NFL Preview - Oakland (2-3) at San Francisco (0-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Off to their worst start in 31 years and with questions at the quarterback spot, the San Francisco 49ers take a sixth stab at their first victory of the season when they host the Oakland Raiders this Sunday in a battle of Bay Area inhabitants at Candlestick Park.
The 49ers have lost five straight to open a season for the first time since dropping their first seven games of the 1979 campaign. San Francisco finished that year 2-14 under Bill Walsh.
Mike Singletary's squad will try to avoid inching closer to that horrid start and do so with Alex Smith again under center. Smith could be lacking in the confidence department, though, after nearly being pulled in last weekend's 27-24 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Though he threw for over 300 yards, Smith turned the ball over three times. One of those, a fumble early in the fourth quarter, was returned for a touchdown to give the 49ers a 24-10 deficit and Singletary nearly went to backup David Carr afterwards. The head coach and his quarterback engaged in a heated discussion on the sidelines, with Smith able to talk his way back into the game.
The former top pick of the 2005 draft then went out and completed touchdown passes to tight end Vernon Davis and running back Frank Gore, but was intercepted on San Francisco's final possession with the team down by three points.
Singletary said on Monday that he is sticking with Smith under center based on how he responded to the near-benching, but one would think that the leash will be short for the former Utah product.
"I want to see Alex give himself a chance to be a good quarterback," said Singletary. "And I just think that he does a good job and then he starts pressing and when that happens, bad things happen. We just have to find a way to alleviate some of the other things and then I think he gives himself a chance to be a good quarterback."
The 2-3 Raiders also face a bit of uncertainty at the quarterback spot this weekend, but for a different reason.
Jason Campbell began the season as Oakland's starter at the position, but was benched during the club's Week 2 win over the St. Louis Rams. Bruce Gradkowski came on in relief and took over the starting role until suffering a sprained AC joint in his shoulder during the first quarter of last Sunday's 35-27 victory over the Chargers.
Campbell was able to lead drives of 93 and 73 yards in the second half in a solid showing, and might get a chance to show his stuff again in this game after Gradkowski missed practice on Wednesday.
Oakland, which snapped a two-game slide, was also helped by Michael Bush's fourth career 100-yard rushing game as well as a pair of blocked punts in the first quarter that helped the club jump out to an early lead over San Diego. Free safety Michael Huff also came up with a big sack and forced fumble that fellow safety Tyvon Branch took 64 yards for a score that sealed the Raiders' first victory over the Chargers in 14 games.
"A tremendous win. A great, great team effort," said Raiders head coach Tom Cable. "It's good to stop the streak, but as I said to [the team], 'Let's not make this a 24-hour feel-good party, let's make this who we are becoming.' That's where we need to go. That [San Diego] is a heck of a team, and it's been a nemesis for a number of years now."
The Raiders lead the all-time series with their Bay Area rival, 6-5, but are 0-2 against the 49ers since last beating them, in 2000 at Candlestick Park. San Francisco was a 34-20 home winner against Oakland when the teams last met, in Week 5 of the 2006 season.
Cable and Singletary will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
The Raiders actually lost both games in which Gradkowski (709 passing yards, 4 TD, 4 INT) was under center from start to finish, but he did throw for 533 yards and three touchdowns in the two contests. However, he was also intercepted three times, lost a fumble and was a mere 1-for-7 passing versus the Chargers prior to his injury. Campbell (426 passing yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) stepped in and went 13-for-18 for 159 yards and didn't turn the ball over. Regardless of who is under center, the Raiders will likely try and keep their eighth-ranked running game (134.2 yards per game) as the focal point. With starter Darren McFadden (392 rushing yards, 1 TD) out due to a hamstring ailment and questionable for this weekend, Bush (157 rushing yards, 2 TD) ran for 104 yards on 26 carries and scored a three-yard touchdown on the ground late in the fourth quarter. In the passing game, which ranks 20th in the league (205.0 ypg), the 49ers will need to keep an eye on tight end Zach Miller (28 receptions, 3 TD). Miller, who had six receptions versus the Chargers, has caught a touchdown pass in three straight games and needs just four receptions to become the fourth tight end in club history to reach 200 in his career. Bush added three catches on Sunday, while Louis Murphy (18 receptions, 1 TD) had a pair for 61 yards. Darrius Heyward-Bey (11 receptions), Oakland's other starting wideout, was held without a catch and has just four in his last three games.
