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Saturday, October 1, 2011
Patriots vs. Raiders: What to watch for

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

OAKLAND -- Areas of interest as the New England Patriots visit the Oakland Raiders in an AFC clash Sunday (CBS, 4 p.m. ET):

Blocking Seymour and impact of Raiders' d-line. The strength of the Raiders' defense is up front, starting with captain Richard Seymour. The Raiders rotate seven or eight linemen into the game, which Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light noted keeps them fresh. Seymour remains a top player and he will be a challenge for interior offensive linemen Dan Connolly (center), Brian Waters (right guard) and Logan Mankins (left guard). The Patriots have had some of their biggest struggles against defenses that can get to quarterback Tom Brady with the standard four rushers, and the Raiders have the personnel to do that. On the flip side, if the Patriots can protect Brady, there should be favorable matchups for the Patriots.

Darren McFadden
The Pats must find a way to slow down Raiders running back Darren McFadden, who leads the NFL in rushing (393 yards).

Base defense rising up against McFadden. Oakland running back Darren McFadden leads the NFL in rushing (393 yards), and the Raiders take pride in establishing a physical edge. Patriots defensive lineman Gerard Warren said Friday that any defense wants to take away what an offense does best, and in this case that means limiting McFadden, who practiced all week despite injuring his groin against the Jets last Sunday. This is a different type of challenge for the Patriots' defense, as they've been in sub packages 78 percent of the time through three weeks but figure to be in bigger base personnel more often. It wouldn't be a surprise to see a return to the 3-4.

Safeties defending the big play and Chung's status. With starter Patrick Chung missing Sunday's loss to the Bills with a right thumb injury, the Patriots were vulnerable to the big play with Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett playing every snap. While the Raiders want to run the ball, they also have big-play, speed receivers on the outside in Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore, who can threaten the deep parts of the field. The safeties will have to rise up, and signs point to Chung returning to action, so that should help the Patriots.

Rotation at third receiver with Ochocinco, Edelman and possibly Price. On Friday, second-year receiver Taylor Price said his hamstring injury had improved to the point that he'd make the trip to Oakland. That gives him a chance to play in his first game of the season. Barring the promotion of practice squad tight end Garrett Mills, the Patriots will enter the game with just one healthy tight end (Rob Gronkowski), meaning it's likely the team will primarily be in three-receiver packages. Ochocinco is off to a slow start, but with former Bengals receivers coach Hue Jackson on the opposite sideline (he's Raiders head coach), perhaps it produces the spark to get him going.

More Ridley at running back? Rookie Stevan Ridley has seen his role increase over the first three weeks of the season. He dressed for the season opener but didn't play; was in for two snaps (1 carry) against the Chargers; and played 11 snaps (7 rushes, 44 yards) against the Bills. His powerful running style has made an impression, earning him the opportunity for more playing time along with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead.

Stevan Ridley
Rookie running back Stevan Ridley has seen increasingly more playing time and could be a factor for the Pats on Sunday.

Role of penalties in the game. The Raiders lead the NFL with 30 accepted penalties, while the Patriots aren't far behind with 23 (tied for ninth most). Patriots players have stressed this week the importance of limiting penalties, turnovers and the big play. It sounds like a back-to-the-basics focus for the team.

Protection on special teams. An often-overlooked aspect of the game, the Patriots' protection on field goals and punts faces a challenge. The Raiders have already blocked a punt and field goal this year. Having Chung back in the lineup, assuming he plays, will help the Patriots as he is the personal protector on punts.

Long field goals and punts in play. Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski kicked an NFL-record 63-yard field goal in the season-opening win at Denver, while punter Shane Lechler tied a franchise record with a 77-yard punt in the same game, and has four other punts of 50 yards or more. The specialists can really boom it. There likely won't be many opportunities for kickoff returns.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.