SANTA CLARA — The Raiders are dying for a win, anything to distract from the turmoil surrounding this team. Jon Gruden’s return to the Silver and Black has fallen far below expectations, especially after it became clear he’s committed to a total rebuild.
That eliminates the prospect of Raiders success while the team remains in Oakland through 2019 at the latest. Beating their Bay Area rivals Thursday night would provide a positive moment in an otherwise bleak 2018, and provide some much-needed bragging rights.
We all know Derek Carr is vital to the Raiders’ success. That’s a given, so you won’t see the quarterback featured below. There are members of every unit vital to a quality showing against the 49ers, who have struggled mightily in their own right.
Here are four Raiders keys to this game at Levi’s Stadium.
RB Doug Martin
The seventh-year pro fared well in his first game as the Raiders’ featured back, a role assumed after a groin injury put Marshawn Lynch on injured reserve. Martin had 72 yards on 13 carries versus the Indianapolis Colts, after averaging 4.5 per game in a reserve role.
There was some question whether Martin still had it, but getting in a carry rhythm brought out his trademark combination of burst, wiggle and physicality.
Now the goal is to repeat it. Gruden loves to run steadily, but he only can do so if the Raiders take a lead and aren’t struggling to get possessions.
“What a performance he had (against the Colts),” Gruden said. “He picked up a couple blitzes. He ran with authority. He can catch the ball. He has a great stiff-arm, still. He still has a lot of life in his legs.”
He’ll have to show that again in Santa Clara against the 13th-ranked 49ers run defense.
DE Bruce Irvin
It’s uncertain how much Raiders fans will see Irvin. He’s playing less now than any other time in his Oakland tenure, with his role honed as a situational pass rusher. He used to play most every snap as a strongside linebacker who spent significant time on the line and proved to be a solid run player.
Irvin is the team’s only established pass rusher, and leads a terrible pressure team with three sacks. The Raiders will face either C.J. Beathard or Nick Mullens, and steady pressure could rattle either quarterback.
It will be interesting to see how much Irvin plays in this game, and how he responds to trade rumors that swirled around him before Tuesday afternoon’s deadline.
Irvin hasn’t made an impact in some time, with just six total tackles all season and 10 total pressures. The Raiders could use Irvin as his best, though he might not have the opportunity to do so.[RELATED: Four 49ers players to watch tonight vs. Raiders]
P Johnny Townsend
The Raiders have lost the battle for field position each week, and Townsend plays a big part in that. The fifth-round draft pick hasn’t started well, without raw power required to flip fields and imperfect accuracy. That combo has produced an uninspired 38.1-yard net average.
Townsend’s uneven play was clear in two punts last week against the Colts. He uncorked the first one 55 yards, but he drilled it too solid and allowed a 10-yard return. He shanked a fourth-quarter punt that he had to crush, and it traveled just 25 yards after an unfortunate bounce.
Townsend hasn’t been good. He must be better and live up to his draft selection, starting with this game.
“I’m still waiting for Johnny Townsend the kid we drafted to really put it all together,” Gruden said. “I’m not going to give up on Townsend, and I’m not going to give up, period.”
WR Brandon LaFell
The veteran receiver was a surprise victor in the race to replace Amari Cooper. The top Raiders wideout was traded to the Dallas Cowboys for a first-round draft pick just after a Week 7 bye, leading Oakland to scramble for someone to fill in.
LaFell was the choice, selected as a veteran presence and a reliable, quarterback-friendly target. He ended up with three catches for 39 yards and one touchdown in his first Raiders start against the Colts. He played 92 percent of Raiders offensive snaps, with Seth Roberts working a ton from the slot and Martavis Bryant, easily the team’s most talented receiver, glued to the sideline.
Bryant could be incorporated more into future starts, but LaFell’s reliability might have carved out a permanently increased role on this team.
“He doesn’t take one rep off, even if he knows he’s not getting the ball,” Carr said. “He’s friendly to the quarterback. He always runs friendly routes. He can play with anybody. I’m glad that we had some time to work and all those things, but he’s the kind of guy that you can just throw him in and just play.
“When quarterbacks, when we watch the film, obviously we’re looking at a lot of things, but you always also notice, when a guy knows a ball isn’t coming to him, how hard does he run? When a guy knows they don’t play that coverage but only 4 percent of the time, so I’m probably not going to get it. You watch him, and he’s always running his tail off. That’s not the case with everybody.”
The Raiders will need reliability against the 49ers, especially if they devote more attention to Jordy Nelson on the other side.