Six games into the 2013 season, Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen still isn’t certain what type of team he has.
On one hand, the Raiders have an improving defense and a promising prospect at quarterback. On the other, Oakland’s running game has been suspect all season and the offensive line has been in shambles due to injuries across the board.
Yet despite playing in a division where the NFL’s only two remaining undefeated teams are, the Raiders are still in good shape to end their run of 10 consecutive seasons without a winning record. Considering their remaining schedule, it’s also conceivable, albeit unlikely, that they could still make a push for the postseason.
Before they can think that far ahead, however, the Raiders must improve in several key areas over the next few months.
Here’s a list of five ways Oakland can do just that:
Air it out
Quarterback Terrelle Pryor struggled to throw the ball deep earlier in the season but found his touch for the long ball against San Diego when he tossed a 44-yard touchdown to Rod Streater on the Raiders’ first play from scrimmage.
It’s imperative the offense keep testing opposing defenses that way.
Before Pryor’s play to Streater, teams stacked the box to take away Oakland’s running game. They were not worried about getting beat deep because a) Pryor hadn’t proven he was capable of doing it successfully at the NFL level; and b) the Raiders had only taken a handful of shots down the field through the first month of the season.
Now that he’s had time to develop better timing with his receivers, Pryor needs to start throwing deep more often.
That would force teams to play the pass more honestly, which in theory should then open up room for the running game to take off.
Find a way to use Marcel Reece more
Oakland’s multipurpose fullback has been mostly a non-factor through the first six games. It’s through no fault of his own either.
The Raiders, specifically offensive coordinator Greg Olson, have been at a loss as to how to properly use Reece. He rushed for 32 yards, most of them in the fourth quarter, to help seal the Week 5 win over San Diego but has otherwise been lost in the shuffle.
Reece didn’t get a single carry and caught just one pass in last Sunday’s loss at Kansas City, though the coaching staff in Oakland insists it’s not by design.
In fact, Olson, head coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie have all talked at length about the need to get their fullback more involved in the weekly game plans.
Yet he’s accounted for only 133 yards in total offense (47 rushing, 86 in receptions) only a year after he put up nearly 800 yards in the combined category.
With the running game continuing to sputter, Reece’s powerful running style would provide a boost and could help soften up opposing defense. The Raiders could also line him up as a receiver, where he’d be a mismatch against linebackers.
Get Healthy Up Front
The biggest problem for Oakland’s offense this season has been the injuries that have ravaged the offensive line. And unless the team gets healthy up front in a hurry, it won’t matter what other changes are made.
The good news is that some of the injured offensive linemen are slowly starting to get healthy.
Center Stefen Wisniewski, who missed two games with a right calf strain, is improving and could be back in the lineup as early as Week 8 against Pittsburgh. Backup center and part-time starting left guard Andre Gurode is also doing better after injuring a quad muscle in the loss to Kansas City.
Getting either of the two back would be a big boost for the line, which suffered a domino effect once Gurode went out.
Oakland would also get a boost by the return of left tackle Jared Veldheer, though it doesn’t appear he’ll be back any time soon. Veldheer is eligible to come off the injured reserve-eligible to return list in Week 9 when the Raiders host Philadelphia, but head coach Dennis Allen isn’t so sure it will happen then.
Either way, Oakland won’t make significant improvements the rest of the way unless it can get some stability up front.
Get creative with McFadden
The Raiders haven’t had a lot of success running the ball inside this season, and they haven’t had much luck getting Darren McFadden into open space.
That’s why they need to change how they’re using the talented but injury-prone running back.
Using McFadden more as a receiver would be a good way to start.
A year ago he caught 42 passes. In 2010, McFadden had a career-high 47 receptions. His numbers through six games this season (10 catches, 77 yards) are embarrassingly low.
Say what you want, but McFadden is still one of Oakland’s top-two weapons on offense. He is an explosive playmaker capable of scoring any time he touches the ball, and he can still be a nightmare matchup for opposing linebackers and safeties.
The Raiders need to exploit that advantage as much as possible in the coming weeks. Oakland’s receivers have improved since the season began but are still too inconsistent. Getting McFadden more involved would force defenses to make a tough call on who to double-team, which in theory would leave someone in an advantageous one-on-one matchup.
Stick with Pryor no matter what
It was surprising how quickly some fans and reporters turned on Pryor after the young quarterback threw three interceptions in the Week 6 loss to the Chiefs. Oakland’s brass, however, has to resist any urges to make a change.
They’ve tied their wagon to Pryor, so now they have to let him grow no matter what the cost.
For starters, the Raiders don’t really have a whole lot of options behind Pryor. Backup quarterback Matt McGloin has some potential but is still too undeveloped to take over.
For all his athleticism and talent, Pryor is also very raw and will undoubtedly go through more peaks and valleys as the year goes on. It’s when the times are tough that the Raiders have to let him be and let him learn from his mistakes.
The bottom line is that no quarterback in NFL history has ever made significant improvement by watching. Hall of Famer Steve Young is the rare exception to that rule, and even he didn’t make big strides in his development until he started to play after Joe Montana left.
Pryor is nowhere near that level of talent, and he may never get there. However, the Raiders have to do everything they can to facilitate his growth. Sticking with him the rest of the way is about the best way they can do just that.
*Any and all information and quotes used in this or any report by Michael Wagaman were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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