The Silver And The Black: Oakland Raiders Thoughts After The Last Preseason Game
Well the preseason is now over, with the Raiders posting a respectable 3-1 record, the only loss being against the hated San Francisco 49ers via a touchdown in garbage time.
Although preseason records themselves mean little, the games can definitely highlight a team's strengths and weaknesses as they head into the regular season.
The addition of Jason Campbell and Hue Jackson to the offense has sparked a definite improvement on that side of the ball, but there is still a long way to go.
Adding Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston early in the draft and trading for Kamerion Wimbley has improved the run defense and the pass rush on the defensive side of the ball.
There are numerous players that are waiting with baited breath to hear their fate from Coach Tom Cable as final roster cuts loom. Snakes, voodoo, and various other superstitious rituals are in full effect, as players try anything they can to avoid being on the blacklist.
Here are some observations, both good and bad, regarding the Raiders and players on the roster bubble, and how the preseason factors into those observations.
The Silver: The Offense Is Far Less Offensive to Watch
It's hard to imagine the offense looking any worse than it has in recent memory in the hands of JaMarcus Russell, with Tom Cable calling the plays. With that setup, the Raiders more often than not looked lost and confused when they had the ball and went nowhere but backward.
Enter Jason Campbell and Hue Jackson, a new quarterback and a bona fide offensive coordinator. While Campbell got off to a slow start in the preseason opener in Dallas, he led very impressive early scoring drives against the Chicago Bears and the San Francisco 49ers before succumbing to a wrist injury and a shoulder stinger on consecutive players in the 49ers game.
Neither injuries are thought to be serious and he looks to be fine for the opener in Tennessee.
Campbell has shown the poise, accuracy, and leadership that Russell never did, and there has been no dropoff when backup Bruce "Almighty" Gradkowski has played been under center. In fact, although against lesser competition, a case can be made that Gradkowski has actually outplayed Campbell.
The quarterback situation is very solid as Campbell is a good starter, Gradkowski an excellent backup and Kyle Boller possibly the best No. 3 quarterback in the NFL. Any of these guys can produce.
The running game is a work in progress, work that has been hindered by the loss of primary back Michael Bush, who ironically enough has a "Bennett" fracture in his left thumb and may be out for much longer than originally thought.
Bush's injury almost assures the team will keep both Michael Bennett and Rock Cartwright to provide depth behind Darren McFadden until Bush is healthy enough to return to a prominent role; the irony being that a Bennett fracture may secure a roster spot for Michael Bennett.
The receiving corps is still growing their legs but players like Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey have shown marked improvement from last season, with Heyward-Bey having something to prove and working hard in the offseason.
With Campbell behind center and Hue Jackson calling the plays, we've already seen a better passing game than we have in years, with screen passes being particularly effective. As they continue to grow together and with the young talent on this team, the offense can only get better.
One thing is for sure; it couldn't get any worse.
The Black : The Offensive Line Still Offends The Senses
The offensive line is still struggling, especially with run blocking, and that has caused the offense to stagnate a bit. There is flux there, as Samson Satele has been injured in preseason and has not acquitted himself well at center when he has been healthy.
Rookie third round draft pick Jared Veldheer has been playing center recently, and looking like he could be a good one there with more experience. Though he was drafted as a left tackle, he's been getting most of his recent work anchoring the line and may just settle in there.
Robert Gallery and Mario Henderson continue to open some running lanes on the left side of the line, but Henderson has struggled again with speed rushers and has left his quarterbacks exposed to some big hits. His performance will contribute to whether Veldheer stays at center or not.
Cooper Carlisle is once again struggling in pass protection, and there has been little running room between he and Langston Walker on the right side of the line. Walker has been adequate, but they need to be better.
I have to wonder if Coach Tom Cable's confidence in himself to coach up lesser talents into feasible lineman is hurting this team, as he seems to pick favourites and then try to develop them instead of realizing he simply needs a more talented player. Think Satele and the disasterously misguided Kwame Harris experiment.
Bruce Campbell has shown fairly well in the preseason but struggled with penalties and technique at times. Unfortunately he's probably some time away from supplanting Carlisle at right guard.
There is some depth with Khalif Barnes who brings experience and can play tackle and guard, Erik Pears, who can play tight end in jumbo sets, Daniel Loper, and Chris Morris, but if any of those guys have to play significant minutes this team is in trouble. These players are stopgap players with little to offer as starters.
This unit needs to come together quickly and play with more consistency, or the run game is going to stall and Jason Campbell will be running for his life back there. If this unit doesn't get some cohesion, the positive vibes and hope built up this offseason will be put in jeopardy quickly.
The Silver : There Are Playmakers on The Oakland Raiders
Further to the offense being less painful to watch are the parts that give Raider Nation a reason to believe this offense could actually be dangerous if all the pieces fit into place.
Louis Murphy is a threat downfield, runs smooth routes and has the ability to blow by defenders and shake them out of their shoes. He still drops the ball too much, but he is extremely aggressive and always looking to score, with the skill and willingness to block as well. Murphy has the ability to be a 16+ yards per catch guy, making him the big play threat Al Davis loves.
