The Oakland Raiders start training camp next week with the goal of making the playoffs in 2012. It could be a difficult road to the playoffs for the Raiders with a healthy Kansas City Chiefs team, Peyton Manning in a Denver Broncos uniform and a desperate Norv Turner in San Diego.
In order to win the AFC West and make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, the Raiders will need to improve in the following key areas in training camp.
Stanford Routt was among the worst offender when it came to committing penalties in 2011.
The Raiders set an NFL record last season for both penalties and penalty yards. In total the Raiders had 163 penalties for 1358 yards. On a per game basis that's approximately 10 penalties for 85 yards.
To put that in perspective, if the offense starts at the 20, the Raiders are giving up enough yardage to allow a touchdown per game or 112 points per season. The Raiders allowed 433 points and scored 359 points for a point differential of 74 points in 2011.
The league average for penalties in 2011 was 103 penalties for 867 yards or roughly six penalties for 54 yards per game. Assuming the Raiders can go from horrible to average, they should be able to prevent at least 60 penalties for 491 yards. That's four penalties for 31 yards per game, equal to approximately two personal foul penalties per game, three first downs and about six touchdowns per season.
In theory, the Raiders point differential could have been 32 points or about two points per game. You wouldn't think two points per game would make that much of a difference and it wouldn't have in any game but one, but one game was the difference between the Raiders going to the playoffs in 2011 and not going to the playoffs.
That's just breaking it down by yardage, not to mention how the penalties extended drives and gave opposing offenses additional chances to score.
Dennis Allen has made it a focus to correct the discipline issues in Oakland, but so did Hue Jackson, Tom Cable and Lane Kiffin. What is different this time? Coaches have a lot of say now.
No longer is the coach and the head football executive at odds over players. For the first time the head coach has to power to impact a players' status on the team. Mental penalties should go down for the simple fact that the coaching staff is not going to tolerate mental errors and will take action to make sure players that commit mental errors are not playing.
The Raiders will do other things to limit penalties, such as to stop sending detailed reports to the league office about all the errors the officials make. Al Davis sent these reports and they undoubtedly got back to the officials and have created a culture of bias against the Raiders for years.
However, personal fouls, holding and false start penalties have also plagued the Raiders for years and those are penalties the coaching staff can correct by making sure the players know that playing time will be impacted if they continue. It's a message that can be sent loud and clear during training camp.
Patrick Willis lead the 49ers to a NFL-best turnover margin in 2011.
Only two of the eight playoffs teams in 2011 had a negative turnover differential, the Denver Broncos and the New Orleans Saints. Essentially the Saints were able to overcome their turnover margin with an elite offense and the Broncos came out of a division that didn't have a team with a positive turnover margin.
For the Raiders to win the AFC West and make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, they will need to improve this statistic and it can be improved on both sides of the ball.
First, the Raiders must limit giveaways. Carson Palmer had far too many interceptions last season and the Raiders were among the bottom five in this statistic. Palmer was too confident in his arm at times and would make rookie mistakes throwing into traffic when nothing was there. Greg Knapp will want to use that confidence to his advantage by allowing Palmer to throw into tough spots, but he'll also want to stress to Palmer that he'll have another opportunity in an even better situation if he makes a smarter read and plays the field position game.
The other side of the ball needs to get more takeaways. The Raiders had 26 takeaways in 2011 consisting of 18 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries which ranked the Raiders tied for 13th in the league. Part of the reason the 49ers were able to improve so drastically last season was by limiting their turnovers and letting the defense attack the football. The result was a league best 38 takeaways and +28 turnover margin.
While the Raiders' defense has a long way to go, they can't be much worse in pass coverage and will benefit if the coaching staff allows the players to take chances to get more turnovers. Expect this to be a big focus during training camp.
Dennis Allen brings a new defensive scheme to Oakland.
