While Raider Nation pinched its collective nose in the aftermath of Monday’s 3-0 sleep-aid masquerading as a football game, there were morsels of information and glimmers of hope for those denizens of the Black Hole that cared to look.
So as we peruse the roster and read the tea leaves for the upcoming season, we begin a three-part review of the 2012 Oakland Raiders. First up, the defense.
As dawn breaks on the 2012 campaign, the Raiders find themselves facing a revitalized AFC West and a mountain of skeptics.
Last year’s 29th-ranked defense lost both starting corner backs (Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson) and their leading pass rusher (Kamerion Wimbley), and gains a whole new system under the direction of Jason Tarver and the watchful eye of defensive-minded head coach Dennis Allen.
Gone are the days opposing teams knew the Raiders’ scheme before they got off the bus. The stubborn commitment to a 4-3 base and bump-and-run on the outside has been replaced with an air of unpredictability, dynamic fronts and, dare we say it? Liberal blitzing!
If nothing else, opponents should have more to work on, especially with little film to see of the revamped look. But fans should temper their expectations for this unit as they work through what will be a steep learning curve.
There is a lot of work to be done to improve the 27th-rated run defense, the 27th-rated pass defense and the 29th-rated scoring defense. But look on the bright side, there’s really only one way to go!
This unit enters the season with an interesting balance of youth and experience. With veterans Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour anchoring the middle and young guns Matt Shaughnessy and Lamarr Houston on the outside, the starting unit looks to be among the best in the division on paper.
Of course paper doesn’t play much football these days. Last year Seymour tallied the second-most sacks in a season (six) and made the Pro-Bowl, but most experts will agree he was not his dominant self most of the season. And entering his 12th season at arguably the most physically demanding position in football, it’s understandable.
The Raiders must find ways of keeping their leader fresh and limit his snaps. So as you settle in to watch the NFL’s full-priced practice games this month, pay special attention to Jamie Cumbie and Dominique Hamilton to see if either is capable of helping Desmond Bryant take the load off the big man.
Quietly, Tommy Kelly continues to earn his massive contract and control the point-of-attack, freeing up the rest of the unit to operate with a free hand.
Shaughnessy returns from last year’s injury to re-establish his reputation as a premier run stopper. Houston couldn’t follow up his eye-opening freshman season last year, so this year will be a litmus test to see which season more adequately reflects his true talent.
Behind those two, the Raiders lack depth and impact. Rookie Jack Crawford is untested and raw, and Dave Tollefson has been a special teams standout but not an impact pass rusher. The Raiders should push the pocket but will they get to the passer?
No group has seen more turnover than this squad. Mid-season acquisition Aaron Curry is shelved with a knee injury that sounds more troubling than the team has let on.
That means the lone holdover from last season is the under-performing and legally challenged Rolando McClain. McClain remains a Roger Goodell-phone call away from sitting out some of this season. While he awaits word on the timing of his jury trial for assault, the Raiders can only hope that he begins showing the promise that made him a top-10 draft pick.
He has looked slow and often confused and has made precious few impactful plays. But Jason Tarver has raved about ‘Ro this camp and there are many who believe his recent legal entanglements have refocused him on the game.
But the surprise of camp so far may be the play of Phillip Wheeler, the free agent acquisition from Indianapolis. Wheeler has looked comfortable in the new system and appears to be a playmaker.
While he won’t put up the gaudy sack numbers Wimbley did over the past two seasons, he will certainly be an upgrade in coverage and against the run, areas Wimbley struggled in.
Holding down Curry’s spot on the weak side is rookie Miles Burris, another camp standout. Burris, a rookie from San Diego State, has turned heads in Napa with his speed and ball-hawking abilities. But stop me if you’ve heard this one before: What next?
If Curry is out for an extended period of time, an already thin crew will be stretch even thinner. Behind this group lies a vast wasteland of Burnetts, Kurns, Kilgores and Goethels.
General Manager Reggie McKenzie’s biggest challenge has been to get out from under an untenable salary cap situation and the area that gets the short straw is depth.
Did somebody say depth? Gone are the oft-penalized and overpaid but adequate Stanford Routt and Al Davis favorite Chris Johnson.
In are Ron Bartell, back from a neck injury, and Shawntae Spencer from 49ers purgatory. Both veterans have a lot to prove but the track record and the DNA to get it done.
Youngsters DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa show some promise but still must prove they’re ready for prime time. Last season they were picked on consistently and effectively and offenses will continue to lick their chops over the prospect of squaring off with these two.
DVD in particular has the size and speed to match up with the big wide receivers in the AFC West and will need to be developed quickly. With Payton Manning and Phillip Rivers lurking, it’s safe to say there will be plenty of balls in the air this year. Long time Packer Pat Lee adds some veteran experience to the backfield.
Back to help after signing a long-term deal is arguably the MVP of last season Tyvon Branch. The unheralded Branch has been one of the best safeties in the AFC over the past few seasons and his presence has added to the effectiveness of Michael Huff.
Huff has never lived up to the hype of his high draft status, but has quietly developed into a better free safety over the past two seasons. While geometry will never be his strong suit (I haven’t seen angles that bad since junior high math class), he has been good in coverage, prompting some to ask if perhaps corner is his better position.
Mike Mitchell and Matt Giordano both return this season offering some hope that there is finally a spot on this defense with the required depth. Giordano played all over the field last year and what he lacked in pure athleticism, he made up for with ball-hawking skills (a team leading five interceptions) and sure tackling.
Mitchell has embraced his reputation as a hard-hitter, but seems intent on wrapping up more this year. He’ll be a player to watch in nickel situations as a pass rusher as well.
This group will be depended on to make significant strides from last year. Things in the West haven't gotten easier, but there is room for hope that a new scheme will make a difference. Here's the good news, we only have to wait 24 days to find out!!
Up Next: The Offense