Through the first two weeks of the regular season, the Oakland Raiders have the most productive running game in the NFL. That’s no easy accomplishment when considering the state of the team’s passing attack and that defenses are coming into games with a clear emphasis on taking away the ground game.
A large chunk of the running game’s success is due to quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Pryor’s ability to run the spread-option has made the Raiders more explosive offensively. His ability to run has made them far more difficult to defend.
Yet in this day and age of pass-heavy and option offenses, even a running back like Darren McFadden can still make a big impact on games.
The difference? Better blocking up front for starters.
Line coach Tony Sparano has had to really stress basics and fundamentals because two of the projected starters are on injured reserve, while a third is playing at a position he didn’t in 2012.
During one play against Jacksonville in the first quarter, the Raiders used a simple trap block call to spring McFadden for a 24-yard gain.
Oakland came out in a split-back set, and at the hike of the ball the Raiders offensive line took off toward the left while fullback Marcell Reece did a great job sealing off to the right. That created the perfect cutback lane, and McFadden burst through.
Oakland ran a similar play in the third quarter. In the same formation with split backs and quarterback Terrelle Pryor in the shotgun, the line pulled to its left at the start of the play, and Reece kicked out his block to the right. That opened another gaping hole, and McFadden burst through for a 30-yard gain.
Against Indianapolis in the opener the blocking was pretty vanilla, which is why McFadden struggled as much as he did. The Jaguars, however, got the expanded version.
When the Raiders went to an offset I in the third quarter and used Matt McCants as a tackle eligible, the Jaguars brought in four down linemen and four linebackers.
Oakland stayed aggressive, having center Stefen Wisniewski pulling to his left and clearing out the linebacker farthest outside. Fullback Marcel Reece followed right behind Wisniewski and blocked the near-side linebacker, and that created another huge hole.
Those are the type of plays McFadden does his best work in, when he can get outside and into the open where his offense can be an asset.
Even when a play breaks down, McFadden is wise enough to get something out of nothing.
In the fourth quarter against Jacksonville, with the running backs still lined up in an offset I, McFadden took the handoff from Pryor and began to run to his right. Jacksonville got a good push from the left side of its line, however, shut down any lane McFadden was thinking of.
Instead, McFadden quickly changed direction and ran back toward the left. Once he got around the corner McFadden picked up a critical block from Pryor near the sidelines, which sprung him for a few more yards.
Although McFadden fumbled on the play and the Jaguars recovered, it was one of the few mistakes he made.
Teams are going to continue to load the box in an effort to take away Oakland’s running game. The Raiders can counter that by continuing to use running plays in which the guards or center pull and can get into the open field as a lead blocker.
Most of it, however, has to come from McFadden himself. There have been too many instances in the first two games where he got the ball on a handoff and seemed to tip-toe toward the line of scrimmage. The results were predictable.