LONDON — If the Raiders lose to the Seahawks, their season is effectively over. It might already be.
But to keep the slimmest of hopes alive for a monumental turnaround under Jon Gruden, the Raiders (1-4) need to put on a show for the Wembley Stadium fans when the NFL takes center stage in London at 6 p.m. local time (10 a.m. PST) on Sunday.
Here are three big things to watch for in the game.
Can the Raiders corral Russell Wilson?
The Seahawks starting quarterback is one of the best in the NFL at evading pressure and escaping the pocket.
“It all starts with the quarterback,” Gruden said Friday. “You gotta defend the play that Seattle calls, then you gotta defend the play that Russell Wilson creates. He gets out of trouble. He’s a magnificent playmaker. With Doug Baldwin healthy now, (Tyler) Lockett can still burn you in a lot of creative ways, they’re dangerous on offense. And they can run the football.”
The Raiders have really only faced two mobile quarterbacks this season, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield. Tannehill scrambled effectively – he led the Dolphins with 26 rushing yards on three carries – and both quarterbacks ignited successful passing plays with their feet. The Chargers’ Philip Rivers even escaped the pocket effectively, so that tells you all you need to know about Oakland’s ability to keep quarterbacks in the pocket.
Even they know that on Sunday, even their best efforts may not keep Wilson to a confined space.
“Going against Russell is hard. No matter what you do, he’s always gonna find those creases to get out on the perimeter, to make the big plays and that’s what he really thrives on,” Raiders linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. “That’s what really gets their team going. As a defense you go in there with a game plan to keep him in the pocket. You can try your best, but he always finds a way. On our part, we really just have to do as best as possible.”
Wilson has been sacked 18 times this season, tied for third-most among quarterbacks. The Raiders will be able to generate pressure, but can they bring him down or can Wilson escape? That might be the key to a Raiders’ bounce-back victory.
Plenty familiar faces to both teams will be featured in Sunday’s game, namely Marshawn Lynch in his first game against the team for which he played six years and won a Super Bowl in 2014.
The Raiders also staff Tom Cable as offensive line coach, and he was Pete Carroll’s assistant head coach and offensive line coach for seven seasons prior to re-joining the Raiders this season. Two prominent Raiders defensive linemen have also played for Seattle.
“We’ve got a few ex-Seahawks on our team, Bruce Irvin (2012-15), Clinton McDonald (2011-13) and certainly Marshawn Lynch, the most well-known ex-Seahawk on our football team,” Gruden said. “He had a lot to do, I think, with the Super Bowl ring that the Seahawks wear. He was the heart and soul of that team. In a lot of ways, he’s the heart and soul of the Raiders right now.”
On the other side, the Seahawks have Ken Norton Jr. as defensive coordinator. Raiders fans will (not so fondly) remember Norton as their defensive coordinator for two-plus seasons before Jack Del Rio fired him following the Raiders’ 33-8 loss to the Patriots last year.
“Kenny and I go way back to when he was finishing up his career at San Francisco and I was there a couple years,” Carroll said this week. “When I left there and wound up at USC, I ran into Kenny down in L.A. at the NFL Network and asked him about coming into coach, so he entered in as a graduate assistant way back when. I’ve been with Kenny for a good while and I‘ve always admired his manner and the way in how he dealt with people, how he loved the game and the spirit that he brought. When I didn’t have him around there was a void (Norton coached Seattle’s linebackers from 2010-14 under Carroll), so I was thrilled to get him back and get his competitiveness and toughness back on our club.”
The Seahawks’ most notable ex-Raider, though, is their kicker, 18-year Raider Sebastian Janikowski. Gruden opted not to bring the lefty back as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. He’s 6-for-9 on field goals this season with a long of 56 yards.
“They got a kicker that I know extremely well,” Gruden said with a big grin. “Sebastian Janikowski. I can’t wait to see him as well.”
“He’s been great to have on the club,” Carroll said of Janikowski. “He’s been a great worker, tremendous competitor, he’s come through with some big kicks already and given us a lot of confidence.”
Of lesser significance, former Raiders defensive line coach Jethro Franklin is now an assistant defensive line coach for the Seahawks.
How much will the Raiders run Beast Mode?
Lynch has received 77 carries this season, seventh-most in the NFL, but Gruden wants to feed him more.
Lynch is only averaging 4.3 yards per carry (23rd in the league), but his running style that hasn’t faded with age wears defenses down. Against a Seattle defense led by linebacker Bobby Wagner, Lynch’s former teammate, you bet Lynch will bring the heat in London.
“He’s still running with that incredible physicality. He’s been durable, he’s practiced every day,” Gruden said. “Behind the scenes, he’s one of our leaders. He’s a little bit misunderstood by a lot of people, but believe me if you were coaching a football team he’d be one of the first guys you’d want on your team.”
Lynch has three touchdowns this season, all from within 10 yards, and probably would’ve had a fourth if Gruden called a running play on 1st-and-goal from the 1 against the Chargers last Sunday. So, a week after he only ran Lynch nine times as the Raiders resorted to the air down big, does Gruden think Beast Mode needs the ball more?
“Probably,” Gruden said. “We got a lot of guys that need to see the ball more … Good is not good enough. We need to start playing great offensively, and to do that we need to see more of Lynch. We need to see a little bit more of the ball going across the goal line. That’s the big thing.”