WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Oakland sports the third-best rushing attack in the NFL in terms of sheer output, with Jackson’s offense averaging a noteworthy 151.9 yards per game on the ground through the season’s first half. The Raiders were held to 100 rushing yards by the Broncos last week, however, with the absence of standout back Darren McFadden due to a sprained foot playing a part in that reduced total. McFadden is likely to sit out again on Thursday, meaning capable 245- pound reserve Michael Bush (333 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 4 total TD) will once again carry the load after amassing 96 yards on 19 attempts and catching a touchdown pass in the feature role during Week 9. Palmer’s (448 passing yards, 3 TD, 6 INT) first start as a Raider was a mixture of good and bad, with the former No. 1 overall pick connecting with speedy wide receiver Jacoby Ford (16 receptions, 1 TD) on several big plays and finding athletic fullback Marcel Reece (9 receptions, 2 TD) for a 40-yard touchdown in the first half, but he obviously needs to cut down on his turnovers. Wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey (27 receptions, 1 TD) leads Oakland in catches and receiving yards (434), but the 2009 first-round selection was behind Ford, rookie Denarius Moore (18 receptions, 2 TD) and the oft-injured Chaz Schilens (9 receptions, 1 TD) in the team’s revised receiver rotation in the Denver game.
Bush will be attempting to bully his way through a disappointing San Diego stop unit that’s permitted an average of 138.5 rushing yards per game over its last four outings and ranks 27th in the league in pass efficiency defense this season. The Chargers were powerless in their efforts to slow down Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s multi-faceted offense a week ago, with the Super Bowl XLV MVP shredding the secondary for 247 yards and four touchdowns on a sharp 21-of-26 passing. The backfield does possess one difference-maker in free safety Eric Weddle (44 tackles, 6 PD), whose five interceptions thus far are tied for the NFL lead, and struggling cornerback Antoine Cason (23 tackles, 5 PD) will get his starting job back from rookie Marcus Gilchrist (25 tackles, 1 INT) after the latter was picked on mercilessly by Rodgers last Sunday. Cason himself was torched for three touchdown catches by the Jets’ Plaxico Burress back in Week 7, however. The defense will also have to deal with the continued unavailability of its best pass rusher, outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, due to a foot injury, though fill-in Antwan Barnes (14 tackles) did record two sacks last week and leads the team with five this year. Inside linebackers Takeo Spikes (56 tackles, 1 sack) and Donald Butler (55 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) are San Diego’s top two tacklers who will be counted on to keep Bush’s contributions to a minimum.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Putting up yards isn’t much of an issue for a San Diego offense that’s averaging 407 yards per game (6th overall) and ranks fourth in passing yards (294.9 ypg), but turnovers and inopportune breakdowns have been a season-long problem for the group. Rivers’ (2469 passing yards, 11 TD, 14 INT) interception total is already the second-highest of an eight-year career that’s seen the fiery quarterback make three Pro Bowls and throw for 4,000 yards in three straight seasons, and injuries to perennial All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates (25 receptions, 2 TD) and big-bodied wide receiver Malcom Floyd (19 receptions, 1 TD) haven’t helped the cause either. Gates seems to be finally over a lingering plantar fasciitis issue and posted a season-best 96 yards on eight catches against the Packers, while highly-skilled wideout Vincent Jackson (34 receptions, 613 yards, 6 TD) erupted for 141 yards and hauled in three Rivers scoring strikes on seven grabs in the loss. Floyd is expected to sit out a second straight week with a hip problem, though rookie Vincent Brown (6 receptions) fared well in his place in last Sunday’s tilt, but leading rusher Ryan Mathews (509 rushing yards, 3 TD, 30 receptions) is on track to return after missing the Green Bay game with a strained groin. The second-year pro is averaging over 120 yards from scrimmage per game this season and gives Rivers another viable option as a strong receiver out of the backfield.
It wouldn’t be surprising if San Diego relied more on its running game in this contest, considering the Raiders come in listed 28th against the rush (139.6 ypg) and were abused for a startling 299 yards on the ground by the Broncos last week, with both veteran back Willis McGahee and quarterback Tim Tebow eclipsing the century mark individually. Oakland did play that game without valued middle linebacker Rolando McClain (43 tackles, 1 sack, 6 PD) due to a sore ankle, however, and the 2010 first-round choice is believed to be ready to go on Thursday. Cornerback Stanford Routt (27 tackles, 1 INT, 7 PD) and active strong safety Tyvon Branch (63 tackles, 1 INT) head up a secondary that’s helped Oakland limit opposing quarterbacks to just a 52.5 percent completion rate — tied for the second-lowest in the NFL — and will likely be given the challenging duties of covering Jackson and Gates, respectively. They’ll be aided by a solid pass rush anchored by the tackle tandem of six-time Pro Bowl honoree Richard Seymour (23 tackles, 5 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (24 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (30 tackles, 2 sacks), who had one of four Oakland sacks of Rivers in last December’s win in San Diego.
KEYS TO THE GAME
This matchup features a pair of quarterbacks that have been quite error-prone as of late, a major reason why both these teams are mired in losing streaks, and whichever one can keep his mistakes to a minimum on Thursday figures to have the best chance of coming out a winner. Turnovers also played a big role in Oakland’s two victories over the Chargers last season, with San Diego giving the ball away five times while forcing only one from the Raiders in those two games.
Stopping Mathews. The Raiders have surrendered a mere 68.3 rushing yards per game in their four 2011 wins and a whopping 196 per game in their four defeats, so it’s pretty apparent that how the defense fares in that area will go a long way to determining the team’s success. San Diego should have a relatively healthy Mathews raring to go on Thursday, and it may behoove the Bolts to feed the young back the ball, as they’re 3-0 this year when he’s rushed for 80 or more yards.
Special teams. San Diego’s main source of agony last season, this all-important aspect came back to haunt the Chargers in the Week 5 meeting of these teams in 2010, with the Raiders blocking two punts that resulted in a touchdown and a safety in an eight-point win. Oakland also has an extremely dangerous kick returner in Ford, who’ll be taking on a San Diego squad that hasn’t been strong in kick coverage this year. However, the Raiders have been one of the worst teams in football in covering punts, yielding a troubling 17.3 yards per runback as well as two touchdowns through the first eight games.
Prediction – An AFC West matchup starts Thursday night football for the 2011 season. The Chargers are coming off a bad pair of losses, while the Raiders were not able to stop Tim Tebow and the Broncos last week. The Raiders are hurting on offense, and while Philip Rivers is having an off season, the Chargers will do enough to outscore Carson Palmer and the Raiders. San Diego 24 Oakland 14