The Denver Broncos are undefeated so far this season. After conquering coach McDaniels' home state of Ohio, Denver faces a challenge with greater implications this Sunday as they square off against their division rivals the Oakland Raiders in the Black Hole.
As far as football rivalries go, Broncos vs. Raiders has to up there with the best of them. There is no team that Denver fans love to hate more than the Raiders, and no team that Oakland fans enjoy despising more the Broncos.
Many Broncos and Oakland alike don't care if their team loses every other game they play in a given season, as long as they win these games.
In fact this hate-hate relationship is arguably the most intense rivalry in all of football. The reasons are many and varied, but they have stood the test of time and like the Hatfields and the McCoys; it is a feud that will never find its end.
These two teams know each other very well, and always come to play each other. But both teams face many challenges this week because both squads have changed significantly since they last met.
The Raiders Offense
No. 2 JaMarcus Russell
This is the year that Russell gets to prove whether or not he is a boom or a bust, and I have to say that right now it doesn't look so good for JaMarcus.
Even Raider Nation, who has steadfastly supported their young QB is beginning to believe that Russell, who signed a six year $61 million dollar contract in 2007 as the first overall pick in the draft, is just another overpaid under-performing talent.
This conclusion is not an emotional one at all, but rather one based on reason. Russell's passer rating so far this season is a 46.6 and he has completed less than 36 percent of his passes.
Russell's performance has nothing to do with pressure or coverage either, he simply has no accuracy with the football, often missing his receivers by what might as well be a mile.
JaMarcus needs to get his stuff together and fast if the Raiders are to have a hope that their ragamuffin team has final turned a corner and can once again hang with the rest of the league.
During the preseason Russell seemed to be in sync with one receiver in particular, Chaz Schilens (6'4", 225 pounds).
Unfortunately, he suffered a foot injury before the season began and has not been able to be the go-to guy Raider fans thought he was going to be. Schilens will be out again this week against the Broncos.
The Raiders also have decided not to start Javon Walker (6'3" 215 lbs). Walker, who coincidentally signed a six year $55 million dollar contract last year,has not been able to show coach Cable that he can run fast enough to even be on the depth chart for the Raiders.
So the Raiders will once again start a pair of wide receivers who were playing ball in college last year.
No. 18 Louis Murphy, 6'2", 200 pounds
This fourth round pick has been a huge surprise to the Raiders. In two games Murphy has six catches for 118 yards and one touchdown. Murphy who was often overlooked in the shadow of Percy Harvin at Florida has been the only bright spot in the Raiders receiving corp this season.
No. 12 Darrius Heyward-Bey 6'2", 210 pounds
The seventh overall pick of the 2008 draft who signed a five-year, $38 million dollar contract, of which $23.5 millions in guaranteed, has caught just one pass for 18 yards.
Both of these players are big play threats because of their lightning speed. Murphy ran a 4.43 second 40 yard dash at the combine, while DHB ran it the fastest clocking in at 4.29 seconds.
Both of these receivers have the disadvantage of being rookies trying to adapt to a whole new level of play and have been thrown into the fire expected to perform in their first year.
And unfortunately their quarterback's passing accuracy has not really given them the chance to make a lot of plays either.
Now here is the bright spot for the Oakland Raiders. They have some great running backs.
No. 20 Darren McFadden, 6'2", 210 pounds
McFadden was the fourth overall pick of the 2008 draft and signed a six year $60 million dollar contract (are we starting to see a trend here). McFadden who ran a 4.33 second 40 yard draft at the combine is a promising young talent who has shown flashes of brilliance as a running back for the Raiders when he hasn't been hurt.
McFadden has all the skills and is a very versatile back who can hurt a team in many ways and is quite elusive in the open field.
No. 29 Michael Bush, 6'1", 245 pounds
Bush was a steal for the Raiders in the 2007 draft. He was drafted in the fourth round because he had broken his leg. Before his injury, all signs pointed to Bush being a first round draft pick. Now that he is healthy, he is playing up to that first round standard.
Bush is a punishing hard and fast runner who has a motor that won't stop. He fits the Raider ideology of pounding the rock up the gut perfectly and is a dangerous weapon for Oakland.
Both backs will be getting carries for the Raiders this year, and thus far Bush has been performing better out of the two of them running for 4.3 yards per carry over McFadden's 3.6 yards per carry. (In my personal opinion, Bush is the better back)
The Raiders O-Line is built to run the football, and they are good at it. Anyone who saw their first game of the season against the Chargers saw an O-line that imposed their will on the defense. They were knocking the defense back with bad intentions that paid a unique homage to their head coach.
