It might be easier fixing the national budget than it is trying to figure out how to stop the Denver Broncos, even when there is little on the line. With home-field advantage throughout the playoffs at stake for Peyton Manning and friends, however, the Oakland Raiders are faced with a monumental task in their Week 17 matchup.
The Broncos can wrap up the No. 1 seed in the AFC by completing a season sweep of their division rivals for the second consecutive year, while the Raiders are simply trying to get to the finish line and into the next phase of their rebuilding mode, whatever that may be.
It might be the swan song in Oakland for running back Darren McFadden as well. He will become a free agent in the offseason and will almost assuredly be playing elsewhere next year.
A win might also take some of the heat off Raiders coach Dennis Allen, whose job could be on the line if the game plays out otherwise.
Here are four things the Raiders can do to put themselves in position to beat the Broncos.
Give Pryor time to operate
For the past six weeks, Oakland’s offensive line has had the comfort of knowing Matt McGloin’s quick release and decisive throws would make it difficult on opponents to mount much of a pass rush. With Terrelle Pryor back under center, expect things to change.
Without question, Pryor’s greatest asset is his mobility, and he used that effectively to his advantage in the majority of his previous eight starts this season. It keeps defenses guessing and enables Pryor to keep plays alive that might normally end in a sack.
With that being said, if the Raiders are to have any shot at upsetting the Broncos they’re going to have to chuck the ball downfield through the air. Pryor has had varying levels of success with the deep ball this season, yet it’s critical to take a few shots early to loosen up Denver’s coverages.
For the offensive line, that may mean holding blocks an extra two or three seconds—more if Pryor gets to scrambling around behind the line of scrimmage. That won’t be easy against a tough Broncos defense, but it’s the only way Oakland stands a chance.
Make Manning uncomfortable in the pocket
There is no real formula for beating a quarterback like Manning. A likely Hall of Famer after he retires, Manning has already broken the single-season touchdown record and is chasing the yardage mark as well.
However, there has been a common theme in the games where Denver’s offense has struggled. Manning was sacked seven times combined in the team’s three losses but only 10 times in the 12 wins.
The Raiders haven’t had much of a pass rush over the past month, so getting to Manning might be a little tricky. They had some early success pressuring San Diego’s Philip Rivers in Week 16 but tailed off in the second half. That cannot happen against the Broncos.
It’s not even sacking Manning so much as knocking him to the ground a few times to get him off stride. Denver’s quarterback doesn’t get rattled too easily so it’s imperative that Oakland’s defensive line and linebackers get in his face early to set a tone.
It will need better production out of pass-rushing defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Jason Hunter coming off the edge, and a better push from the interior line would also help.
Stay in the nickel and dime as much as possible
When the two teams met earlier this season, Denver receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker combined for 25 catches, 311 yards and two touchdowns. The trio abused Oakland’s secondary so easily and thoroughly that Manning threw only five incompletions and finished with a passer rating of 135.8.
Denver’s talented receivers haven’t stop putting up big numbers since and are a prime reason the Broncos are in position to lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Oakland thought it might catch a break because Welker has missed the past two games injured, but he was back on the practice field this week and could make his return to the lineup Sunday.
The challenge is so great for the Raiders that they have no choice but to go with multiple defensive backs as much as possible. How much that will help is anyone’s guess since Oakland has little to no depth at all in the secondary.
Staying in a base defense will only work for so long against Manning, even on his worst day. The Raiders need to mix it up as often as possible, but the one constant has to be them staying in their nickel and dime packages.
Give Jennings the ball 15 times or more
The Raiders had no luck running the ball against the Broncos when the two teams met in Week 3. Then again, they didn’t have Rashad Jennings available.
Jennings has been Oakland’s best running back all season, but his workload has varied. That cannot be the case against Denver, which will be loading up against the run in the hopes of putting the game in the passing hands of Pryor.
Like most running backs, Jennings needs to stay busy. In the six games in which he’s had 15 carries or more, he’s put up 539 yards and scored all six of his rushing touchdowns. In the other eight games Jennings has played in, he’s had just 185 yards on the ground.
The Broncos have a respectable run defense that will miss the presence of injured linebacker Von Miller, so getting Jennings established early with a steady diet of running plays and off to a fast start on the ground and on the scoreboard is key.