The Oakland Raiders built a little momentum with better-than-expected performances in the first two weeks of the season. Monday night’s game in Denver will likely offer a more accurate assessment of where second-year coach Dennis Allen’s team stands.
The Broncos own the most prolific offense in the NFL behind quarterback and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. The 37-year-old Manning has put up ridiculous numbers this season while guiding an offense that has already scored 90 points in only eight quarters.
The matchup with Manning offers an interesting clash in styles between the Denver quarterback and the Raiders defense.
Oakland has built most of its early success largely around the play of its defense, which leads the NFL in sacks and is tied for third-fewest points allowed. Defensive coordinator Jason Tarver has had to be creative with his blitz packages to make up for an interior defense built largely to stop the run.
Manning, who is in his 16th season, historically has feasted on defenses that blitz. In the two games against Oakland in 2012, Manning completed 56 of 74 attempts (75.7 percent) for 648 yards and four touchdowns with one interception.
The Raiders, who will be without injured starting safety Tyvon Branch, also have to contend with the Broncos resurgent running game, not to mention playing in the high Colorado altitude and on Monday night, no less.
Here are a few other matchups to keep in mind for the game in Denver.
DE Lamarr Houston vs. LT Chris Clark
Houston has been Oakland’s most consistent and effective defensive lineman in just about every facet.
He had eight hurries against Jacksonville in Week 2 and has adjusted well to playing on the right side after spending his first three years mostly on the left side. Part of the adjustment has been playing upright rather than with his hands on the ground. That has allowed Houston to use his speed to beat slower tackles like Clark.
ProFootballFocus.com calls Houston one of the top 4-3 defensive ends in the game today: “The new defense in Oakland appears to be playing to Houston’s strengths, currently our No. 4 rated 4-3 defensive end through two games.”
Clark is making his first start of the season after Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 2. That could be a critical injury depending on how things play out. Having to replace a high-caliber offensive lineman like Clady is tough enough. Having to face a player like Houston while protecting Manning’s blindside on national television could make it tougher.
NT Pat Sims and DT Vance Walker vs. C Manuel Ramirez and RG Louis Vasquez
Manning doesn’t move around in the pocket as much as he used to, partially because he doesn’t need to. More often than not, he knows where he’s going to throw the ball well before it’s even snapped.
That’s why it’s critical for the Raiders to disrupt the timing between Manning and his receivers as much as possible. There figures to be some pressure coming from the ends, which means Manning will try to step up in the pocket to make his throws.
Sims, who has six tackles, and Walker (3 tackles, 1 hurry) have to get off the ball and into the backfield. Sims, the run-stuffer who signed with Oakland as a free agent in the offseason, does a good job taking on double-teams but needs to be able to push the pocket back into Manning instead of giving him room to set up and throw.
It won’t be easy. Ramirez and Vasquez have been tremendous in pass protection and have yet to allow a single quarterback pressure, according to ProFootballFocus.com. They’ll probably stay in one-on-one matchups most of the game because whatever help Denver does have will most likely be rolled to help Clark.
RB Darren McFadden vs. DT Kevin Vickerson and NT Terrance Knighton
McFadden has to be the X-factor all game.
The best way to beat Manning, plain and simple, is by keeping him on the sidelines, and it will be up to the Raiders’ league-leading running game to make that happen.
McFacdden has had decent success against the Broncos. He had three consecutive 100-yard games from 2010-11, including two at Mile High Stadium.
Unlike in years past when he was able to get to the edge quicker, McFadden was gaining a majority of his yards last week against Jacksonville on simple trap plays up the middle. The plays allowed McFadden to do what he does best, which is to get the ball and go. All too often in Week 1 McFadden danced around in the backfield waiting for a hole to appear and got in trouble as a result.
A solid running game will accomplish two things for the Raiders: While it limits Manning’s opportunities, a methodical ground game that steadily moves the chains will eventually wears down Denver's defense.
CB Tracy Porter vs. WR Wes Welker
They won’t be paired up exclusively against one another, but guaranteed this will be a pivotal one-on-one matchup every time they do.
Welker is the preeminent slot receiver, and he’s formed an immediate bond with Manning. Welker isn’t the biggest or the fastest or the strongest, however he is a master of his craft, and he finds a way to get open even under the best of coverages.
The Broncos will move him around and have him lined up outside, but Welker’s bread and butter has always been the underneath routes.
The Raiders figure to be in a lot of nickel and dime packages in an effort to slow down Denver’s passing game, which means Porrter will slide inside to the slot. Porter, more than anything else, has to be physical with Welker from the start and not let him get off the line cleanly. Far too often teams give up a big cushion to Welker, and he turns it into a quick slant for a first down.
Manning does such a great job of spreading the ball around to all of his receivers, so the entire secondary will get tested at some point.
K Sebastian Janikowski vs. Himself
The Raiders have won their fair share of games in Mile High, and more than a few have come as a result of Janikowski’s leg.
In 2011, he tied the NFL record with a 63-yarder in the high altitude. Yet this has not been the best of starts for the Polish kicker. He has missed two of his seven field-goal attempts, both from under 50 yards after he previously had made 36 straight from within that distance.
That has led to speculation that the problem might be related to Janikowski and new holder Marquette King. King replaced long-time holder Shane Lechler and had some issues with getting the placement right during the preseason, but Janikowski insists it hasn’t been much of a problem in the regular season.
The duo have to be near flawless on Monday because if Oakland can somehow keep it close, it could come down to the kicking game.