Darrius Heyward-Bey was is another deep threat that has recently shown an ability to make catches in traffic and use his size and speed to get yards after the catch. He's made some nice catches, and though his production hasn't been spectacular, it is certainly enough to show he's vastly improved and ready to put up some numbers.
Johnnie Lee Higgins appears to have regained confidence as a receiver with some nice plays in the passing game. Higgins has looked just okay returning punts, but if he regains some of his 2008 form he can be electric. I think he's a lock for the roster after his performance (and Yamon Figurs' lack thereof) in the Seattle game.
Darren McFadden has shown he's capable of big games when healthy, which unfortunately isn't too often. A tweaked hamstring limited his preseason reps, but he did show ability to break free and move in space, as well as make defenders miss.
He's looked better catching the ball, but with Michael Bush injured for a period, he has to seize the opportunity to disprove critics that say he's overrated and he goes down far too easily running the ball out of the backfield.
Bush and Chaz Schilens are the most productive and consistent members of their faction of the offense, but won't be available for a little while yet. Still, they are both capable of large gains and big games as well, and the a thin offensive core needs them to return as soon as possible.
Then there's ol' reliable, Zach Miller, the Raiders most productive receiver last year. Jason Campbell loves his tight ends, and Coach Cable stated his desire to have Miller more involved in the red zone. Already we've seen Miller targeted and making the most of it in scoring position, and I expect that translates into a huge season.
There are others, such as Jacoby Ford, Nick Miller, Michael Bennett and Marcel Reece that have shown big-play ability this preseason. Manase Tonga surprised me with his speed and athleticism during a great catch and rumble for a TD in the Seattle game.
While mostly young or inexperienced, the Raiders do have playmaking talent at various positions, but as always that talent must translate to production for it to mean anything.
The Black : The Raiders Need Michael Bush and Chaz Schilens Healthy
As I mentioned in the previous slide, two of the Raiders biggest playmakers, Michael Bush and Chaz Schilens, are unavailable due to injury and both may be out longer than originally expected.
There are playmakers on this team, but few of them have actually produced, and Schilens and Bush are two that have. The offense needs them back to alleviate pressure on the younger, more inexperienced players, and to allow a different style of running attack.
"Porcelain" Chaz just can't seem to stay healthy. After showing flashes of brilliance in the 2008 season, much was expected of Schilens going into 2009 and his early performance in preseason said he would not disappoint. However he broke his left foot shortly after the first preseason game, and was lost for half of the 2009 season.
Even though he missed half the year, he still put up good numbers when he came back and Raider fans were even more excited for this season, as he put up good numbers with JaMarcus Russell under center so it was safe to assume he would only get better with Jason Campbell throwing him the ball.
Alas, thus far it's not to be, as the injury to his foot and subsequent overcompensation by his right leg caused him to need arthroscopic knee surgery last week. Coach Cable is optimistic he could be back for week 1, but the timeframe makes it more realistic for game three or four. With talented but inexperienced wideouts, this is a major issue.
Bush fractured his thumb last Saturday against the 49ers, and initially thought he would be ready to go for week one as well. However, now it's been revealed that the "Bennett" fracture Bush experienced has a healing timeframe of roughly 4-6 weeks, leaving Bush's availability for the first quarter of the season in doubt.
While McFadden is faster and more explosive, it is Bush that has been more productive, and losing him is a huge blow to the rush offense. He provides a big, strong, aggressive runner to offset the quickness of McFadden. Michael Bennett is more of a McFadden type player, and Rock Cartwright is no Michael Bush.
It's unfortunate that the offense has experienced such setbacks, as there is real reason to believe that fully healthy this team could put up some points. Now, it's going to be quite a bit tougher.
The Silver : This Defense Is Big, Fast, and Nasty
The Raiders added "Big" John Henderson and Lamarr Houston to the defensive line with an eye to bulking up and stopping the run. Incumbent Tommy Kelly has slimmed down and looks good, and Richard Seymour is being moved from end to tackle to shore up the middle. All good moves.
In the linebacking corps, gone is Kirk Morrison, and Thomas Howard has been relegated to spot duty. While productive as Raiders, Morrison and Howard have proven to be too slight of frame for adequate run support, and they've been replaced by big maulers Rolando McClain, Trevor Scott, and Kamerion Wimbley.
The Raiders front seven got much bigger and stronger without sacrificing much speed or technique, which was due to a very impressive job by the front office to recognize and address the biggest team weakness, run defense.
The Raiders have shown the ability to rush the passer from all over the field this preseason, and that's without blitzing much and playing a fairly benign scheme so as not to tip their hands come real time.
There are numerous ball hawks on the back end, with Nnamdi Asomugha roaming one corner and shutting down either his side of the field or the other team's No. 1 wideout (coming soon to a field near you), and youngsters Stevie Brown and Jeremy Ware showing well in coverage and run support.
