NFL Preview - Oakland (1-2) at Houston (1-2)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - One of the best receivers in the game will get a chance at beating a highly-touted cornerback, as wideout Andre Johnson leads the Houston Texas against Nnamdi Asomugha and the Oakland Raiders this Sunday at Reliant Stadium in a battle of 1-2 teams.
Johnson has emerged as one of the top go-to receivers in the game and gives Houston a chance to win on a weekly basis with his big-play ability. The 6-3, 225-pound Miami-Florida product came through with 86 yards on four catches in last week's 31-24 loss to the AFC South-rival Jacksonville Jaguars, but has eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark just once in 2009. The season is still young, however, and quarterback Matt Schaub seems to be back in top form for this Sunday's matchup.
Schaub is coming off his second straight 300-yard passing game for the Texans, who are playing at home for the third time in four weeks. Houston really needs this win with head coach Gary Kubiak on the hot seat, and Schaub must play mistake-free football in order to keep things rosy in Texas. He has seven touchdown passes to just one interception over the last two weeks, and there's no doubt he'll be locked on to Johnson most of the afternoon.
A win would give the Texans their best start after four games since the 2007 campaign.
Asomugha, though, is ready for the challenge and has enjoyed success against Johnson and the Texans. He rarely gets thrown at and like Johnson, is coming off a first-team All-Pro campaign. Oakland is 1-2 for a third consecutive season and needs its top cover man to be at his best.
The physical defensive back has faced Houston three times since 2004, and not once has a Texans wideout recorded more than 65 yards. Asomugha and the Raiders have held the talented Johnson to only three receptions for 28 yards in two appearances since the 2004 season.
Oakland head coach Tom Cable hopes that Sunday's matchup will be no different, especially after getting buried by Denver by a 23-3 score last week. It was Oakland's third straight game against a division opponent.
Cable also hopes that top tailback Darren McFadden can hold on to the football after last year's first-round pick fumbled three times against the Broncos. There are high expectations for McFadden in his second season, and this week is as good as ever to have a breakout performance. McFadden said this week that the fumbles have been on his mind, and that he's anxious to redeem himself against a shaky Houston defense.
Things haven't so good for quarterback JaMarcus Russell and the Raiders' pass offense either. Russell had a miserable day last week, as he threw for just 61 yards on 12-of-21 passing with a pair of interceptions. Russell has only one touchdown pass this season and should start watching his back for second- stringer Bruce Gradkowski. Don't be surprised if Gradkowski makes an appearance for an ineffective Russell on Sunday.
Houston is 3-1 all-time against Oakland, suffering its first loss in series history when it dropped a 27-16 road decision to the Raiders in Week 16 of last year. Prior to that matchup, the Texans had notched road wins over Oakland in 2006 (23-14) and 2007 (24-17) and a home victory in 2004 (30-17). The Raiders are 0-4 in Houston since last winning there, against the Oilers, in 1986.
Kubiak is 2-1 all-time against the Raiders, while Cable is 1-0 against both Kubiak and Houston as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Russell (378 passing yards, TD, 4 INT) is coming off a poor showing versus Denver and passed for only 109 yards the week before in a 13-10 win at Kansas City. The strong-armed LSU product has to be better this week against a Houston franchise he compiled 236 yards and 2 touchdowns against last season. Oakland is last in passing offense with 131.7 yards per game. Rookie wideout Louis Murphy (138 receiving yards, 1 TD) leads the team in receiving yards and is tied with tight end Zach Miller with eight catches. First-round draft pick Darrius Heyward-Bey still has just one reception in three games this season. In his defense, however, Russell hasn't been able to spread the ball around efficiently. The former No. 1 overall choice has been sacked six times in three games, so he's at least getting some looks downfield.
In order to make life worse on Russell, Texans star defensive end Mario Williams has to be at the top of his game. Williams (14 tackles) has just one sack this year, and hurries mean nothing in this league. He has to get to Russell in order to keep Oakland out of a rhythm and one-dimensional. Williams leads the AFC with 27 sacks since 2007. End Antonio Smith (8 tackles) plays on the left side and hasn't recorded a sack this season, even though Williams faces most of the double-teams. Reserve corners Antwaun Molden (quadriceps) and Jacques Reeves (finger) have been limited in practice, but are expected to play against Oakland's young receivers. Starting corners Fred Bennett (15 tackles) and Dunta Robinson (10 tackles) are still without an interception this season for the Texans, who are allowing 231.7 passing yards a game. Recently-signed safety Bernard Pollard could see action on Sunday. He led Kansas City with 98 tackles in 2008.
McFadden (148 rushing yards, 1 TD) is aiming for redemption after his fumbling act of a week ago. He had 45 yards on 12 carries versus Denver, and his only touchdown run this season came in a win over Kansas City. Surprisingly, the Raiders have lost yardage on only four rushing attempts this season, tying the Dallas Cowboys for the lowest total in the league. McFadden has only three carries all season that have gone for more than 10 yards, with his longest being only a 15-yarder last Sunday. He is averaging just 3.6 yards per attempt and has failed to reach 100 yards rushing in his last 14 games since doing so for the only time in his career against Kansas City in Week 2 of last season. Backup Michael Bush (110 rushing yards, 1 TD) is a reliable second option for Oakland, which is 20th in the league in rushing at 103.3 yards per game.
