouts with at least 50 targets.
Following a convincing 30-14 win over the Dolphins in potentially the last game in San Diego, the Chargers hope to keep the late season momentum going when they travel to Oakland and face off against their bitterest of rivals, the Oakland Raiders.
With the plethora of injuries this team has sustained this season -- including season-ending injuries to key offensive players Keenan Allen and most recently Melvin Gordon -- Philip Rivers has had to move the chains with a patchwork roster that has installed Dontrelle Inman as the number-one wideout and Donald Brown as the early-down running back.
Impressively, despite this lack of a supporting cast, Rivers has still managed a 0.16 Passing NEP per drop back that ranks him as the 11th best rate in the league among passers with 200 or more attempts. And this Thursday, he'll once again be asked by the Chargers coaching staff to work some magic when suits up against Oakland's leaky secondary.
The Raiders' Game Script
Carr should have an easy time moving the ball on the Chargers porous secondary, with San Diego owning the 26th-ranked passing defense in the league according to our advanced metrics. And while cornerback Jason Verrett has held his own this year despite being hobbled by numerous injuries, with ineffective Brandon Flowers on the shelf with a season-ending knee injury, backup corner Patrick Robinson will have his hands full trying to contain number two veteran wideout Michael Crabtree.
While Oakland's workhorse tailback, Murray, has been less than efficient on his carries -- his -0.06 Rushing NEP per attempt is below the historical average of -0.03 for all tailbacks since 2000 -- the sheer volume of work he receives as the team's lead back alongside the fact that he is facing the league's 29th-ranked rushing defense this Thursday means he should rack up chunks of yards on the ground this week.
The Chargers' Game Script
Rivers takes on a Raiders secondary that ranks 17th against the pass, and while his options in the passing game are limited to his tight end Antonio Gates and third down back Danny Woodhead, Rivers showed last week against the Dolphins 31st-ranked pass defense that he can still exploit a weak secondary.
With all the injuries to the Chargers wide receiver corps, Woodhead has basically operated as the Chargers number-two receiver, garnering six or more targets in each of the past four games. And with Woodhead coming off a big four touchdown game (three receiving) to lead the team past the Dolphins last week, Rivers will once again lean on Woodhead in the short passing game to move the offense.
In the ground game, while the Raiders have been woeful in this department as the 23rd-ranked defense against the rush, Woodhead and Brown likely won't find much success in this contest carrying the ball as San Diego owns the unenviable distinction of having the least efficient rushing offense in the league.
Fantasy Football Implications
While Rivers seems to have fewer and fewer options to throw to each week, he should be a fine start as he faces a Raiders team giving up the 13th most points to quarterbacks this season. It helps that his top option, Gates, plays the same position that has been the Achilles heel of the Raiders secondary, with the Raiders surrendering the second most points to the tight end position this year.
In the running game, while Brown can't be trusted as an early-down back that doesn't see red zone work, as we've discussed earlier, Woodhead's heavy involvement in the passing game makes him a decent play this week.
While Carr is going up against an inefficient Chargers secondary, the Chargers actually rank as the 13th stingiest defense to quarterbacks in standard-scoring leagues this year, making him an iffy play in Week 16. And with the Chargers giving up the fourth least points to wide receivers as well, Cooper and Crabtree aren't sure starts this week either.
However, given Murray's workload and matchup with a Chargers defense giving up the fifth most points to running backs, Murray should be locked into starting lineups this Thursday.
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