Oakland Raiders Week 1: Pressures, Hurries and Knockdowns
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Hello folks, and welcome to another year of my weekly column Pressures, Hurries and Knockdowns, or PHK for short.
In this column, I break down who or what aspect of the Oakland Raiders is under the most pressure for the coming game, some quick bullet point thoughts and some misconceptions or ideas about the Raiders that have been proven wrong, or "knocked down."
With the Raiders finishing second in the NFL in sacks last season, the title has never been more apt. I plan on running this as a weekly feature, as I have the last two seasons, so I hope you'll join me as the Raiders journey through another season; this time, it seems, with better navigation and more able pilots.
It's going to be a tough season with some good teams on the schedule, but the Raiders have more talent and capability on both sides of the ball than they have in years. With Kansas City looking pretty rough yesterday and San Diego beatable, the division is once again far from a lock.
The Raiders begin their quest for a division title and a return to the playoffs tonight in Denver. These bitter rivals will not lie down easily, and the Raiders will have to play well to go into Mile High and take one from an improved Broncos squad.
Hue Jackson is still searching for his first victory as a head coach, and some players on the Raiders have to prove their worth on the field for the Nation to have faith and trust in them.
Who's under pressure? What else is going on? What have we heard about the Raiders from media and opposing fans that has been proven wrong?
Let's find out.
Pressures: Hue Jackson
Hue Jackson shows some rare fire and emotion on the sidelines
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As I mentioned, Hue Jackson is in his first tilt as the Raiders head coach. Coming from Baltimore last year to coordinate the Raiders offense, Jackson showed his coaching mettle by enabling Darren McFadden to have a career year and having the guts to use rookie Jacoby Ford in clutch situations, leading to Ford becoming an emerging star.
Jackson's creativity, willingness to listen to and heed his player's suggestions and guts to use players that were young and unproven led to the Raiders offense improving from No. 31 in scoring in 2009 to No. 6 in scoring in 2010.
The Raiders, by extension, had their first non-losing season since 2002, going 8-8 and even sweeping the division. The offense played well in most games; it was the defense that struggled outside the division, leading to a 2-8 record against non-divisional opponents, and ultimately, a lot of sitting on the couch during the playoffs.
Al Davis, who had promoted former offensive line coach Tom Cable to head man midway through a disastrous 2008 season and the drama that was Lane Kiffin, never fully warmed to Cable despite the player's seal of approval.
Despite their best record in seven years, Davis fired Cable and promoted Hue Jackson. In yet another epic press conference in which Al emerged from the mist to rip Cable in an obvious preemptive strike to withhold money from him, a Davis trademark, Davis announced that it was Jackson, and not Cable, who had been most instrumental in righting the Raiders' ship in 2010.
For all the pomp and ceremony, and even paranoia, of Davis' press conference, he was absolutely right.
Cable helped to change a losing culture and get players to buy in to a new system of accountability and camraderie. For that, he should be praised. But Cable is simply a great rah-rah guy and someone you want with you to make your players feel loved; not really a good coach as a game manager, play caller or technician.
Jackson took the newfound attitude and actually applied it to the football field. Jackson not only has the players believing in the system, each other and their coaching staff, but he actually knows how to scheme a play, read a defense and coach a team.
Jackson is relentlessly intense, yet positive. He continually sings the praises of his coaching staff, players and owner, and is really involved in all aspects of the Raider organization. He is extremely competitive and has promised to bring glory back to Oakland behind the bully he wants to build.
That's why the preseason was so tough for him. Yes, it's preseason, and yes it's teaching time, but Jackson was very disappointed at the 0-4 finish. He was very disappointed in the play in the trenches from the defense, and upset that the bully was bullied at times.
However, he's wiping the slate clean and gone on record that the Raiders bully will be in full effect sooner than later. He's under pressure tonight to show that he can succeed when it's all on him, and he's not just in the background. He's under pressure to show that this team is going in the right direction still, and that he was indeed the key factor in their turnaround last season.
