Jason Campbell gives Raider Nation reason to hope
The Oakland Raiders have been mired in futility for some time now, and to say that Raider Nation is a little sick and tired of being laughed at by others in NFL circles would be the understatement of the century.
The ever rabid and loyal fan base needs some tangible goodness to hang their hats on, as despite the recent struggles they remain steadfast and loyal to the Oakland Raiders and deserve to be rewarded.
The team has gone a long way to improving their chances of success for the upcoming 2010 season, with the addition of Hue Jackson at offensive coordinator, Jason Campbell at quarterback, Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves as starting linebackers and the drafting of dynamic, play right away players like Rolando McClain, Lamarr Houston, Jacoby Ford, and Jared Veldheer.
But all the additions still need to come together as a team and gel going forward into the season in order for the plans for improvement to come to fruition. The Raiders' play in the preseason was encouraging, as the offense is certainly more complex and dynamic and the defense quicker, bigger, and stronger at the point of attack.
Still, there are some very real concerns and things of importance for the Raiders to focus on in order to climb up from the slag heap toward relevance again.
Jared Veldheer eats Peppers for breakfast
Now that it's official and rookie third round choice Jared Veldheer has supplanted the disappointing Samson Satele as starting center, the starting offensive line is set.
Though many of us wish Bruce Campbell was starting in place of Cooper Carlisle, ol' Brucey has been a little handsy in the preseason and needs to curtail his penalties and get some technique issues cleared up before that glorious day arrives.
As it is, we've got "Super" Mario Henderson at left tackle, big Bob Gallery at left guard, Veldheer at center, Carlisle at right guard (for now) and big mauler Langston Walker at right tackle.
The offensive line at times pass protected fairly well in the preseason, a fact overshadowed by a sack given up by Henderson on which starting quarterback Jason Campbell was injured. Other than that sack, Henderson played well against the Cowboys No.1 defense as well as Julius Peppers, and appears to have regained his pass blocking acumen to a degree. But he still can't be fully trusted.
The Raiders first-team offensive line has struggled with speed rushers and I would still like to see more consistency in the pass protection game, although Veldheer's promotion to starter at center should help. Campbell's ability to scramble and be where he's supposed to be will also help quite a bit, but they still need to be better and more consistent.
Of more concern and a little curious is the anemic run offense and lack of effective run blocking.
This line failed to open many holes for any of the backs, as the Raiders averaged less than four yards per carry in the preseason and had no big running plays to speak of. The screen game, basically an extended hand off, was lights out, but the offensive line continually got pushed back off the snap on pure running plays.
It's disappointing, because a line with size like Henderson, Walker, Veldheer and Gallery shouldn't be struggling to run block. Add in the fact that with Hue Jackson at offensive coordinator there is less zone blocking and more power run blocking, and it's all the more baffling.
If this line can't open holes in the run game and continues to struggle with speed rushers in the passing game, this offense isn't going to look much different on the stat sheet than in years past.
Louis Murphy eyes up a big gain
To say Raider wideouts were unproductive last season is fairly redundant. We all know that. Horrific quarterback play married with inexperience was a recipe for receiving disaster, and it showed.
Despite these struggles and lacking go-to experience at wideout behind oft-injured Chaz Schilens, the Raiders resisted picking up Terrell Owens or any other veteran presence early in the offseason, choosing instead to trust their talented but very green in-house receivers.
The philosophy is that the Raiders have an excellent core group of young, dynamic receivers and a veteran would only take reps away from the youngsters.
There is some merit in that school of thought, but every team needs a reliable receiver to get them first downs, which the Raiders do not have aside from Zach Miller, who is a tight end and not a wideout.
With the Raiders jettisoning the awful JaMarcus Russell in favour of steady Jason Campbell, the receivers were set to show what they could do with a bona-fide NFL quarterback in 2010.
Schilens, the Raiders most reliable chain-mover, was finally healthy. Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey looked great in OTA's, and speedsters Johnnie Lee Higgins and Jacoby Ford were playing well. Early returns said a quantum leap in pass production was inevitable.