Mike Mitchell, while still green in coverage, has shown a few times why Raider Nation is so excited about him, blowing up running plays and making hits that you hear and feel as much as see.
Chris Johnson has been torched this preseason, and will most likely lose his No. 2 corner job to Stanford Routt, who was challenged by the coaching staff to step up and has done so this preseason. He's been better than Johnson in every facet of the game and will probably start opening day.
This defense has shown strength at the point of attack, pass rush ability, and coverage ability on the backend all preseason. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this defense is their ability to recover from big plays and hold opponents down when in the red zone.
There are a number of players on this defense that play mean and hit hard, such as Mitchell, Tyvon Branch, Houston, and Matt Shaughnessy. Most of the core is young and hungry, and ready to feast.
This defense is going to be fun to watch when the season starts and the muzzles come off. Having Richard Seymour actually playing up front for a change will be nice, too.
The Black : Big Plays Still A Killer
While the defensive personnel has improved and as a result the overall fundamentals, this squad can still fall asleep at the wheel and get sloppy.
Matt Forte's 89 yard touchdown run could've been avoided by simple run fit discipline and better tackling. Ditto Frank Gore's near 50 yard rumble in which Michael Huff bounced off him like a pinball in a very embarassing fashion.
The passing game has also given up many big plays down the field, but the culprit has almost always been Chris Johnson. CJ is a ballhawk and a good tackler, but he makes a lot of mistakes in coverage and was exposed numerous times by a less than stellar Seahawk passing attack last night.
The Raiders run defense has been very, very good this preseason; IF you take away the big plays from Forte and Gore. But that has been the bane of this defense for years; stop the run for four plays, then give up a 20 yard burst. Stop the pass for three quarters, and give up a 60 yard touchdown.
This team simply has to be better at limiting big plays, and that begins with having the concentration to be consistent from one play to the next. With the leadership and players on this defense, that shouldn't be a problem.
Seymour, McClain, and the other leaders of this defense need to ask for accountability in doing their jobs when big plays are given up. This team has the parts to be great; they just need to stay mean and focused at all times.
The Silver : The Kicking Game Looks As Good Or Better Than Ever
Not much more you can say other than these guys seem to get better with age.
Although they haven't done much this offseason in terms of playing a lot of snaps, they've played enough to show they're in midseason form.
Seabass booted a 57-yard field goal off the dirt at Oakland Coliseum right down the pipe. He's made all his field goals and by all accounts in practice is showing the best accuracy of his career, while losing none of his awesome length.
Lex continues to boom punts into the stratosphere, hammering at a clip of consistency unmatched in NFL history for any punter.
The only issue with Lex is that occasionally, his punts are so huge he outkicks his coverage.
Which leads me to my next slide.....
The Black : The Rest Of The Special Teams Look Horrendous
A punt return for a touchdown to a virtual unknown in the 49ers game.
A kickoff return for a touchdown by former Raiders practice squad member (and a personal favourite of mine), Seattle Seahawk Louis Rankin.
A lack of ability to return a kick or a punt for any sigificant yardage.
Muffed punts, blown coverage, lapses in concentration. Ugliness.
That is the current state of the Raiders kick return/kick coverage game.
The Seahawks wouldn't have crossed midfield in the first half last night if the Raiders kick coverage didn't continually blow it and allow huge returns. That, in turn, gave the Seattle offense confidence, and the field position battle swung mightily in their favour.
As a result, the Raiders were on their heels much of the second quarter.
Although there have been some nice moments, like Slade Norris' blocked punt and recovery for a TD, there has been far, far, far more bad than good from these units.
Nobody on this team hoping to make the final 53 based on special teams play can be breathing easy today. The coverage units were decent in the first two games but have regressed horrificly in the last two weeks. Sam Williams' scholarship shouldn't save him this time.
I am very concerned about the discrepancy in return yards gained to those given up, and this is something that absolutely HAS to be fixed before the season starts. Ever since we let Brian Schneider walk this unit has struggled in the return and coverage games.
In a division with a proven danger in Darren Sproles and rookies that look scary in Perrish Cox and Javier Arenas returning kicks, the Raiders had better figure something out, and fast.
Maybe cutting Ike wasn't such a good idea after all.
This Team Is Definitely Improved
This team may still have some things to work on, but I was pretty impressed for the most part throughout the preseason. The defense looked extremely strong, especially the first unit, and the passing offense was mostly crisp and efficient.
The run defense and running game need some tweaking, but the players and coaches are there on both sides to ensure that happens.
The offensive line and special teams are a definite worry, but this Raider team looks to be better than any of recent vintage. There is real talent, leadership, and experience on both sides of the ball, a full coaching staff in place with a modicum of continuity, and a palpable feeling of confidence and positivity heading into the season.
The preseason showed us that, if anything, the optimism and hope being felt throughout Raider Nation was not misplaced. This team is definitely better in numerous ways, and it showed on the field this preseason.
Now it's time to bring it forward to the games that count. It's time for the return of the Silver & Black attack.