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Three-Down Back: A trio of things to watch for against the Oakland Raiders

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There’s no chance the Chargers lose after what Gruden has done to the Raiders, right? .......Right?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Oakland Raiders Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

If you are a fan of any other team besides the Raiders, watching and waiting for what Jon Gruden was going to do next with the team has been one of the most interesting and hysterical themes of 2018.

From signing far too many players over the age of 30, to trading away one of the most prolific young pass-rushers of all time, Gruden has turned the Raiders into the closest thing the NFL has to reality t.v. without there actually being cameras around 24/7 to capture all of the magic.

On Sunday, the Chargers will face the Raiders for the first time in the Gruden-era and they’ll be doing it in style as the legendary powder blue uniforms will be dusted off and worn as the Chargers hope to continue Oakland’s miserable start to 2018.

The black and silver are 1-3 through the first four weeks and just narrowly escaped an 0-4 start after the officiating crew blew a very obvious fumble call and allowed the Raiders to continue a drive, inevitably leading to a walk-off victory in overtime.

Regardless of their record, however, the Raiders still have talent. This match-up has all the makings of a trap game and frankly, any match-up within the AFC West can go either way. With that being said, here are the three biggest themes I’ll be watching closely when the Raiders visit Costa Mesa Sunday afternoon.

1.) How will the Chargers handle the emergence of TE Jared Cook?

Arguably one of the most surprising player-performances through the first four weeks of the season has got to be the 31-year old tight end from South Carolina.

To put his start in perspective, Cook came into this season with 4,568 receiving yards for his career. He is currently on pace for 1,480 yards this season. That would be just under one-third of his career receiving yards up to this point in one season, alone.

Is this likely sustainable? Of course not. It obviously doesn’t help that rookie linebacker Kyzir White will miss his second game in a row, though. White was drafted to add athleticism and length to a linebacker group lacking the latter more than the former which means someone like LB Jatavis Brown (5’11) or CB Desmond King (5’10) will be stuck defending the 6-foot-5 Cook.

The most logical remedy to this issue would be to have S Derwin James spend most of his time on Cook. The problem with this plan is that it takes opportunities away from James to rush the passer and that would be fairly counter-productive as #33 leads the team in sacks and has been a key cog in the team’s plan to create pressure without DE Joey Bosa available until after the bye week.

2.) The Raiders have no pass rush. The Chargers may not have their starting offensive tackles. Who gets the better of whom?

One of the biggest thorns in the side of Gruden since the Khalil Mack trade is that the Raiders have had an almost nonexistent pass rush. Maurice Hurst, a rookie defensive tackle out of the University of Michigan, has a pair of sacks. His two sacks match the sack total of veteran outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, whom, after the Mack trade, was essentially the only pass rush threat they had left.

On the other side of the ball, the Chargers will be with right tackle Joe Barksdale once again while the other bookend, Russell Okung, is highly-questionable with a groin injury that he sustained during their game this past Sunday. If both tackles are unable to play, former sixth-round pick Sam Tevi and UDFA Trent Scott will suit up at left and right tackle, respectively.

With the loss of Okung, the talent level drops tremedously. Tevi has a well-documented history of struggles while Scott is still just an undrafted rookie from HBCU powerhouse, Grambling State.

At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Brown as the dimensions one should value in an NFL offensive tackle but this situation simply comes down to inexperience playing against top-tier talent. I’d also feel a bit better if Scott could get some practice reps against Joey Bosa in preparation but a combination of Melvin Ingram and company will have to do.

This will be the most interesting aspect of the game I will be watching, for sure.

3.) With a slow start to 2018 by the cornerback trio of Casey Hayward, Trevor Hayward, and Desmond King, can they take advantage of Derek Carr and his erratic play?

Prior to week 5, Carr is fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 1,373. However, he has only thrown six touchdowns while throwing seven interceptions. That’s no bueno if you’re the Raiders.

The inflation of Carr’s passing yards mostly stems from the team being down early and often in games which means he has had to chuck it quite a bit in order for them to stay alive thus far. Based on his stats, this hasn’t always worked out for the best.

With the majority of the Raiders’ offensive line showing up on the team’s injury report this week, there’s a chance the unit tasked with keeping Carr clean could be down one or two really good players,

All of these variables could add up to a fairly-productive outing for the defensive backs.

As you can probably tell from the above tweet and the statistics within, it’s time for a nice bounce-back game for this secondary. I believe they’ve got to find a way to get back to their 2017 play prior to Bosa coming back in order to build some sort of confidence to contradict the notions that their productivity is highly-dependent on the pass rush.