Unfortunately shortly after the good vibes began, Schilens needed knee surgery, leaving the Raiders without their No.1 receiver for the second straight season.
Schilen's injury is signifcant, as besides Zach Miller he's shown himself as the only reliable third down option in actual game play, and it forces the Raiders to find a new No. 1 wideout.
Though the other receivers have talent, none among them have a proven track record of being yardage eaters who can move the chains and all are very, very inexperienced at the NFL level.
Muphy and Heyward-Bey are in their second year; Higgins has little game experience, and Ford and Nick Miller are rookies who have never caught an NFL pass. Yamon Figurs is a little more experienced having played with the Ravens, but has not looked good in preseason and has unreliable hands.
The Raiders looked to pick up T.J Houshmandzadeh when he was released on Saturday by the Seattle Seahawks, but that was quashed when Houshmandzadeh signed yesterday with the Baltimore Ravens.
It's clear that with Schilens sidelined, the Raiders realize they need someone proven at wideout.
The best option for a go-to receiver is Heyward-Bey, who has the size and strength needed for the job, and has shown much better hands, route running and aggression this offseason. Murphy was more productive last season, but is more of a downfield, big play threat and should stay that way.
The Raider pass game must improve for the team to find success, and that means that one of the talented but unproven wideouts needs provide consistent, first down production, and provide it fast.
The Raiders must improve their kick coverage
The Raiders return game, dangerous in 2008 with Justin Miller on kickoffs and Johnnie Lee Higgins on punts, was missing in action last season as Higgins lost his legs after getting decleated by Eric Weddle on a crossing pattern in the opening game and Miller was released following the 2008 campaign.
To address this, speedster Jacoby Ford from Clemson was drafted in the fourth round and thought to be the second coming of the previous incarnation of Higgins; an explosive, quick little waterbug with boundless energy and slipstream agility.
Ford may possess those qualities, but a quadriceps injury limited his opportunites in the preseason. The Raiders are still looking for that quality return man as we speak. Higgins has been looking for himself since the Weddle hit.
The return position is as unsettled now as it was before the preseason began, with Ford, Higgins, Yamon Figurs and Nick Miller all unable to play well enough to distinguish themselves as "the man." This is a work in progress still and may change week to week, which is unfortunate.
As ugly as the return game has been, the coverage teams have been even worse. Whether on kickoffs or punt returns, the Raider coverage units have consistently overpersued, played undisciplined in pursuit, missed tackles, and allowed huge returns.
The one bright spot on special teams was the play of Slade Norris in the Bears' game, where he recovered a muffed punt for a touchdown and blocked another for a safety. Of course, he's now on the practice squad, passed over for the likes of Sam Williams on the active roster. Makes sense.
The only special team players that seemed to consistently make plays are Pro-Bowl long snapper Jon Condo and Norris. There are no other standouts that come to mind.
Prior to the season the Raiders released Pro-Bowl special teamer Isaiah Ekejiuba; it's tough to say if that's why they're stuggling so mightily in coverage, and part of it is certainly related to the fact that it wasn't always the first team out there in preseason getting torched.
However, in a division that boasts Darren Sproles, Perrish Cox, Javier Arenas and others as return threats, Williams, Hiram Eugene, Brent Myers and company better get it together.
Wimbley and McClain bringing the pain
A big part of the Raiders' offseason was dedicated to improving a porous run defense that has ranked 22nd or worse in the last seven lost seasons. A huge factor in recent struggles, the front office made it a priority to make improvements in defending the run.
They replaced smaller linebackers like Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard in the starting lineup with big bruisers Rolando McClain and Quentin Groves. They picked up Kamerion Wimbley, another big bruising 'backer, from the Cleveland Browns to cement the linebacker position with big bodies who can run and shed blocks.
They drafted Lamarr Houston and put him at starting end, which allowed Richard Seymour to shift inside to defensive tackle. Tommy Kelly took his recent failing personally and got in excellent shape, and he and Seymour will anchor a much improved line.
John Henderson was picked up from Jacksonville to plug the middle, Desmond Bryant played lights-out this preseason and continues to improve, and the depth, size, strength, and experience of the front seven is better than it has been years.
