At this point, it wouldn’t hurt the Raiders if they lost to the Cardinals on Sunday.
The race to the playoffs is over and the race for the No. 1 pick is on. The Cardinals, sitting at 2-7, are a worthy opponent for the latter.
Jon Gruden’s bunch sits alone as the NFL’s worst team with a 1-8 record, and a Saturday flight to the desert awaits.
Here are three big keys to the Raiders pulling off a win:
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Contain Chandler Jones, Markus Golden
The Cardinals rank sixth in the league with 29 sacks, and they’re led by one star defensive end and another that flies under the radar.
Jones has 8 1/2 sacks this season, half a sack more than the Raiders as a team, and Golden is hitting his stride after missing the first four games of the season due to a knee injury. No Cardinal besides Jones has more than three sacks, and the Raiders will have to weather that balanced pass rush if they want any chance. Derek Carr has taken 28 sacks this season, only three shy of his single-season career high set in 2015 and seventh-most in the NFL.
“I don’t think there is no real advantage when you start talking about going against different NFL teams and I told my guys that. You can sit here and take their record and put it out the window,” Cardinals coach Steve Wilks said. “Just like last week, we didn’t have a chance and we went up there and we gave ourselves a chance in Kansas City. It doesn’t matter about the record. The Raiders are going to come in here ready to play. They are looking for a win and we got to be ready.”
Rookie tackles Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker have struggled mightily in their respective debut seasons, with Miller allowing the most sacks (10) and second-most quarterback pressures (39) of any offensive lineman, according to Pro Football Focus, while playing through a nagging right knee injury at left tackle.
“Well it starts with Jones. Don’t forget Golden, either. He’s had double-digit sacks. They have two centerpieces that can really get after you,” Gruden said Friday. “They push the pocket. They’re big inside. It’s hard for the quarterback to step up because of the mass that they have inside. They blitz a lot. I think Cardinals must have 10 guys with a sack. They come from everywhere. It’s a wide-range of problems. It’s good pass rushers, a diverse blitzing scheme. That’s a tough combination in the crowd noise. It’s loud there.”
Turn Josh Rosen over
Rosen has the second-lowest passer rating in the league (67.8) of quarterbacks who have thrown over 100 passes. He only trails Bills rookie Josh Allen, who carries a 61.8 rating.
The rookie out of UCLA, taken 10th overall, has completed only 55.8 percent of his passes (116-of-208) for 1,280 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions. Only three other quarterbacks who have thrown over 100 passes have thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, Jets rookie Sam Darnold, Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston and Allen.
Rosen has thrown at least one interception in five of his seven games, and seven in his last four starts. He’s also fumbled the ball four times, including three times in a 45-10 loss to the Broncos in Week 7. The Raiders rank tied for 25th in the league with only five interceptions and 30th with two fumble recoveries, so something has to give when the two inept sides meet on Sunday.
“I think just really his overall leadership is phenomenal. Being in tough situations, going all the way back to Minnesota last week and then Kansas City and the two-minute drive against the 49ers. I think each week he’s learning,” Wilks said. “He’s growing and he’s getting better.”
Asked Friday about chances to turn Roser over, Gruden reflected on the challenges Arizona’s other offensive options present.
“We’ve got to stop David Johnson. The Cardinals still have a lot of great players. It starts with 31. They have Larry Fitzgerald, still a very impactful guy. They have Christian Kirk, a young wide receiver that can make some plays,” Gruden said. “We’ve got to stop Johnson. We have to stop the running game. If we can stop the running game and get in some second-and-longs, and some third-and-long situations, perhaps we can unleash some blitzes and make things tougher on Rosen.”
Get something out of depleted receiving corps
Just a month ago, the Raiders’ top three wide receivers were Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant.
None of them will be in action for the Raiders on Sunday, with Cooper a Cowboy and Nelson (knee) and Bryant (knee) both out due to injury. Now the Raiders’ top three wideouts consists of veteran and Super Bowl champion Brandon LaFell, Seth Roberts and rookie Marcell Ateman, who has yet to play an NFL snap.
“You hate for guys to get injured and that’s how you have to come up, but it’s an opportunity and I’m just gonna make the most of it,” Ateman said.
Combined, the three who will suit up in Arizona have 31 catches for 333 yards and three touchdowns. By comparison, Cardinals rookie wideout Christian Kirk has 33 catches for 418 yards and two touchdowns alone. Future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald has more catches and yards than that Raiders trio combined, too.
It also doesn’t help that the Cardinals have one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks in Patrick Peterson, but they’ll have to make due with the players they have.
“We got to deal with what we have to deal with. We got a lot of reps in. We are confident that they know what to do,” Gruden said of his bare-bones receivers group. “We just have to trust that they’ll go out there and perform at the highest level possible.”