With the NFL’s preseason winding down and teams making difficult final roster decisions, teams turn their attention to assembling gameplans and preparing to begin playing the games the count. It should come as no surprise that a team coming off consecutive 8-8 campaigns stands on the razor’s edge between success and failure.
A few plays a game will make the difference between 10-6 or 6-10, and attention to detail will play a big part. With that in mind, we’ve identified five key factors in defining success for the Raiders this year.
It goes without saying that keeping their critical players upright and healthy is job No. 1, so we look beyond that to focus on the other areas that will go a long way in determining whether these pirates bluster in from sea or fade into that long good night.
An Offensive Priority
The NFL is a game of matchups and, love him or hate him, Terrelle Pryor is a mismatch waiting to happen. We saw in the Detroit Lions' preseason game that he’s got a knack for the big play. We’ve seen multiple times this summer he’s difficult to bring down and as fast as advertised.
Is he ready to stand in the pocket and quarterback this team full time? No. Can he add a dynamic element to this offense and a change of pace to the statuesque Carson Palmer? You bet.
Pryor ran routes at Ohio State, catching two TDs in college. His work in the rushing attack is well chronicled with over 2,000 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns in his three-year stint in college.
His 90 yards rushing against Detroit was highlighted by a 59-yard scamper followed by a 17-yard touchdown run. To be sure he throws off his back foot too often, his arm strength on out routes has been suspect, and his decision making is a work in progress. But, finding 5-10 snaps a game designed to get him in space gives defenses something to think about and adds a potentially explosive element to the offense.
Keep D-Mac’s Load Light
Much has been made over No. 20's tender feet, but he’s been more durable than you might think. Last year notwithstanding, he’s played in 13, 12 and 13 games in his first three seasons, and played every game during his illustrious career at Arkansas. But, avoiding the injury bug is only part of the battle.
NFL running backs toting the rock 25 times a game for 16 games are a lost breed. The key to McFadden’s success will have a lot to do with the players behind him on the depth chart.
And that should make Raider fans nervous.
Mike Goodson has not put up meaningful numbers at any point in his career. In 2010, he had 103 carries and averaged 4.4 yards/carry, but fumbling problems plagued him in Carolina and have reared their ugly head in the preseason with the Raiders.
Taiwan Jones shows the kind of straight-line speed that made Al Davis drool but has not yet established the elusiveness that will get him to the second level of defenders where that speed comes into play. In short, the cupboard is decidedly bare behind D-Mac. Expect the Raiders to be extremely active in their pursuit of a potential backup. You can bet that they’ll be combing the waiver wires this weekend after cut-down day.
The Quarterback Must Go Down, And He Must Go Down Hard
Kamerion Wimbley couldn’t cover a tight end with a blanket. Derrick Burgess treated running backs like they had poison oak and should be avoided at all costs. But, they had one thing in common—they could get to the quarterback.
When you look at the 2012 roster and scan the names for likely candidates, you quickly come to the realization that there are no obvious candidates. The Raiders will have to develop that next pass-rusher. Looking at the defensive ends, Lamarr Houston showed some flashes his rookie year but by all accounts regressed last season. Matt Shaughnessy is a stout run-defender but not a rush specialist.
The men in the middle, Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly, are pocket-collapsers of the first order, but that’s not where your sacks traditionally come from. A look at the linebackers shows a wealth of inexperience with Miles Burris, Chad Kilgore and Carl Ihenacho. Aaron Curry has the burst to make a difference, but the lack of information on his knees is troubling to say the least.
That brings us to Phillip Wheeler.
Wheeler has been a revelation this preseason. Jason Tarver’s defense is predicated on allowing the linebackers' freedom to run the field. Wheeler has been a sure tackler, solid in coverage and aggressive when his number is dialed up for a blitz. He may be relied on to keep offenses off guard.
Since 1963, there have been two unwavering certainties—the Raiders wear black at home no matter the weather and, come rain or shine, they will line up in man-to-man press coverage and dare you to beat them on the outside.
For decades, the Raiders had the corners and the pass rush to make that work. But, as offenses got more sophisticated, the Raiders predictability became a real liability. Coach Tarver brings the promise of multiple fronts, aggressive blitzing and zone coverages to Oakland. That unpredictability should mean a great deal to a unit that has struggled over the past several seasons.
The linebackers remain a question mark, but the run defense should be solid with the return of Shaughnessy. For the Raiders to maximize that improvement, they’ll need to be flexible and show some 3-4 looks—something we did not see a lot of in this preseason.
Who will lead the Raiders in sacks this year?
No, not the original painted face rock band KISS,but the expression—Keep It Simple, Stupid.
This time we’re talking about the offensive side of the football, and while we’re not advocating a stripped-down playbook or vanilla formations, we are suggesting that Carson Palmer’s days of winning football games on the strength of his rocket right arm appear over. You can argue all day long about his abilities, but he has not been the same since his injury-riddled seasons in Cincinnati.
Fear not, Raider Nation. Carson doesn’t need to win games by himself, he just can’t lose them. Forcing throws into coverage, taking sacks at inopportune times and sacrificing field position for gaudy throws won’t earn him many fans this year.
For the Raiders to find success this year, Carson and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp will need to take what defenses give them and pick their shots judiciously. Carson said of his interceptions this preseason that “there are a ton of situations that come up where you do things you wouldn’t do in a regular-season game.”
His suggestion that he took more risks than normal is comforting at the very least— he’s acknowledged that he’s taking chances. The Raiders will need him to check down more often and throw it away when required, and when checking down often means putting the ball into the hands of Darren McFadden, that’s not such a bad thing.
Hope springs eternal in August for all NFL franchises, and the Oakland Raiders are no different. If they can successfully navigate the five factors above, they stand a good chance of being there in the wide open AFC West.