Houston is last in run defense, allowing 205.0 yards per game. The unit was blasted for 119 yards and three scores on 23 touches by Jaguars versatile running back Maurice Jones-Drew last week. Jacksonville netted 184 yards on the ground and kept Houston tackles Amobi Okoye (9 tackles) and Shaun Cody (5 tackles) in check. First-year linebacker Brian Cushing (26 tackles) leads the team and all NFL rookies in stops this season, with All-Pro DeMeco Ryans (23 tackles) not too far behind. The two studs combined for 14 tackles last week and should expect another busy day against McFadden.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
Schaub (823 passing yards, 7 TDs, 2 INT) has come around the last two games since a rough season-opening loss to the New York Jets. He has thrown for 657 yards with seven touchdown passes and one interception for a 122.4 passer rating over the previous two weeks. In his last five home games, Schaub owns nine touchdown passes to only a pair of interceptions. Johnson (18 receptions, 270 yards, 2 TD) led the league with 1,575 receiving yards last year and tops the NFL with 133 receptions since then. He is averaging 121 receiving yards in his last 10 games at Reliant Stadium, where he faces a tough test against the Oakland secondary. Fellow wideout Kevin Walter made his 2009 debut last week and led the charge with seven catches for 96 yards and a score. Schaub has been sacked just four times this season and hopes to have enough time to hit all of his targets, including tight end Owen Daniels (15 receptions, 2 TD). Little-used wideout Jacoby Jones (4 receptions) is tied for the team lead with two touchdown catches.
Asomugha leads an Oakland defense that sits in the middle of the pack against the pass, allowing 211.0 passing yards a game. He is the main reason why the Raiders are just one of only four teams that have not allowed a pass play of 30 or more yards this season (Colts, Panthers and Jets). Denver passed for 157 yards last week, while Oakland came up with four passes defensed but no interceptions. Cornerback Chris Johnson (14 tackles) will help in defense of Andre Johnson and Walter. Safeties Tyvon Branch (25 tackles) and Michael Huff (6 tackles, 3 INT) have to step up in this game to avoid getting burned on the deep ball, which Schaub can throw very well. Huff made his first start of the season last week and is tied for first in the NFL in picks, while rookie safety Mike Mitchell is tied for second for the league lead with two fumble recoveries, having recorded his first on special teams in the Week 2 win at Kansas City.
Houston's rushing attack accounted for 111 yards and averaged five yards per carry last week, and is starting to show signs of life. Top back Steve Slaton (127 rushing yards) is still searching for his first touchdown of the season and is coming off his best day of the year. He amassed 76 yards on 12 carries against Jacksonville after totaling 51 yards over the first two weeks of 2009. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan knows that the Raiders don't have the best run defense, and must exploit that weakness in order to even Houston's record at 2-2. But in order to do that, Slaton must be on his game. Slaton, who led all rookies with 1,282 rushing yards in 2008, averaged 1.9 yards per carry in the season opener against the Jets on nine carries for 17 yards. He then grinded out just 34 yards on 17 carries against Tennessee. Fullback Vonta Leach (30 rushing yards) usually paves the way for Slaton and understands everyone, including the linemen, has to be on the same page. Guard Kasey Studdard and tackle Eric Winston are two of Houston's top blockers and will try to prove that Sunday.
Oakland is 28th against the run this season, allowing 155.0 yards on the ground through the first three games. The Raiders gave up 108 yards on 14 carries to lifelong second-string running back Correll Buckhalter last Sunday, and face an elusive Slaton this weekend. Big tackles Tommy Kelley (8 tackles) and Gerard Warren (7 tackles) have to have a better game after combining for just four stops against the Broncos. Slaton likes to bounce outside, leaving veteran ends Richard Seymour (12 tackles, 2 sacks) and Greg Ellis (9 tackles, 3 sacks) responsible for containing the speedy West Virginia product. Seymour and Ellis have combined for five sacks this season, but Seymour hasn't gotten to the quarterback since the opening week of the season against San Diego. Seymour and Ellis own 121 career sacks between the two of them.
With the way Schaub has been playing the past two contests, it's a no-brainer to start him this week against a week Oakland defense. The same always goes with Andre Johnson for obvious reasons and also for Slaton, even though he's been struggling to light up the fantasy world this season. Sooner or later, however, Slaton will make fantasy owners happy on a regular basis. Try giving Walter a look this week after he made a strong debut last Sunday. There's not much going on fantasy-wise for the Raiders, especially after McFadden ticked off owners with three fumbles last week. He will try to redeem himself and remain a starter in most leagues this weekend. Murphy has been Russell's favorite target and desperate owners can gamble with him on Sunday.
The struggles of Russell will continue to haunt Cable and the Raiders this week, and that may be enough to bring out Gradkowski. Russell has a lowly passer rating of 39.8, which wouldn't even help a Pop Warner team right now, let alone one of the NFL's most-storied franchises. The former No. 1 overall pick has thrown four interceptions and only a single touchdown pass through the first three games of the 2009 campaign. That's not acceptable at this level and if Cable sticks with his subpar quarterback, then he's slowly sealing his own fate. It doesn't matter that Russell torched Houston for 236 yards and a pair of scores last season, because the film doesn't lie. With Cushing, Ryans and Williams, Russell's going to be in for a long day. McFadden will feel the brunt of Houston's need for better defensive play, while the oft-injured Schaub will prove that his past two games were no fluke. With Andre Johnson at wideout and Slaton dodging defenders, it's hard for Houston not to succeed.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Texans 24, Raiders 20
10/01 17:12:46 ET