The Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos play each other Sunday, and both teams are 1-2 after three games. The loser of the game will be a disappointing 1-3, while the winner will be in the thick of the AFC West sitting at 2-2. Both teams defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers at home and dropped its other two games, making this Week 4 matchup a must-win game for both teams.
For the Raiders to win, the offense needs to sustain drives and score early and often. The defense needs to give Peyton Manning different looks to create turnovers and get stops on third down to be successful.
The Raiders have injury issues at cornerback, and the Broncos will be without middle linebacker Joe Mays, who is suspended for one game for a helmet-to-helmet hit on quarterback Matt Schaub in Week 3. As such, the Raiders will struggle to stop the passing game and the Broncos will struggle stopping Darren McFadden on the ground.
A productive McFadden sets up the passing game, and the attention opposing defenses pay to him should give his teammates additional opportunities. The Raiders enter another week without their starting cornerbacks and will start Michael Huff and Pat Lee outside. The only way the Raiders will be able to stop the passing game is by getting pressure on Manning and simultaneously hoping his arm is having a bad day.
Oakland’s offense needs to accomplish two goals against the Broncos: stay on the field for as long as possible and score touchdowns. That’s best accomplished with the running game, and there may be no better time to test Denver’s run defense than when they are missing their middle linebacker. Sounds complicated, right?
The running game is sometimes only as good as the blocking. In Week 3, Oakland made an adjustment and used the more traditional man blocking to get McFadden going. The Raiders still struggled with zone runs and might consider using even fewer of them against Denver early in the game.
The Houston Texans were Denver’s first big test against the run. Denver’s run defense wasn’t great, as it allowed 152 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry. Take away runs of 22 and 21, and Denver did much better, allowing just 3.4 yards per carry.
It’s those two long plays the Raiders should mimic in hopes of having a big day on the ground.
Play No. 1: Arian Foster’s 22-yard run on 1st-and-10
The goal for any offense is to get the running back past the defensive line and linebackers and into the secondary. The Raiders did just that last week, and McFadden juked a safety en route to a 54-yard touchdown.
Similarly, the Texans were able to get Foster into the secondary, and he was able to pick up 22 yards before the Broncos could get him down.
The Texans put tight end Owen Daniels in the slot, and the Broncos countered with five defensive backs (the nickel package). The Raiders might have to use three receivers to get the Broncos to shift to the nickel, but if they don’t, it might open up Brandon Myers one-on-one on a linebacker (more on that later).
Houston’s right guard blocks the middle linebacker, and the fullback blocks the outside linebacker as he tries to attack the running lane.
Foster followed his fullback, but quickly found more room to the outside and bounced it toward the sideline (yellow line). McFadden has a little more speed, but is not as agile as Foster, and an alternative would have been taking the run around the right tackle (blue line).
Daniels gets a good down-field block that turns a good run into a great one. Foster scampered 17 more yards before being taken down by the deep safety. This is a play that is a very simple read for McFadden, and he can hit the hole quickly or try to bounce it outside. If McFadden gets outside, he can do a lot of damage.
Play No. 2: Play-Action End Around For 21 Yards on 1st-and-10
The play-action pass is not the only thing that can be done with play action. To stop the run, defenses often start crashing down on the running back which opens up the end around.
From this formation, at least four different plays can be run and they can be changed at the line of scrimmage depending on the defense. The play can be a run, play-action pass, play-action end around or fake end around.
In this case, the play is a play-action end around to Keshawn Martin. The defense is worried mostly about Foster.
The defensive line collapsed around Foster after the fake, which left the tight end free to block the defensive back. The block by the tight end springs Martin into the secondary with a chance to make it a big play.
Martin’s best chance was to go outside with the defense pursuing from inside with the hope that Andre Johnson could sustain his block on Champ Bailey.
Bailey fought his way to the outside, which forced Martin back to the inside, where he was tackled. Better blocking on Bailey and Martin might have been able to get even more yardage.
The Raiders can try this play using Denarius Moore, but should also consider using a guy like Rod Streater, who the defense will not be expecting. The play is probably best faked with Moore, as the defense will be monitoring his movements.