Unfortunately the Raiders lost one of their starters on the O-line this past week. Second overall pick in the 2004 draft Robert Gallery broke his leg, leaving Paul McQuistan to take his place at Left Guard.
Offensive lineman need to communicate and they develop chemistry with one another. Gallery's absence may be obvious this week if McQuistan fails to communicate well with his teammates.
No. 80 Zach Miller, 6'5", 255 pounds
Miller is the biggest receiving threat on the Raiders offense. Miller hauled in six catches for 96 yards against the Chargers and helped the team march down the field on several drives.
The Chiefs knew he was a threat and made sure he was covered all over the field last week. That combined with JaMarcus' accuracy shut Miller out of the game as a receiver.
Denver’s Defensive Strategy
The Denver Broncos have a new identity this year as a team. Last year, the Broncos were an offensive juggernaut and finished the season with the second most prolific offense in football, while having one of the most pathetic defenses in the game.
Denver got a complete overhaul in the off-season though and now boast a very formidable defense and a more high percentage than prolific offense.
The defensive gameplan is against the Raiders this week is twofold.
1) Stop the Run
2) Cover Zach Miller
The Raiders have proven they do one thing well, and that is run the football. They get a great push off the line and move the line of scrimmage and their running backs pound the rock up the middle.
So Denver needs to be run oriented on defense. Stop the run and make JaMarcus "accuracy" Russell with his 36 percent completion percentage beat us through the air.
Denver's secondary is one of the best in the league. Though older and slower than the Raider wide outs, they know how to play the game and should have no problem handling a couple rookie receivers. This frees up the other seven guys to stop the run.
Denver also needs to make sure that Zach Miller does not get to roam freely. Make sure he is covered because he is the most sure handed receiving threat the Raiders have.
Take him out of the equation and the Raiders won't be able to get anything going in the passing game, and their drives should stall like a K-car.
The Raiders Defense
The Raiders defense is no joke. Their front four are all big guys who play equal to their size. Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Gerard Warren, and Greg Ellis.
Each are capable of disrupting the backfield, racking up sacks, and stuffing running lanes. Each of them has played well thus far this year and need to be taken seriously.
Linebackers Thomas Howard and Kirk Morrison are two very underrated linebackers who wreak havoc all over the field.
And we all know that Nnamdi Asomugha is a shutdown cornerback who is right at the top of the list with Champ Bailey as the best cornerback in football. Chris Johnson has come into his own opposite Nnamdi to make them one of the best tandem of corners in the league.
After Nnamdi and Johnson though, the talent tapers off. Stanford Routt is fast, but is not great in coverage. Kansas City exposed him by exploiting him in coverage last week when he was called to action while Nnamdi was dehydrated late in the game.
Michael Huff has also recently come into his own at safety, and had two picks last week in Kansas City.
The Raiders defense is strong at every level, and poses a real problem to game plan against.
Denver’s Offensive Strategy
Denver's offense played better last week than they did the week before, and I hope to see them continue to play better each week.
The Broncos showed they can run the ball well, and Buckhalter has had the opportunity to show that he can make things happen as a running back in Denver.
Moreno may be out with a groin pull, so that may hamper the running game somewhat, but a healthy dose of Peyton Hillis pounding the football should fill in nicely to this game plan in his absence.
The Raiders can be run on and Denver needs to establish the run early in order to wear down Oakland's pass rushing lineman and keep them honest. If Denver runs right at Seymour or Ellis it will run them down and hamper the energy and mental burst to attack the pass.
Denver has a great Offensive Line which benefited greatly from week one to week two with Kuper being back from injury. It will be a battle up front, but one that is evenly matched.
Nnamdi and Johnson are so good in coverage that the Broncos are going to need to rely on Running backs, tight ends and slot receivers more as passing targets this week.
Hillis or Moreno (if healthy) should see some balls fly their way on screens and check downs. Tony Scheffler should see some more action this week too as he is a mismatch target no matter who is covering him.
Brandon Stokley out of the slot is no secret after his week one heroics. Stokley should easily take advantage of Stanford Routt's poor coverage skills and catch a good many balls this week.
As long as Denver continues to protect the football and doesn’t give the game away with penalties, I think Denver has a very good shot at taking down the Raiders this week in their home Stadium.
I give Denver the edge in this game because of Oakland’s lack of a passing game on offense, and the Broncos improved defense. Though it is usually loud in the Black Hole, the game is set to be blacked out in Oakland so that shouldn't be an issue.
My prediction: Denver wins, 20-6.