4 Reasons a Healthy Darren McFadden Makes the Raiders AFC West Favorites
He's easily the best running back in the division and one of the better ball-carriers in the NFL. That said, McFadden has yet to play a full season, but played in just seven games a year ago.
Still, he's Oakland's best shot to at least contend for the division title because the rest of the game plan can be built around him.
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Quarterback Carson Palmer will be turning 33 years old at the end of the regular season, so the man has a few years left in him provided that the Raiders remain stellar on the ground.
Even in McFadden's absence last season, Michael Bush kept the Raiders afloat the rest of the way so it's clear Oakland knows how to keep rolling on the ground regardless of the backfield presence.
Well, McFadden has an even stronger presence than Bush and his 2010 season is enough evidence of that. With 1,664 total yards and 10 touchdowns in just 13 games the year, McFadden exploded in the beginning of 2011.
Before going down, Run DMC totaled 768 yards and the Raiders' passing game was easily set up as defenses couldn't stop the run game. A healthy McFadden enhances the validity of Oakland using the play-action pass and allows the speedy receivers to make plays down field against favorable coverages.
As opponents stack the box and/or focus more on stopping the run, receivers see more single coverage and Palmer isn't blitzed nearly as much.
Considering how aggressive AFC West defenses can be with pass-rushers like Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, Melvin Ingram and Tamba Hali, Oakland's best weapon is a consistently effective ground attack. Doing so will freeze linebackers in the box and allow the targets to work the middle and get good yards after the catch.
Controls the Game Tempo
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Teams that rely heavily on the run slow the game tempo way down, but also don't get as many possessions to quickly respond in sudden change situations.
On the flip side, offenses that pass the ball all day can have trouble with efficiency as a slower game tempo reduces the number of opportunities to make plays.
Well, this is why fielding a balanced offense gives the Raiders a distinct advantage. McFadden has the ability to take over games at any time because he's a dual-threat back that performs well between the tackles and can make defenders miss in the open field.
In 2010, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry and before getting injured in 2011, McFadden was getting 5.4 yards per carry. Late in games is when he's most dangerous for Oakland, because mixing up the play calls early on keeps the pace moving smooth while the opponent still sees limited chances.
Say the Raiders work down field on a 12-play, 80-yard drive once or twice within the first 20 minutes of a game, where McFadden counted for 45-50 yards. A defense will wear down fast, thus becoming more vulnerable later on.
Toward halftime and early in the second half is when that balanced approach comes into play because you hit with a quick strike down field off play-action. Throughout the course of the game, this then also helps the Raiders defense, as we see next.
Saves the Defense
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Despite his important need for Oakland to field a balanced offense and control the game tempo, the Raiders defense needs Darren McFadden to get healthy more than anyone else.
Oakland couldn't stop anyone in 2011 and finished ranked No. 27 against the rush and pass, and No. 29 overall by allowing an average of 387 yards per game. Oakland also ranked No. 29 in allowing 27 points per game and the Raiders finished the final five games 1-4.
Not overly dominant, but enough to be sitting at 3-3 heading into Week 7. Then he goes down and although the fort was held tough for a short while, it crumbled in December. There, Oakland allowed almost 32 points per contest in the final five games which cost them a playoff berth.
As for 2012, McFadden will allow the defense to rest against explosive offenses like San Diego, Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina. The Raiders had limited draft picks to work with and cornerback Stanford Routt is gone.
So in order for the game to remain in Oakland's favor, the Raiders must defend better against the pass. Fielding a strong balanced offense, preventing big plays and comebacks like last season must occur as an old-school game that's won in the trenches is where the Raiders can thrive.
If the defense doesn't improve against the pass, however, opponents will be able to limit McFadden's production by creating a faster pace.
Suits the Schedule
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Against stellar defenses like the AFC North, McFadden is needed to match the punishing collisions that will take place in the trenches. All four teams present sound defensive fronts and also will try to slam the rock when on offense.
McFadden's supreme athleticism is an advantage for Oakland in tough games because his top speed and agility is as good as anyone in the game (when healthy). The AFC North front sevens will be aggressive, and the best way to isolate that is to run the rock.
Then, you go to the air and force the linebackers to respect the pass. The NFC South, on the other hand, is different as it's more reliant on the passing attack.
Nonetheless, Tampa Bay has a significantly improved, albeit young and inexperienced, defense. The Panthers remain explosive on offense, Atlanta is a near complete team, but the Saints appear to be on the fritz at the moment.
As long as McFadden gets going early in these games, the Raiders can control the tempo because all four have a lot of proving to do on defense. Each had trouble stopping the run and pass consistently in 2011, so keeping the NFC South offenses off the field will get Oakland some more wins.
Jacksonville and Miami are two different levels of difficultly. Miami is rebuilding, so that won't be a major issue, but the Jaguars have a much better offense and a top-five potential defense. Just like in facing the AFC North teams, a balanced attack is needed, but it all starts with McFadden on the ground.
The AFC West is definitely an improved division, but Denver still has questions against the pass and defending the run in the trenches, while Kansas City and San Diego both have to prove the ability to stop the run, period.
This division doesn't present any unreal receivers like Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson, so as long as McFadden works the trenches to setup the pass, Oakland will be fine.
It's the Raiders defense that must shut down a healthy Jamaal Charles, Ryan Mathews and Willis McGahee that will ultimately determine Oakland's fate provided that McFadden remains healthy throughout.
John Rozum on Twitter.