Attack with Brandon Myers and Marcel Reece
The Broncos have allowed 15 receptions for 207 yards and two touchdowns to their opponent’s No. 1 tight end this season. Heath Miller (4 REC, 50 YDS, 1 TD), Tony Gonzalez (7 REC, 70 YDS, 1 TD) and Owen Daniels (4 REC, 87 YDS) all found success against the Denver’s secondary.
According to ProFootballFocus, Myers has caught all 15 of his targets in 2012. Although Myers has yet to catch a touchdown pass, he’s racked up 206 yards on those 15 catches and become a go-to receiver for Carson Palmer.
Myers can work the middle of the field behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties. The Broncos' weaknesses are their safeties and linebacker, and it makes sense to stretch those units and make them cover as opposed to trying to test Bailey and Tracy Porter on the outside.
Reece caught both of his two touchdown passes against the Broncos in 2011. Much like Myers, Reece can create a problem for the Broncos, as he is not easily covered by a linebacker. The Raiders should try to get Reece involved early in the passing game and shouldn’t be afraid to let him test the top of the Broncos defense.
The Raiders couldn’t stop the Broncos running game last season, but this season, it’s all about the passing game with Peyton Manning under center. Manning’s arm strength has been up and down, but the Raiders have to prepare for him the same as they would as if you were playing him in 2010 in case he’s having a good day.
Manning is still getting on the same page with all of his receivers, which means there is an opportunity for the Raiders to beat Manning by disrupting the timing of the passing game. To do that, the Raiders should consider a lot of press coverage with safety help over the top on the receivers.
The other thing that can disrupt the timing of the passing game is pressure. When Manning is under pressure, his passer rating is 33.1 points lower and he’s thrown no touchdowns, according to ProFootballFocus.
There are basically two types of pressure: natural pressure with four rushers and the blitz that sends five or more defenders. Conventional wisdom says that blitzing a good quarterback is unwise, but that’s only partially true. The blitz is a high-risk, high-reward play for the defense. It works when the blitz disrupts the quarterback, but if it doesn’t, the quarterback should be able to find an open receiver.
The Houston Texans gave Manning a new look on every blitz and would go back to the same look only to have the linebackers drop into coverage. The Texans had some success with and without the blitz and forced Manning to at least move around in the pocket. The Raiders will have to live and die by the blitz because the pass coverage doesn’t have a chance without it.
It’s 3rd-and-10, and the Texans play man-to-man defense on the two receivers to Manning’s left and off coverage to the one on his right. This is by design. One safety drops into a deep zone to help over the top, while the other is responsible for the tight end in the backfield also lined up to Manning left.
Manning has most of his passing options to his left, so the Texans flood the left side of the line with five defenders. Since there are a maximum of four blockers, the Texans should be able to get pressure on Manning.
The linebacker looks like a rusher at the end of the line, but is really reading the running back. If the running back runs a route, it’s his coverage responsibility.
The Broncos picked up the pressure to Manning’s left, but the blitz took away all the passing lanes in that direction, so Manning moved to his right. Manning’s only receiver to the right was the running back running down the left sideline with the linebacker in coverage. Manning had an open receiver on the cross that he didn’t see and the Texans got away with some contact past five yards.
Manning’s throw was a bit short, and Ball couldn’t haul it in. Had Manning noticed the shallow cross or had thrown the ball with a better accuracy, the Broncos may have successfully completed the pass.
This is a good example of how to disrupt Manning’s timing with his receivers. The defense successfully forced Manning to move in the pocket and to throw to his third or fourth option.
Manning is so good that he still had an opportunity to pick up the first down. Rolando McClain was right when he said, "If you know the answer to the test, with Peyton, you still can get it wrong.” (via Paul Gutierrez, CSNBayArea.com)
The Raiders can replicate what the Texans did because this play did not rely upon a dominant player like J.J. Watt or great coverage in the secondary. If the Raiders can make a handful of stops on third down, they should give their offense a chance to win the game.