Led by the leadership of Richard Seymour, the Raiders' young defense looks to develop as the season goes on.
We all knew that Darren McFadden would get his. Hue Jackson's "Build-A-Bully" campaign would be championed on offense by the strength of the running game. This showed on Monday night with McFadden running for 150 yards, once again torching the Broncos, and with Michael Bush getting crucial power runs to close the game out.
When the offensive line was in sync, McFadden and Bush had running lanes to work with, which helped the Raiders control the tempo of the game. Step one in building a bully.
Step two involves the defense. When the casual fan looks at the box score, they see twenty points put up by the struggling Denver offense, whose fan's were chanting "Tebow!" midway through the fourth quarter. They see Kyle Orton threw for 300 yards.
Immediately, the thought of losing Nnamdi Asomugha over the offseason comes to mind. Has the defense regressed? Was Chuck Bresnahan the right choice for defensive coordinator?
What they don't see is that seven of these twenty points came from a punt returned for a touchdown, which, by the way, there were eight returns for touchdowns over the weekend, the most in NFL history. Another seven came in garbage time at the end, when the Broncos were trying to get back in the game. Most of Orton's yards did indeed come in the fourth quarter.
What we didn't expect was the defense to come out of the gates as it did. They stopped Denver on the first drive of the game, but most impressively, completely stuffed the Broncos' rushing attack. This was supposed to be the Raiders' weakness, but every member of the front seven swarmed to the football. When Orton dropped back to pass, they were able to get enough pressure to make Orton uncomfortable and have to hurry throws.
When Jacoby Ford fumbled on the Raiders' first offensive play of the game, the Broncos had the ball deep in Raider territory. This is the kind of drive that a defense of old would easily give up a touchdown. This was going to be their first true test of the season.
The defense held once again, limiting the Broncos to a field goal. Granted, this was not the aerial attack of the Patriots or Ray Rice and the running game of the Ravens, but they held. They weren't exactly a bully, but they didn't let anyone push them around.
The rest of the first half had similar results. On stretch runs, outside linebackers Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves did a magnificent job of sealing off the edges, preventing Knowshon Moreno from getting to the outside and carving the Raiders up for substantial yardage. Starting middle linebacker Rolando McClain did a much better job of reading run plays and bottling up Moreno, in addition to doing an admirable job in pass coverage when asked to drop back into a zone.
The defensive line was in constant rotation in order to keep every player fresh, and it didn't seem to matter who was in there. Whether it was Richard Seymour, who compiled two sacks, Matt Shaugnessy, who looked near impossible to block on a couple of drives, or big John Henderson, who made his contribution to defending the run known on multiple occasions, the Raiders showed why the defensive line is the strength of this team and an important cog in trying to replace Asomugha. As well as Standford Routt played, there is no way one player is going to replace number 21. It has to be a collective effort.
The most telling play was on one run by Moreno during the second quarter. Moreno broke right and Oakland's entire defense followed - except for one player. Groves, who had already forced a fumble in the game, held contain on the left side of the field. As Moreno tried to cut back on the play, there was Groves, ready for him.
That tackle for a loss and one that may get unnoticed. However, fans of the team who have seen a myriad of running backs tear apart the Raiders' defense on such runs in the past, knew this was a changing of the guard. That's a run that goes for a long gain. Don't look now, but the Raiders are number one in the league in run defense.
Of course, we're only one week into the football season. Penalties mounted for the squad, which enabled Denver to march down the field on occasion in the second half. Bresnahan's reviled prevent defense that he was known for in his first stint with the team reared its ugly head late in the game.
On offense, the passing game looked to sputter at times, even though long-time disappointment Darrius Heyward-Bey had two clutch catches that prolonged drives. The offensive line, while they held their own for most of the game, had to do so by employing an extra blocker on countless occasions, which limits the amount of receivers that can go out and run routes. When you boil it down, the scheme for this run defense looks vastly improved, and that is the most important part in building a bully.
Sure, this week was Knowshon Moreno running the rock, but this was a game to build the defense's confidence. I'll sure be looking to see how the defense fares against Fred Jackson and the Buffalo Bills next week. While there are still many flaws that need ironed out, the future looks a little brighter. For the first time in eight years, the Raiders can finally say that they are 1-0. As Hue Jackson said before the season, "you don't build a bully overnight." Monday night was a promising start. The players are onboard.