Smith and his offense took a lot of heat for last weekend's loss, but the 49ers defense also contributed by allowing the Eagles to rack up 352 yards of offense, including 125 on the ground. San Francisco is ranked 27th in the league in scoring defense, allowing 26.0 points per game, and is 17th in total defense (339.0 ypg). Linebacker Takeo Spikes (23 tackles) led the way with eight tackles against Philadelphia, while fellow linebacker and leading tackler Patrick Willis (41 tackles, 1 sack) added seven. San Francisco has 10 sacks this year, with four of those coming versus the Eagles. Tackle Justin Smith (19 tackles) picked up his first two of the season, while linebackers Manny Lawson (18 tackles, 1 sack) and Travis LaBoy (12 tackles, 3 sacks) notched one each. Linebacker Parys Haralson (15 tackles, 2 sacks) came away with the team's lone turnover, a fumble recovery. The 49ers have managed just four interceptions on the season, with two of those coming in Atlanta two weekends ago. Rookie strong safety Taylor Mays (17 tackles) got his second straight start last week and ended with three tackles, while free safety Dashon Goldson (32 tackles.) had seven.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
San Francisco will stick with Smith (1229 passing yards, 6 TD, 9 INT) again this weekend, even though he turned the ball over three times versus the Eagles and leads the NFL in interceptions. Should Smith start slow again this weekend, Carr could make his San Francisco debut on the field in what would be his first action since Jan. 3, while then with the Giants. One bright spot of last week's loss was that Smith and Michael Crabtree (20 receptions, 1 TD) finally showed some chemistry, with the wide receiver setting career highs with nine catches and 105 yards while also scoring a touchdown. Davis (24 receptions, 2 TD) ended with five catches for 104 yards and running back Frank Gore (322 rushing yards, 3 total TD) made four catches while also totaling 52 yards on 18 carries. He did have trouble holding onto the ball versus the Eagles, though, losing two fumbles near midfield. Gore, who leads all NFL running backs with 33 catches for 284 yards. will try to get San Francisco's 30th-ranked ground game (77.8 ypg) on track this weekend and help the Niners improve on their 15.2 points scored per game.
Though coming off a victory, the Raiders' defense left plenty of room for improvement after yielding 506 yards of offense to the Chargers. Surprisingly, Oakland's 10th-ranked pass defense (198.0 ypg) gave up 415 of those yards. Despite that high number, San Francisco may attack the Raiders' run defense, which ranks 31st in the NFL at 147.8 yards per game allowed. Oakland was able to make some plays a weekend ago, as it forced and recovered three fumbles while Huff (34 tackles, 1 sack) was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his effort that also included a game-high 11 tackles. End Matt Shaughnessy (15 tackles, 3 sacks) recorded a sack and forced a fumble in addition to making six tackles, while tackle Tommy Kelly (18 tackles, 1 sack) notched a sack of his own. Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (20 tackles, 2 sacks) made eight stops last week and Trevor Scott (12 tackles) added seven. Pass rusher Quentin Groves (14 tackles, 1 INT) was unable to play versus the Chargers because of a hamstring issue and has been limited in practice this week.
Though facing an injury at the quarterback spot, neither Campbell nor the hobbled Gradkowski would offer much in the fantasy realm anyway. Oakland's running game is another story, as McFadden was running well prior to his injury. Even if he plays this weekend, the Raiders are likely going to give Bush his fair share of touches, so the best case for fantasy owners is another week off for McFadden so that Bush gets the bulk of the carries. Miller has been one of the top tight end producers and is a must-start, while Murphy has big-play ability that comes with risk. Oakland's defense is playable because it should be able to force some turnovers by Smith. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski hit both his field goals last week, but has missed a total of five this year. However, he has great range, with a long of 58 yards this season.
Both Gore and Davis are must-starts, and Gore himself could be in line for a big week given Oakland's struggles in defending the run. He let owners down last weekend with two fumbles, but is a great fantasy contributor. Crabtree owners have been waiting for a performance like last weekend's to be the norm for the wideout, but is a risky play in this one. Though playing for a job, Smith probably isn't worth a look either. San Francisco's defense has been a disappointment but could put up solid numbers in this game. Kicker Joe Nedney has been able to attempt just five field goals this year, hitting all but one.
If they hope to make the playoffs, every game from here on out is a must-win for the 49ers, who have disappointed so far with an 0-5 start and desperately need a victory this weekend. Despite the winless start, the NFC West isn't that far out of reach for San Francisco, while the Raiders are right behind the AFC West-leading and 3-1 Kansas City Chiefs. The 49ers certainly have the offensive tools to come out on top in this one, it all just depends on if Smith can put it all together. Smith is fighting for his job, while Campbell is looking to reclaim his starting role with another solid effort. The Raiders may have the better record, but the 49ers probably have more talent, and that should be enough to get them their first win of 2010.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 20, Raiders 17
10/14 17:17:08 ET