The Raiders entire defense was built around man coverage scheme. Al Davis loved press man and using his front four to get pressure on the quarterback. Unfortunately as the game has evolved over the past decade or more, zone coverage schemes are becoming more and more popular.
Dennis Allen is the first defensive-minded head coach since John Madden and will bring a modern defense to Oakland. That means a modern zone and blitzing scheme. That's not to say the Raiders will not use press man, but many of the players could use additional practice in zone coverage as they have rarely used zone over the past few years.
Greg Knapp brings his offensive scheme to Oakland.
Greg Knapp returns to Oakland and brings with him a variation of the West Coast Offense. As opposed to the Air Coryell-inspired offense that the Raiders ran last season, the new offense will stretch the field horizontally more than vertically and the quarterback will rely more heavily on timing and crisp routes run to a spot on the field.
That means the young receivers in Oakland will need to refine their route running and timing with Carson Palmer. A simplified read for Palmer and a receiver in the right spot should result in a completion, but if the receiver is even a yard or two too deep or shallow the entire play might result in an incomplete pass or an interception if Palmer doesn't check down to a running back.
The receivers and Palmer should be working on timing and throwing to certain spots during training camp. Ultimately clean, crisp routes will give Palmer confidence to throw the ball to his receivers and give him confidence in the new offensive system as a whole.
David Ausberry is just one of the tight ends the Raiders are trying to develop during training camp.
It's been a few years since the Raiders had a competition at tight end in training camp and the organization is hoping competition promoted improvement from the group.
Brandon Myers, David Ausberry and Richard Gordon figure into the tight end mix and none of them are proven receivers. Gordon was used as a blocking specialist last season, but needs the most work in the passing game. Myers is the most veteran player and figures to be the front-runner, but the Raiders are hoping for improvement in both the passing and running games from him. Ausberry, a converted wide receiver, has a long way to go in the area of run blocking.
It's a position the Raiders have given former offensive coordinator, now offensive consultant Al Saunders as a pet project. Saunders has a good track record of developing wide receivers and that might bode well for this group in the passing game.
The Raiders will have to figure out how and who will replace Kamerion Wimbley's pass rush.
The Raiders were a good pass rushing team in 2012 and according to ProFootballFocus were the 7th best in the NFL. However, remove Kamerion Wimbley and his +16.3 ProFootballFocus grade, which included six sacks, 16 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries and the Raiders would have been pedestrian. The team will have to manufacture a pass rush from other sources in 2012.
The combination of Desmond Bryant, Jarvis Moss and Trevor Scott didn't give the Raiders much in the way of pass rush from the outside. Bryant is expected to slide inside to defensive tackle and Jarvis Moss and Trevor Scott were not re-signed. John Henderson was not retained and even though he was primarily a run stuffer, he did contribute some to the pass rush in 2011.
In total, the Raiders released, didn't re-sign or will change the position of players that contributed 15 sacks, 24 quarterback hits and 73 quarterback hurries in 2011, according to ProFootballFocus. That would be roughly equivalent of a Julius Peppers or DeMarcus Ware based upon their 2011 production.
In 2012, the right defensive end position will be a combination of Matt Shaughnessy, Jack Crawford and Dave Tollefson. Philip Wheeler was signed to take over for Wimbley and the Raiders also brought in a few rookie linebackers. Unless Matt Shaughnessy becomes an absolute monster pass rusher, the Raiders will be hoping to get good production from elsewhere.
To make up for Wimbley's loss, the Raiders will need the defensive line to work on their pass rush moves and the linebackers to work on executing the new blitz-heavy scheme Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver are installing. The line might work on more stunts while the linebackers will need to focus on disguising the blitz and timing the blitz at the line of scrimmage.
Training camp will be an important time for the Raiders to figure out where and how they will get their pass rush and there is a lot of work to do in the front seven to make sure quarterbacks don't have all day to throw.
The final thing the Raiders need to do in training camp to improve their pass rush is to keep Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour healthy. They are getting older, but are still great interior pass rushers the Raiders can't afford to lose.