A new era of Oakland Raiders football starts on Monday night against the San Diego Chargers and a win against a division foe in front of a national television audience could leave a lasting impression.
The first game under the leadership of Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen may change the perception of the franchise, both to the national audience and to the Raider Nation.
A win would get the Raiders off to the right start, but they will have to attack San Diego’s weaknesses on offense without exposing their own. The Chargers are a team with flaws and key injuries that the Raiders would be wise to exploit.
Too much of a good thing could lead to disappointing results as the Chargers will be quick to adjust if the Raiders focus too much on a particular player. The Raiders should try to exploit San Diego's weaknesses subtly and gradually so they have a few go-to plays when they need it the most.
Attacking San Diego’s Defense
San Diego used two high draft picks to improve its defense and also brought in two solid veterans. With the additions, the Chargers solidified their run defense and pass rush, but are still vulnerable in the secondary.
The Raiders exploited San Diego’s secondary in two games last year despite having an injured or limited group of wide receivers. The Raiders will have to do it again because Jacoby Ford has been declared out for the game with a foot injury. Denarius Moore is questionable with a hamstring injury but is expected to play after practicing this week.
The Raiders were very successful passing against San Diego cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason last season. According to ProFootballFocus, Cason was targeted 15 times in two games and allowed nine receptions, and Jammer was targeted 13 times and also allowed nine receptions.
Carson Palmer had 716 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in his two games against San Diego with a combined passer rating of 112.9. The secondary in San Diego remains largely the same except for the addition of safety Atari Bigby, and the Raiders should continue to exploit San Diego with the pass.
The linebackers are the strength of the defense in San Diego, but they don’t have one capable of covering Darren McFadden when he lines up as a receiver. The Raiders should split McFadden wide when San Diego is using its base defense and force the Chargers to cover him with a linebacker or safety.
Using a safety to cover McFadden means there will be little to no help for Jammer and Cason on the outside. The Chargers will probably utilize zone coverage, but giving too much space to the speedy receivers in Oakland is equally problematic.
The running game will also be important for the Raiders. The passing game will not be effective if the Raiders can't keep the improved San Diego pass rush from putting pressure on Palmer—and to do that they will need to use play -action that is set up by the running game.
The Raiders were able to run the ball against the Chargers in a Week 10 victory, but didn’t have the same success in the finale and lost. For Oakland, everything will flow from the running game and the Chargers will be focused on stopping it.
The Chargers didn’t stop many elite running backs in 2011; Adrian Peterson averaged 6.1 yards per carry, Maurice Jones-Drew averaged 4.9 yards per carry and Ray Rice averaged 5.7 yards per carry against San Diego.
Fortunately for the Raiders, they have an elite running back that is healthy. Darren McFadden will face the Chargers for just the fourth time as a starter and has never played in a game against San Diego without splitting carries. McFadden has averaged 4.2 yards per carry against San Diego in his career and 4.6 yards per carry in his previous two starts against the Chargers.
The Chargers hope the additions of veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson and rookie defensive end Kendall Reyes will help their run defense this season, but the Raiders should still be productive in the running game if nose tackle Antonio Garay can’t play. Garay is listed as questionable with an ankle injury and hasn’t fully participated in practice this week.
Attacking the Offense
Philip Rivers is a very good quarterback, but the Raiders proved last year that he isn’t nearly as effective when he is pressured. San Diego’s offensive line will be without left tackle Jared Gaither, and the Raiders would be wise to attack his replacement—undrafted rookie left tackle Michael Harris.
Matt Shaughnessy hasn’t played in a game in nearly a year and will be primarily responsible for attacking Harris, but the Raiders should also utilize stunts to get the rookie off balance. Harris isn’t the only liability on San Diego’s offensive line. According to ProFootballFocus, Lamarr Houston will line up against one of the league’s worst pass-blockers from last season in right tackle Jeromey Clary.
If both Shaughnessy and Houston can generate natural pressure, the Raiders can use the blitz to help apply pressure in the face of Rivers. Center Nick Hardwick and right guard Louis Vasquez are both solid pass-blockers and Richard Seymour might not be able to generate enough push on his own.
If the Raiders can pressure Rivers, he should make a few mistakes; the Raiders need to capitalize by turning those errors into turnovers. The Raiders should use more zone coverage so the cornerbacks and safeties can keep their eyes on Rivers and quickly break on passes.
Not only are the Chargers a pass-centric offense, but Ryan Mathews will miss the game with a broken clavicle. The Raiders shouldn’t be too worried about stopping the run, but still need to know how to attack the Chargers when a particular running back is in the game.
The Raiders will face veteran running backs Ronnie Brown, Le’Ron McClain and Curtis Brinkley. Brown should get the majority of the carries and is also a threat in the short passing game. He’s versatile so the Raiders can’t be certain how to best limit him, but McClain and Brinkley are much more specialized.
Oakland’s defense can cheat inside on running downs knowing McClain doesn’t have speed to the edge and can do the exact opposite with Brinkley in the game. It will be important to get the right personnel on the field when either McClain or Brinkley is lined up as the tailback.
Brown is the type of running back that can take what the blocking gives him, so the Raiders need to maintain good gap integrity. If the Raiders play a good technical game against the run, the Raiders will be able to focus their efforts on pressuring Rivers in the passing game.