He's under pressure to win, because this is the Broncos, it's opening night and the Raiders are a better team. Nobody in the organization is under more pressure than Hue Jackson. The great thing is, I get the impression he wouldn't have it any other way.
Pressures: Darrius Heyward-Bey
Bey showed some improvement in the preseason, but he needs it continue to justify playing time
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Not since JaMarcus Russell—OK, I know it was just two years ago, but fortunately, it SEEMS like forever ago—has there been such a polarizing figure on the Oakland Raiders.
Much like there was a small camp that believed Russell had talent and would someday wake up and smell the coffee—and drink it to wash away the purple drank—there is a small contingent of Raider Nation that believes Darrius Heyward-Bey has talent and the light will soon come on.
There is a larger, more vocal contingent that believes he's a bum and will always remain dark.
It remains to be seen who will be correct.
One thing everyone agrees on is that he showed improvement in the preseason, which is encouraging. However, he's been handed a starting WR job, at least as per the depth chart, and that's where things get muddy.
Drafted No. 7 overall in a major reach due to his combine numbers, DHB was, from the start, unwanted by most of Raider Nation. Many were sick of reach picks for potential over substance and felt this was another waste of a first round draft choice. For all the gems found in the late rounds, the first round has not been kind to the Raiders in the 2000's.
It didn't help matters the the rival 49ers drafted Michael Crabtree, widely thought to be the best receiver in the draft and still available three picks earlier when the Raiders drafted DHB. Everyone thought the Raiders should've drafted Crabtree and panned the Raiders for passing.
Fortunately for all concerned, Crabtree's foot has been an issue, and he seems as interested in growing his brand, designing suits and generally whining and complaining as he is in playing football. So that little tie-together has gone by the boards.
Heyward-Bey, though, has done nothing but struggle on the field. Though a hard worker and a nice young man, he has yet to perform anywhere near to the level of an NFL receiver, let alone a high draft choice.
Yet, due to his draft status, he's been given chance after chance after chance, often in place of better players like Louis Murphy and Jacoby Ford. Murphy is injured right now, but should be back in two weeks.
This year, Denarius Moore and Derek Hagan have emerged as reliable receiving threats, and Chaz Schilens is finally healthy. This means there are realistically five wide receivers that have either shown greater potential or have actually had more production on the field than Heyward-Bey.
I really, really like this kid, but he needs to show it on the field, because there are others who can.
He's under tremendous pressure to catch the ball, make some plays and show at least some justification for not only being drafted, but being on the field. You see, despite his improvement, he's still not one of the top two receivers on this team. Yet, he may get playing time that says otherwise.
If that's the case, he needs to step up, because we can no longer wait for him to wake up. He's under pressure to make the most of his snaps, because the receiver position is no longer a weakness on this team. There are five other guys who have shown the ability to be viable NFL receivers, and Heyward-Bey needs more than his scholarship status to justify taking snaps from any of them.
Pressures: Raiders Defense
Timmy Terrific is about to be turned into a nice, light snack for Seymour
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I'm not going to go into the sky is falling mode because of the preseason. The majority of the big plays and big yardage were given up by the second, third and unemployed units, and the first team defense, when it played, looked solid.
However, the pass defense was a little shaky. With Chris Johnson sidelined for the majority of the preseason and Stanford Routt sitting out a great deal of it as well, it fell to many young and inexperienced players like DeMarcus Van Dyke, Chimdi Chekwa, Walter McFadden, Jeremy Ware, Joe Porter and Sterling Moore to step up at corner.
Unfortunately, free safety Michael Huff also had to step up at corner, which tells you how well the kids played.
Van Dyke, though burned a few times, was actually in good position often. He just needs to learn to look for the ball. Chekwa has been converted to safety, and Huff will remain the nickel corner.
Losing Nnamdi Asomugha was a big blow, and the shuffling of personnel proves it. However, with HOF CB/S Rod Woodson coaching the defensive backs, it's a matter of time before their raw talent translates into performance.
The Raiders run defense has long been suspect, but in an earlier article, I detailed that they were improved last year and downright stout against divisional foes. The Broncos running game doesn't scare me. Willis McGahee is getting on, and Knowshon Moreno has talent but can't seem to find it.
