The Bengals gear up for their final game in the Raiders' famed "Black Hole," and would like nothing better than to pull out their first victory of the season from the clutches of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum crazies in Sunday's game (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) showcasing Bengals rookie quarterback Ryan Finley's first road start.
This week's Bengals.com Media Roundtable is stocked with veteran NFL scribes that have braved the ghosts and goblins of the weekly Halloween party while chronicling Raiders feats from Al Davis to Trevor Davis.
Alex Marvez is the perfect anchor for this particular weekend as the Sirius XM NFL Radio host who doubles as the backstage interviewer for the new venture All Elite Wrestling. John Clayton, who hosts a radio show on 710 in Seattle, writes for The Washington Post and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's blue-ribbon committee selecting the expanded 2020 class, covered the AFC West for decades and had the confidence of Raiders boss Al Davis.
Both Cincinnati scribes, Richard Skinner, digital sports columnist for Local 12, and Jay Morrison, the Bengals beat reporter for The Athletic, have had their share of red-eye trips from the Bay Area documenting a venture that never came into focus for the Bengals until Opening Day 2015 marked their first win in Oakland in 11 tries.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors first.
Right, the Bengals' last trip to the black hole, which is good because they need to move past this season, get a new quarterback, get a new start and put this year behind them. This is a terrible stylistic matchup for them. They can't stop the run, they're the worst at it in the league, and they're playing a team that has an offensive line clicking with the likely NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in Raiders running back Josh Jacobs. Even if you sell out against the run and play nine-man boxes, Derek Carr is just going to cut you up.
He's playing at a top level. The only quarterback in Raiders history with a higher passer rating through the first nine games is Rich Gannon. He has been brilliant and adjusted to the offense without Antonio Brown. That may have crippled some teams, but the Raiders clearly moved on and it's a credit to head coach Jon Gruden and his offensive acumen to get that done.
THE EDGE: Bad time for the Bengals to be playing a very confident Raiders team that also has a little extra time coming off a Thursday night game. RAIDERS, 37-10.
What you're seeing in the AFC is there are not a lot of good teams. Only maybe one or two great teams. There's a lot of mediocrity in the AFC. The Raiders have been able to step up as an average team and take advantage of that with winnable games. That's why they're 5-4.
Clearly Jon Gruden has turned the corner on offense because he's got a decent line, he's got the quarterback playing well because he's putting him in position where he doesn't have to gamble too much and he's got the running game going. There's been a lot of change at wide receiver, but so much of this has been Gruden's play-calling and what he's done with the offense because it's not like they're loaded on defense. They're not.
Wide receiver Tyrell Williams got hurt. They didn't get Antonio Brown. A lot of the receivers they signed aren't there, like J.J. Nelson. They probably had the most improved wide receiving corps in the league heading into training camp. Then the Antonio Brown thing happens. Tyrell Williams is a good $10 million-plus receiver. Then things just started going wrong to the point as the season's going they even had to trade for Trevor Davis. There hasn't been any stability at wide receiver and plus they lost tight end Jared Cook in the offseason, but I think the fact they were able to go with two tight ends has really helped. And tight end Darren Waller has been great.
Take a look at the Oakland linebackers. They may get back Marquel Lee, but it's kind of void. And not really great in the secondary, they're still sorting through that. Rookie defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell is just starting to pick it up as a first-round pick. They're surviving on defense. They're winning games because they're trying to make sure Derek Carr doesn't turn the ball over and the running game. They've got a lot of building to do on defense, but in the AFC now you just have to win the winnable games. It's smart football for what they have.
THE EDGE: Most of the young quarterbacks, except for Lamar Jackson, you're in the teens on the points. Josh Allen can't get out of the teens yet in his second year. He's a little bit better, but in that first season, particularly those first few games … you saw it with Mason Rudolph that was the case. It takes a while to graduate into being a 20-point quarterback. Certainly the problem for the Bengals is depth at wide receiver with the injuries. RAIDERS, 24-13
This will be a better game for the Bengals. I think the offense will make some strides. The tweak to the run game is helping. The commitment to the run game is helping. I just think it's a natural progression from start one to start two for Finley.
I think we'll see them get in the 20s, but there's no help for this defense. I don't think they'll be able to stop Jacobs and Waller, the positions that have killed them. I don't think they'll both go off. I could see them both being around 100 yards , which I guess is going off, but I don't think there's any way they shut down both of those guys. If Oakland starts loading it up with Jacobs and the Bengals have to go to a base defense, is that third linebacker going to be Jordan Evans or Hardy Nickerson, two guys that either haven't played much or not at all? That's not a good situation.
