When the Raiders run, they beat the Broncos
Coming off an emotional, come-from-behind win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, suddenly the optimism of the 2012 NFL season has crept back in for the Oakland Raiders. At 1-2, the Raiders have a chance to level their record as they travel to Denver to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
Beating the Broncos won't be easy, as the Raiders will still likely be without starters Shawntae Spencer, Khalif Barnes, and likely won't have wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. But injured and depleted, the Raiders still have one player who has bucked the Broncos the last two seasons: Darren McFadden.
Along with McFadden, the rock-solid play of Carson Palmer will be vital as the game could turn into a shootout at Invesco Field. But there will be some familiar themes critical to victory. Having said that, here are the five keys to a Raider victory Sunday.
Edit: Per Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post (via Twitter), Denver linebacker Joe Mays' one-game suspension has been upheld by the NFL. That means Mays will miss Sunday's gave against the Raiders.
McClain and Tollefson among those who have to help Raider 3rd down defense
Though the Raiders' defense made a couple of key plays in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh, overall many of the problems of the first two weeks still remained.
With the Steelers going 9 for 14 on third downs, the Raiders' defense is now 22-of-44 in preventing conversions in 2012. That 50 percent rate is 30th in the league.
To win this game against a Peyton Manning that has to look more horizontally than vertically when passing, the Raiders have to get off the field more frequently than they have.
With the thin air in Denver, Matt Prater will be in range for field goals around the Raiders' 40-yard line, so minimizing Denver drives is a must. The Raiders are hoping the signing of veteran pass rush specialist Andre Carter will help generate pressure on Manning in passing situations.
Palmer's audibles helped the Raiders offense tremendously vs Pittsburgh
It doesn't take a game analyst like Ron Jaworski to see the difference in the Raiders' offense from Weeks 1 and 2 to last Sunday.
Carson Palmer's checks at the line of scrimmage against Pittsburgh worked from the very first play. Of course, that was a check to an inside zone running play that resulted in Darren McFadden going 64 yards and a touchdown. Not bad.
Against an aggressive Denver defense, Palmer will be put in position to make similar adjustments at the line.
Unlike the Coliseum, Invesco Field will be loud and communication will be much more difficult. That puts much more of an onus on Palmer to be decisive with his reads and get the team in and out of the huddle quickly.
In addition, Palmer's ball control has been key. Through three weeks, he has only thrown two interceptions (one the result of a Denarius Moore slip) and has not fumbled the ball. His 62.5% completion percentage is pedestrian by conference standards, but represents rare air Oakland QB's haven't reached since Rich Gannon.
What the Raiders need from Palmer is not the guy who threw for 4000 yards in Cincinnati, but the veteran who can make adjustments and complete throws in tight windows like Palmer did against Pittsburgh. As long as that Carson Palmer is on the field, the Raiders' offense will produce.
The Broncos had two returns for touchdowns against Oakland in 2011
It has been a recurring theme with me in the first four weeks, but I'll say it again: The Raiders can't allow the opposition to change field position with big plays in the return game.
Against Denver, I doubt highly there will be many kickoff returns from either team with Prater and Sebastian Janikowski kicking off.
But the Achilles heel for the Raiders has been their punt coverage teams. Part of this has been the brilliant Shane Lechler out-kicking his coverage.
However, there have been lane-breakdowns by guys who are not as versed in playing special teams, leading to huge returns. Just last week, an Antonio Brown return went the distance but was called back due to a penalty.
Against Denver, it is key that the Raiders don't allow Jim Leonhard any creases because it is apparent that, regardless of who is returning, the Raiders' punt coverage team is susceptible.
Reece's TD gave the Raiders a lead they wouldn't give up
There has been a consistent theme in the Raiders' last five wins against Denver, both home and away. That has been the Raiders jumping out to a lead and played from ahead. They haven't necessarily scored first (ex. 2011 opener), but have built a first-half lead.
In Denver's two losses (against top-tier opposition to be fair), they have fallen behind and had to go to the air almost exclusively to get back into both ball games.
Even in the Raiders' lone loss to Denver in the last five meetings was a game that Oakland had seemingly in control. But a little Tim Tebow, a little Willis McGahee, and a lot of Carson Palmer rust turned a 24-17 lead into a 38-24 defeat.
A matchup against Manning actually favors the Raiders if they have a lead because the offense is not gimmick-based.
Sooner or later, McFadden is bound to explode against Denver
Here are Darren McFadden's numbers in his last four games against the Broncos:
2009 at Denver: 12 carries, 74 yards
2010 at Denver: 16 carries, 165 yards/2 catches, 31 yards 4 TDs
2010 vs. Denver: 20 carries, 119 yards/4 catches, 39 yards
2011 at Denver: 22 carries, 150 yards/1 catch, 6 yards
The totals are 70 carries for 508 yards and 7 catches for 77 yards in four games, an average of 146 total yards per game. Unsurprisingly, the Raiders have won all four of those games.
Darren McFadden is becoming to Denver what LaDainian Tomlinson was to the Raiders in the 2000's. No matter who else comes and goes, McFadden is the constant.
So to beat Denver and get back to .500, getting the ball in McFadden's hands and letting him do his thing is the No. 1 key. Denver has not shown the ability to stop him and I haven't seen anything from the last two weeks to suggest that will change Sunday.
It will be curious to see what tricks Allen has for his former team
With the regular officials coming back starting Thursday night in Baltimore, it will be interesting to see if there is a difference in penalties called against the Raiders.
Through three weeks, Oakland has committed 14 penalties, by far their lowest total for three games in over a decade. The team is on pace for 75 on the season, which would be the lowest for the team in a 16-game season.
Dennis Allen returns to Denver. and though the offense that ended the 2011 season is not the offense currently in use, Allen does have familiarity with the Denver staff and game plan. How that affects the outcome will be of great significance.
Winning this game is usually about making two or three plays during the game. I get the feeling that if the Raiders build a lead, they will be able to hold off Denver. If they have to pull it out, the team will be staring at a 1-3 record going into the bye.
Prediction: Oakland 27, Denver 26