Humboldt Beacon (http://www.humboldtbeacon.com)

Raiders prep for Cowboys in final game without Ezekiel Elliott


By Matt Schneidman, Bay Area News Group

Saturday, December 16, 2017

ALAMEDA — The Raiders need all the help they can get to squeak in the playoffs with three games remaining.
Oakland caught a stroke of luck when Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension was pushed back earlier this season, causing this Sunday night’s game to be the last Dallas’ star running back misses. The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year won’t get a chance to terrorize the Raiders’ defense, a duty rather left to Alfred Morris and Rod Smith.
After averaging under 100 yards rushing as a team in the first three games without Elliott, Dallas has averaged 152 the past two weeks. The Raiders haven’t seen a drop-off in the Cowboys’ ground game since Elliott’s suspension began, however, and are preparing for a must-win game with no assurance the Cowboys will suffer without their best player.
“The running backs have really stepped up,” Raiders’ defensive play-caller John Pagano said. “I know Ezekiel is something special, watching the film with him on it. Big, physical offensive line that moves people out and they have great skill guys.
“I haven’t seen the dip of how, if they ever said they were struggling, because I haven’t seen it on tape.”
The Raiders’ run defense has been far superior to their pass defense this year, ranking 16th in the NFL with under 110 yards allowed per game on the ground. Oakland didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher until Week 8 against Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy. The Raiders started strong under Pagano against the run, giving up only 56 yards to Denver and 65 to the Giants.
Against a more proficient running team, the Chiefs, Oakland allowed 165 yards on the ground. Kareem Hunt ran 25 times for 116 yards and a touchdown. The Raiders hope that defensive front, which has been better than last Sunday far more times than not, can wipe the slate clean before facing Dallas.
“Pretty good most of the year,” Raiders’ head coach Jack Del Rio said of his run defense. “Last week wasn’t what we want, in terms of numbers. We’ve been pretty solid. We got challenged Week 1 with Tennessee who runs it as well as anybody. This will be another one of those challenges. They run it as well as anybody."
While Morris will likely get the start in the Cowboys’ backfield, Smith is capable of wreaking havoc, too. Two weeks ago, Morris ran 27 times for 127 yards and a touchdown against Washington. While Smith may not get as many carries or stack up as many yards, he’s found the end zone in three straight games while averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
Elliott’s suspension may still play in the Raiders’ favor since not many running backs can replicate him. Yet after a slow start for his replacements, it doesn’t seem the Cowboys are suffering much in Elliott’s absence, if at all.
“They’re still blocking the same way,” Raiders’ D-lineman Denico Autry said, “so we just gotta play to our double team and make a play.”
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Dez Bryant vs. Oakland’s CBs: Bryant has the physique to dominate this game against the Raiders’ smaller cornerbacks. He hasn’t played as well as expected this season, but plenty of wide receivers have made mincemeat of Oakland’s defensive backs.
INTs, anyone?: The Raiders still need two picks just to tie the record for fewest in a season, four by the 0-16 Lions in 2008. Can they get one against Dak Prescott, who has thrown nine this year?
Marshawn Lynch’s TD streak: Lynch has run for five touchdowns in the Raiders’ last five games, including one in each of their last three. He’s been arguably their best player since returning from his suspension.
Does Antonio Hamilton play?: With Obi Melifonwu done for the season and David Amerson likely not playing, Hamilton could see some action in the secondary after being activated off IR Friday.
Who steps up for Mario Edwards Jr.: The likely answer is Autry, who has played better than Edwards since Pagano took over. He can play either defensive end or defensive tackle, so expect to see plenty of No. 96.