THE EDGE: They make strides offensively, but not defensively. RAIDERS, 31-23
Last trip to the Black Hole. It's a little bittersweet. It will be the third time I've covered a game there. I kind of like the environment. It's certainly not the best of stadiums. It's certainly a terrible press box. Yeah, kind of a throw- back game. You're going to have to win this one kind of ugly I would think. Look, let's face facts. It's interesting to watch how in four years you go out there and dominate the 2015 opener and now you're all out there just to win a game. It's crazy how the league changes so quickly.
I think the Raiders are pretty good offensively. They've found their identity with multiple tight ends, they've used Josh Jacobs as you should use a rookie running back, Derek Carr is protecting the ball with just four picks all season. They're not dynamic on the outside. I don't think they drafted Hunter Renfrow to be their leading wide receiver. Waller has been great. They've figured out a formula to move the ball and score. They're not great defensively, but they're just good enough.
The Bengals have struggled stopping the run and covering tight ends and that's a problem. Jacobs could get 1,000 yards Sunday with (189) yards. I don't think he'll do it, but he could. Waller has 51 catches already.
Right, Bengals running back Joe Mixon goes home. He had 30 carries last week. That seems to be a lot for one guy in a blowout, maybe not for the team, but one guy. But he wants the load, they seem like they at least believe they've figured out the stuff in the blocking schemes and changed it up to have an effective running game and maybe they can hang their hat on that. You're going to have to make this a low-possession-grind-it-out game. You have to do that anyway with Finley, but that's the only way you win this game.
THE EDGE: First road start for the rookie quarterback and it's a tough place to play even when they're not playing well. The Raiders are right in the play-off mix and they're fairly healthy. OAKLAND, 31-13
THE BOTTOM LINE
A lot of symmetry in this one. The Bengals haven't won since they beat these Raiders 11 months ago at Paul Brown Stadium. The Raiders were at the end of their first season rebuilding under Jon Gruden and the Bengals didn't know it, but they were just starting their rebuilding when Jeff Driskel took over for the injured Andy Dalton. Now they try to beat the Raiders with another quarterback that began the season as a backup, Ryan Finley, a rookie in his first road start.
The Bengals are banking on first-year head coach Zac Taylor's re-build to match the quickness of Gruden's overhaul. That offensive line that gave up three sacks to Geno Atkins last year? It's the only offensive line in the league that has held four different teams without a sack.
That receiving corps that was invisible back in December? It has since disappeared with the Antonio Brown implosion and the Tyrell Williams injury. But Gruden has ripped up his offensive scheme and is hitting gold with the hottest running back in the league, rookie Josh Jacobs, in a two tight-end set that is featuring the deadly Darren Waller. If you had told that to Gruden on the first day of training camp, he would have thought you mad. But things change.
Taylor may take a page out of Gruden's playbook Sunday. It's the 14th straight game without wider receiver A.J. Green, the sixth straight without wide receiver John Ross, slot receiver Alex Erickson is hurting and the fourth and fifth wide receivers are rookie free agents. And running back Joe Mixon is coming off a career-high 30 carries and a season-high 114 yards in a revived running game.
The Bengals had the right idea with time of possession last week against Baltimore. They put up 36:11 this week and they'll win and it's their best way to defend Jacobs.
That's the best way to help Finley out there, too. Keep feeding Mixon because while old friend and Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther doesn't have much on the depth chart (they're 26th in defense), he's dangerous on third down. Don't let those blitz percentages fool you. He's very creative in breaking down pass protections and the last thing a rookie QB needs to see on the road is a third-and-long against Paulie G. and running out of a Double A Gap blitz look.
There's a lot of storylines waiting out there:
- Mixon coming home to the Bay just dying to lead them.
- A game against the last team the Bengals beat.
- Gruden finding a way in a revamped scheme in his second season and Taylor, like Gruden did last year, trying to find their offensive identity.
- Paulie G. teeing it up against his old team against the kind of young quarterback that tortured him at Paul Brown Stadium the last two seasons, when Denver's Trevor Siemian won in his third NFL start, Deshaun Watson his first and where Mitchell Trubisky won as a rookie.
Who gets the last word?