I know I have the preseason in perspective, as do Rolando McClain and Hue Jackson, but the media and opposing fans are planning another 4-12 moratorium for the Raiders this year on the heels of their preseason defensive failings. People continually talk and write about this team like it's still 2008. Their mistake.
The Raiders defense is under pressure to show that they can cover without Nnamdi, stop the run and that they are generally far better than the preseason showed. With 10 of 11 starters back, and everyone healthy, their defense is going to be far better than people think, which is good. Doubt the Raiders. They'll prove you wrong.
They're just under pressure to show that. No problem.
Lamarr Houston should emerge as a rising star this season
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- Two young linemen, Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy, should continue their rise to stardom. I anticipate one of them in the Pro Bowl this season
- Rolando McClain looks like a different player this year and one who is ready to dominate at this level
- DeMarcus Van Dyke lost a few battles in the preseason, but they will be valuable. Larry Fitzgerald told him after his catch that he had great coverage, he just needs to look for the ball. The kid is lightning quick and smooth; once he gets ball skills, he'll be special
- The Raiders have drafted well in recent years—more on that in a moment—but they've missed on defensive backs. Walter McFadden, Jeremy Ware and Stevie Brown were all late round choices the last two seasons, and they've all been cut
- Despite playing extremely well to end the season and continuing that play in the preseason, Jason Campbell continues to be maligned as a marginal quarterback, keeping the seat warm for the future. With Hue and Al Saunders in his ear, and his attitude toward this team, he'll show his doubters this season
- Darren McFadden, if he stays healthy, will lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage. Al Saunders maximized the talents of two of the best all-around backs in recent history in Marshall Faulk and Priest Holmes. McFadden has that kind of skill set, and he's bigger and faster to boot
- Not having Kevin Boss tonight is going to hurt, but Brandon Myers has shown the ability to adapt, and David Ausberry had some nice moments in the preseason. Campbell can make things happen with these guys if necessary
- The Broncos defense is far more stout this season with the return of Elvis Dumervil and the addition of rookie Von Miller. Miller was a demon in the preseason, and "Doom and Gloom" or "Von Doom," as they are being called, look like nightmare bookends for linemen to deal with. Jared Veldheer got bigger and stronger in the offseason and looked incredibly good in the preseason. I'm more worried about Khalif Barnes and penalties on the road as he tries to gain an edge in pass protection
- The Raiders pounded the Broncos like rented mules last season, but we would all do well to remember that Kyle Orton is better than people give him credit for being, and this is a brand new season
- Having said that, the Raiders do have a better team in all facets, and it should show tonight
Knockdowns: The Raiders Cant Draft
Dont you wish that life a rewind button sometimes?
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Recent gaffes like Russell and DHB—to this point—as well as the not quite to snuff performances of Michael Huff, have gained the Raiders a reputation of not drafting well.
Actually, it probably started with Todd Marijua...I mean Marinovich, and continued through with guys like Derrick Gibson, Philip Bucannon and Fabian Washington.
What do all these players have in common? Hell, throw in a disappointing Robert Gallery, who became an excellent guard but was drafted and paid to be a franchise left tackle, and it still fits.
All first rounders.
The Raiders, admittedly, have dropped the ball on a far greater percentage of first rounders than they've nailed.
And no, that wasn't a tongue-in-cheek shot at DHB.
Move past the first round, though, and you will see, especially in recent history, that the Raiders actually draft quite well overall. Include trading draft picks for players—which, for the purposes of improving thier cache, I will here—and the Raiders have done quite well.
