Running Back Latavius Murray
At 5-2, the Oakland Raiders are tied for first in the AFC West, and they'll look to stay there – or earn the outright lead – with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Although the Bucs are just 3-3, they're coming off back-to-back wins, and with a talented, young quarterback in Jameis Winston, combined with a variety of offensive weapons, the young Tampa Bay team certainly poses a threat to the Silver and Black.
Head Coach Jack Del Rio's team will try to keep up its winning ways on the road Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, so here are five questions we have heading into the Week 8 matchup.
1. Can the Raiders force Jameis Winston into some mistakes?
The Buccaneers are led on the offensive side of the football by second-year quarterback Jameis Winston, and while the former Florida State Seminole is no doubt a talented player, he has shown to be a bit turnover prone in the early stages of his career.
Through six games, Winston has thrown nine interceptions – only two players in the NFL have thrown more – and the Raiders would be well-served to force the young signal-caller into some tight, contested throws Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
While the defense admittedly didn't start the season the way they would have liked, they showed a marked improvement in last week's convincing win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, and will now look to keep trending in the right direction against the Buccaneers.
The Raiders defense has forced 13 turnovers this season, so keep an eye on how defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr., chooses to attack Winston, particularly in the game's early goings.
2. Can the re-tooled running game keep rolling?
It's no coincidence that the return of running back Latavius Murray to the lineup last week also coincided with the Raiders best rushing effort since Week 2.
When all was said and done, the Silver and Black ran for 144 yards on the ground, and effectively controlled the line of scrimmage against the Jaguars.
While the Tampa Bay defense is admittedly a little more stout than the Jaguars, the Bucs are still allowing just under 120 yards per game on the ground, which ranks just 19th in the NFL.
Yes, the Buccaneers do have All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy patrolling the interior of the defensive line, but even with his presence, the Raiders should have their opportunities to make some big plays throughout the game.
Time and time again, Head Coach Jack Del Rio has said that the Silver and Black want to establish a tough, physical mentality in the trenches, so I'll be looking to see if they can do just that Sunday afternoon against the Buccaneers.
3. Can the defense limit Mike Evans?
Heading into Sunday's rumble at Raymond James Stadium, wide receiver Mike Evans leads the Bucs in receiving with 545 yards and six touchdowns.
After Evans though, the next-leading receiver for Tampa Bay has just 233 receiving yards.
The physically-imposing wideout has quickly established himself as Jameis Winston's favorite target, and it's easy to see why. Standing at 6'5" and tipping the scales at just over 230 pounds, Evans looks like more of a tight end than a wide receiver, and has the ability to bully smaller cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage.
However, that won't be the case Sunday, as Evans will square off against cornerback Sean Smith, who is one of the biggest cornerbacks in the NFL himself.
Behind Evans, the depth at wide receiver isn't great, so if Smith and the Raiders defense can find a way to limit the dynamic wide receiver, it would help to make the Tampa Bay offense one-dimensional, and put Winston in pressure situations where he will have to make a big play without the benefit of his primary option out wide.
There's no doubt that Evans is an ascending wide receiver in the NFL, but I'll keeping a close eye on how the defense approaches shutting him down Sunday afternoon.
4. How will Amari Cooper impact the game?
The Raiders flew out of Jacksonville last weekend with a win in tow; that's the most important thing.
However, if you look at the stat sheet from the convincing 33-16 win over the Jaguars, you'll notice a bit of an oddity – wide receiver Amari Cooper was targeted just five times, and caught just four passes for 29 yards.
The 29-yard output was Cooper's lowest of the 2016 season, and while the Jaguars certainly made shutting him down a priority, the Raiders would assuredly like for him to get more involved on the offensive side of the football this weekend.
Like Mike Evans, Cooper is one of the young, ascending wide receivers in the NFL, and I'll be keeping an eye on No. 89 as the game progresses to see how he makes his presence felt.
The Raiders are fortunate enough to have two "No. 1 receivers" in Cooper and Michael Crabtree, but if both are able to get in a groove Sunday afternoon, it could spell trouble for the Tampa Bay defense.
5. How will Donald Penn's homecoming go?
Donald Penn spent the first seven years of his NFL career with the Buccaneers, and when asked about his return to Tampa Bay for the first time since the end of 2013, No. 72 didn't mince words; he's coming back to the Sunshine State with a mission.
"It's going to be kind of weird; I've never walked into Raymond James Stadium from the visitor side," said Penn. "It's going to be something new. Looking forward to seeing some of the old guys that still play on the team. I'm just trying to go out there and come out with a win."
So is there a chip on his shoulder as he squares off against the team that let him walk out the door just over two seasons ago? You bet.
"Oh, it's huge," Penn said. "I'm not going to sugar coat it. It's very huge. You know me, I'm a straight forward guy. That's definitely in my mind. I mean that's something I'm never going to forget, when they released me. The thing is I'm happy where I'm at now."
Penn is happy to be in Oakland, and the Raiders are no doubt happy to have the veteran left tackle back in Silver and Black, but there will almost certainly be a little extra adrenaline pumping through No. 72's veins Sunday afternoon, especially for the first few series of the game.
How does Penn harness that adrenaline? That's something I'll be watching as the Raiders square off against the Bucs.