This weekend is the first of three in which London hosts America’s game, with the arrival of the NFL International Series.
The Oakland Raiders are ‘hosting’ the Seattle Seahawks under the famous Wembley arch, in a bid to get their second win of the season, as they sit at 1-4. Pete Carroll’s Seattle side isn’t doing much better, at 2-3.
With both teams very much in need of a win, this matchup should be a juicy one – and it’ll be a wet one, too.
The Oakland side arrived in London on Friday afternoon, and they held a press conference at their hotel, where questions focused on what they think about playing at Wembley, and their tough start to the season.
Five players followed their Head Coach Jon Gruden to the stand: quarterback Derek Carr, wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Amari Cooper, defensive lineman Maurice Hurst, and linebacker, Tahir Whitehead.
For three of the players, this is a very new experience; only Carr and Whitehead having experienced Wembley previously.
I’m really excited to be here. This is only my fourth time out of the country, two times going to Mexico [for NFL games] and Barbados. It’s cool to see the differences between America and Europe.
When I was in Green Bay, there were always rumours about us taking the trip, but a lot of teams didn’t want to give up their home game for the Packers to come to town, so I didn’t think I’d ever make the trip – but, it’ll be exciting to be out there and experience it, at least once.
Rookie, and star defensive tackle, Maurice ‘Mo’ Hurst, had previously travelled during his time at Michigan to play in Europe, which he said he found helpful when taking on a similar task in the pro league.
It was another 10-hour flight, with a similar kind of situation. Having experienced that once already, I kind of know how my body reacts, and how to try and get loose and stretch, and feel fresh for the game,
Derek Carr explained that he found it helpful that he’d played at Wembley once before, against the Miami Dolphins in 2014:
Thank goodness it’ll be my second time playing there. When you’re playing the first time, the turf’s a little different, the atmosphere’s a little bit different. Being able to go out there and do our walkthrough there is going to be really nice for our team.
The QB went on to say:
I especially think for the young guys, and for the guys who haven’t played here, it’ll be really good,
Of all of the Oakland Raiders however, Tahir Whitehead is the most experienced on what it’s like to make this trip:
The first two times coming out here were amazing experiences and I made sure to tell guys that I’ve been here before, and what to expect and how to go about it. Embrace it.
It’s a good feeling that the sport itself is growing, and I really enjoy it – it feels good.
It’s gonna be loud regardless. It doesn’t matter if you’re on offense, defense, special teams… They’re all in the stadium and they’re just cheering that you’re here. They’re happy to be here. It brings a smile to my face, it makes me feel good they’re just here, they love the game of football, that they’re here to support us, and they’re here to support the National Football League,
Jordy Nelson made a similar point about the noise of the spectators:
Obviously, it’s a very mixed crowd, I don’t think anyone’s going to have a home-field advantage, but also it could be like both of us are playing on the road, where fans are just excited the whole time, and constantly making noise, to where it might feel the opposite of what you might expect. It’ll be interesting, out on the field, especially when you’re offense, if we’re going to need to do the silent count, and all that other stuff, but I’m just looking forward to it,
Within the group of players, one thing was absolutely clear; none of them are treating this like a holiday.
We’re just trying to stay sharp and keep our minds focused on the game. At the end of the day it’s a business trip, and we’re here to play football. I’m just trying to keep my mind focused and not have too many outside distractions.
Whitehead echoed Hurst’s comments:
We’re here to play a game. We’re here to go out there against the Seahawks and play a football game. You can’t go out there and get caught up with all the sightseeing and get distracted.
The other key focus of the press conference was Seattle. The points of emphasis seemed to be quarterback Russell Wilson, the defense and their run game.
Nelson weighed in on the narrative that the Seahawks’ defense is much weaker than it has been in recent years, and even from the start of this season:
I think that people maybe think that because you might not recognise the names as much as in the past. They still have playmakers, and they’ve got some younger guys and some very athletic guys that can make plays, and I’ve had some experience against them over the last couple of years,
We look forward to the matchup, but it’s definitely not going to be a breeze, it’s going to be a battle, they’re a physical team and they always will be,
Cooper mirrored the veteran wide-out’s respect for the opposing defense:
They’re still an NFL defense. They have a lot of talented players, so, it’s still gonna be tough for us.
The defensive players both identified the importance of stopping the Seahawks’ superstar quarterback, Russell Wilson.
Going against Russel is hard. No matter what you do, he’s gonna find those creases to get out on the perimeter, and make the big plays – and that’s when he really thrives on, that’s what really gets their team going. As a defense you go in there with a gameplan to keep him in the pocket, keep him in the pocket… you can try your best, but he always finds a way, so on our part we really just have to do the as best as we possibly can.
Hurst said of Wilson:
He’s an extremely talented Quarterback. When he gets out of the pocket, that’s when he gets really dangerous. He’s a great passer, very accurate, able to make a lot of big plays for their offense, and he’s just someone who brings that big-play mentality to their team – and you’ve got to try and contain that as much as possible.
We’ve got to get after the passer as much as possible, try to affect him as much as possible, not give him any running lanes, not let him get out of the pocket, and also try and push the pocket and collapse it as much as we can.
Hurst also mentioned that he thinks stopping the running game will be important, especially when combined with the effort to limit the damage Wilson can cause in the passing game:
All of their guys run extremely hard, they use three or four backs, so you’ve got to be ready for all of them, and they’re all fresh throughout the game. They put a strong emphasis on being able to run the ball, so I think that’s our first priority, is to stop the run, and stopping Russel Wilson. Those are the two priorities for us in this game,
After the Raiders’ tough start to the 2018 season, you can tell that the team is pinning a lot on this Sunday’s game, it isn’t just a London game, this might be the most important game of their season – they need to start to turn it around now, or they might as well have just gone sightseeing.
Derek Carr emphasised the urgency of the team to improve their disappointing record:
We obviously have a lot of work to do, just like every football team – there’s always things to clean up. But, you wish you was making those mistakes with wins. You wish you was making those corrections on Monday and Tuesday with another one in the win column.
We’ve got to win, and we know that. We know that as a team. We know that as a unit, when you score points, we need to win games. However we need to do that, that’s what we need to start doing,
When they come, they come in doubles and triples, they come rolling, once we hit our stride. Hopefully that’ll start this week, and then we can have that bye-week, and get ready for the next one.
The Raiders and Seahawks will kick off at 6PM GMT, and the game is being televised on both Sky Sports and BBC Two.