To wit, all players either starters or second string:
QB: Jason Campbell, acquired for a fourth round pick; Terrelle Pryor, third round (supplemental draft)
RBs: Darren McFadden, drafted first round; Michael Bush, fourth round; Taiwan Jones, fourth round; Marcel Reece (FB), UFA
WRs: Chaz Schilens, seventh round; Louis Murphy, fourth round; Jacoby Ford, fourth round; Darrius Heyward-Bey, first round; Denarius Moore, fifth round; Nick Miller, UFA
TE: Brandon Myers, sixth round; Richard Gordon, sixth round; David Ausberry, seventh round
OL: Jared Veldheer, third round; Stefen Wisniewski, second round; Bruce Campbell, fourth round
DL: Lamarr Houston, second round; Matt Shaughnessy, third round; Richard Seymour, acquired for first round pick; Tommy Kelly, UFA; Trevor Scott, sixth round; Desmond Bryant, UFA
LB: Rolando McClain, first round; Travis Goethel (IR), sixth round; Kamerion Wimbley, acquired for third round pick;
DB: Stanford Routt, second round; Michael Huff, first round; Tyvon Branch, third round
Look at that. The Raiders starting roster is made up of a majority of Raider in-house draft choices or players they used draft choices to acquire; many from the third round and above. There are other draft choices on the roster who contribute on special teams and such, but I didn't want to get in to everyone.
So the next time someone tells you the Raiders can't draft, just smile and nod, because now you know the truth.
Knockdowns: Jason Campbell Cant Lead a Team
Campbell looks ready, willing, and very able to take this team to the next level
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Not going to go too in depth here; this is a recurring theme with me. But I hear it all the time from friends, the media and fans: Jason Campbell sucks.
I don't understand where it comes from. It's not homerism on my part; I thought he was good but given a raw deal in Washington. Hell, I was about to win a ton of money and just needed the Raiders to beat the 'Skins in 2008; Campbell killed me.
Anyway, the fact that Campbell has had different offenses every season since he entered the NFL is at least as well known as the fact that Tim Tebow is religious and an all-around good guy. Where they differ is that Campbell is an NFL ready quarterback who has proven in the past that he can lead a team when needed.
In 2006, Al Saunders was the OC in Washington and Campbell the QB. Washington got off to a 6-2 start, Campbell played lights-out and was being placed among the elite and things were generally swimming along.
Injuries killed the 'Skins, and Campbell was never the same player that season after hurting himself, and faith was lost in his abilities. He's been maligned by everyone everywhere ever since.
Well, Al Saunders is back with Campbell in Oakland this year, Campbell is in the same offense for the second year in a row and he took it upon himself to pay to fly his receivers to his house in Virginia and throw the ball to them, cook them barbeque and be the guy to bring the team together.
He can lead a team. He does it every single Sunday and gets no credit for it. Ever. He's one of those players that gets none of the credit when the team wins—they won in spite of him is a popular turn of phrase—and all of the blame when his team loses. He's the anti-Peyton, if you will. Or Trent Dilfer, if you ask others.
Hey, Dilfer won a Super Bowl and was underrated. Let's HOPE Campbell can be Trent Dilfer.
His words, deeds and attitude this offseason show he's sick of it. He's exasperated, frustrated and annoyed, and that's good, because he'll use that to shove the ball down people's throats.
He was a great QB over the last half of the season last year, and his preseason numbers—70 percent completion, 95 rating, 8.5 ypa—show he's only getting better with comfort.
Some expect Campbell will break out as a leader this year; only, you see, he already IS a leader in the eyes of his teammates. You know, the guys he actually leads? The ones that matter? Yeah, those guys.
How'd you like to meet this guy in a dark alley? Me? I'd like it fine; I'm a Raider fan. We'd just have a beer.
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Well, there's always pressure, but certainly Hue, DHB and the defense will all be under close scrutiny tonight.
What I saw in the preseason gives me faith that all three can bear the scrutiny and come out the other side smelling like a rose.
With what the Bills did to the Chiefs yesterday, they served notice they aren't the same old Bills, and what looked like an easy game next week may not be.
It's imperative the Raiders bring their A-game to Denver tonight and continue the recent run of smack downs they've put on the Broncos. It's imperative for them to win a primetime game under the lights for once, and to do it against their hated rivals will simply set the best possible tone for the season.
The pressure is on; and this team, finally, is just fine with that.
Thank you for reading, and please check back every Friday each week throughout the season for the next edition of Pressures, Hurries and Knockdowns. As always, all comments are welcome, respected and appreciated.