The secondary remains a strength in pass coverage, but Michael Huff needs to tackle better at the safety position. Nnamdi Asomugha, Stanford Routt, Chris Johnson, Mike Mitchell and Tyvon Branch are all excellent tacklers in run support; Huff and his backup, Hiram Eugene, are the only weak links.
The first two games of the season will provide excellent litmus tests for the Raiders seemingly improved rush defense, as they take on last year's No. 1 and No. 2 NFL rushing leaders, Chris Johnson of the Titans and Steven Jackson of the Rams respectively.
The rush defense did look to be vastly improved in the preseason. They shut down the Cowboys' dangerous attack handily, and if you take away the big plays from Matt Forte and Frank Gore, the Raiders actually allowed less than four yards per carry in the preseason.
But those big plays need to stop. The Raiders always play fairly well in the run game until they allow one or two big plays due to a lack of discipline and concentration. Consistency and toughness is key.
New line coach Mike Waufle and coordinator John Marshall are on record saying that limiting big plays is a focus, and if they can do that, I see no reason the run defense can't vastly improve and take the team's fortunes right along with it.
The Black Hole holds strong through years of strife
To me, the biggest key to this season is how will this team respond to negativity, no matter what form it may come in. Raider teams of recent vintage tend to fold when the going gets tough, and that can't happen anymore if the culture change is ever going to happen.
The way the team has responded to the Schilens and Bush injuries, by building up their replacements and brushing it off as something that can be dealt with, is a fine start.
I am very curious to see how this team responds if, say, Chris Johnson busts a huge run in the first quarter. We are all too familiar with the sight of Raider players hanging their heads in a "here we go again" mentality that inevitably leads to defeat.
The way this team responds to adversity is the biggest key to success this season. The on field improvements are obvious; but the off field mentality must truly, wholeheartedly match for it to translate into success.
In the past, the off field mentality was lacking in hard work and accountability, and manifested itself quickly when things weren't going well. Players begin pointing fingers, snapping at each other, losing focus, and ultimately losing games. The worst part was they didn't always seem to care.
Even if things do not go perfectly out of the gate, even if there are struggles, this team needs to beleive they are indeed a changed team and continue to fight to change their losing identity.
Coach Cable has talked a good game in the offseason about the change of culture, and we've seen it on the field, in interviews, and in the very real optimism of the players and coaches that know from losing.
Changing the culture from a loser to a winner is not an overnight transformation, and the team needs to hold their heads high regardless of what happens and continue to stay the course.
That's not to say be blind to weaknesses or potential improvements; but that is to say to resist adopting a "sky is falling" mentality if they happen to struggle early or things are sunshine and puppy dogs right away.
Positive on field changes have resulted in a hefty dose of Raider optimism; and the play of the new Raiders has done nothing to dissuade that optimism, which is excellent. The attitude has thus far matched the play, but the games don't count yet. One thing though; these guys seem to definitely care.
The fans believe more strongly in this team than at any time in recent history; from listening to them, the players and coaching staff do as well.
This team has some players that have a history of success and know how to win; but they also have a fair share of players that haven't won much since they got to the NFL. They are hungry and ready, and the time is now.
They just need to keep the sunshine on their shoulders, and brush off any dirt that may come along.
Michael Bennett runs hard against Seattle
Although the Raiders have some things to work on, the additions of good players and coaches on both sides of the ball, some continuity in the coaching staff, and a new attitude of belief in the team and one another give us all real reasons to hope this team can show marked improvement on the field this season.
I know I'm very excited for the season to start and I believe that most of these worries will take care of themselves early in the season as units and players mesh with each other and begin to gel.Although I'm not always relentlessly optimistic, rest assured I know and feel this is a better team and I am very stoked to see what they can do on Sunday.
In years past, we'd be paying each other lip service and saying "we're going to beat Tennessee this weekend!" while in our heart of hearts knowing the chances were nil.
This year, we're saying it and meaning it, and it's a great feeling in our heart of hearts.
Please let me know what you think folks, whether good, bad, or ugly all comments are always welcome!