Oakland Raiders: 7 Keys to a Monday Night Victory at Mile High
With the regular season getting underway, the Oakland Raiders will travel into hostile territory to face the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football.
While the Raiders may look forward to playing in Mile High, they may be wishing they were playing on Sunday instead of the prime time slot.
The Raiders have lost their last seven Monday night games. This Monday's match-up could prove doubly difficult as it is the season opener.
Oakland is still winless under first year head coach Hue Jackson. They lost all four of their preseason match-ups, a stat that seems to bear more weight when people are judging the Oakland Raiders.
Truth be told the Raiders are getting healthier and are as close to 100 percent as they have been in quite some time.
With a daunting schedule this year, it is imperative the Raiders are victorious in their Week 1 match-up. It is hard to label a Week 1 game as a "must win" game but it very well could be.
Let's take a look at some of the key components necessary for the Raiders to start the season with a bang.
They Must Have Success Running the Football
The Raiders were ranked second in the NFL in rushing last year and they must impose their will on the Broncos defense.
If they can do that, they will wear the Broncos down and keep Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil from going after Jason Campbell. It will also set up the play–action passing game to exploit the Broncos defense for chunks of yardage.
There are many aspects to running the football and the Raiders appear to have improved each of them in the offseason.
The line lost Robert Gallery to Seattle. Gallery was a monumental failure as a left tackle. His career was on the verge of ending when he was moved to left guard. He played well under Tom Cable's zone–blocking system but will not be missed now that the Raiders are going to a more power oriented blocking.
The reason Gallery will not be missed is the emergence of rookie Stefen Wisniewski as an immediate starter. Wisniewski was drafted out of Penn State to be the center of the future and anchor the offensive line.
He can slide to left guard due to the vastly improved play of Samson Satele at center. The Raiders brought Satele back seemingly for depth only but he played himself back into a starting role.
At left tackle is yet another promising young lineman in Jared Veldheer. Veldheer was solid last year in run blocking and appears to have improved significantly in his pass protection.
Performing better than expected throughout camp was Cooper Carlisle. Once thought to be strictly a zone–blocking specialist Carlisle has shown good strength and solid protection. He has been solid enough to hold off a strong, albeit late, push from second year man Bruce Campbell.
Right tackle may see some rotation and possibly a changing of the guard, or tackle as it were. Khalif Barnes has been serviceable so far but impressive rookie Joseph Barksdale and veteran Stephon Heyer are on his heels.
I highlight the offensive line as they will be the key to creasing the defensive line allowing Darren McFadden, Michael Bush and Taiwan Jones to dash into the open.
McFadden was held out of the preseason to recover from a fractured orbital bone. It was a safety precaution well worth taking to protect the most dynamic offensive weapon the Raiders have. I look for McFadden to start off the year gashing the Broncos porous run defense.
For a change of pace, the Raiders can bring in a slightly slimmed version of Michael Bush. He has looked more agile in the preseason and still brings the lumber when he hits the line. Paired with McFadden, they can wear down the smaller Broncos defenders.
Taiwan Jones is a wild card and should get some touches to utilize his play making ability. He must take care of the football though as he showed a tendency to put the ball on the ground in college.
The Broncos lost their biggest free agent acquisition on defense when Ty Warren was lost, likely for the year.
Elvis Dumervil may rush the passer well but at 260 pounds; it's difficult for him to hold up to the constant punishment of the running game.
The line is a weak point that the Raiders must exploit.
They Must Stop the Broncos Rushing Attack
Many experts point to the Raider's defensive performance in the preseason as a clear indication they will be near the bottom this year against the run and pass.
What people closer to this franchise understand is that while there may be cause for concern, the wall is not yet crumbling.
The line played much of the preseason without Richard Seymour. Seymour is the unquestioned veteran leader of the line and the biggest impact lineman the Raiders have. Many times he commands double-teams, freeing his teammates to make plays.
Also playing in limited action in the preseason was John Henderson. Henderson is a key factor to stopping the run as he can anchor the center of the line at 6'7" and 337 pounds.
Not to be forgotten is Tommy Kelly. Kelly had his best year as a pro last year, tallying 60 tackles and an impressive seven sacks. His production may be tied to Richard Seymour drawing blockers but that is fine as long as Seymour is healthy.
Desmond Bryant has shown promise but his strength is more geared towards rushing the passer.
On the edges, the Raiders have two very impressive young players in Matt Shaughnessy and Lamarr Houston.
Shaughnessy is primed for a breakout year. He has played and improved in his two years in the league and he should be a full time starter this year. He plays well against the run and pass and as we saw in the preseason, he can even drop off the line into coverage.
Lamarr Houston quietly goes about his business. At 305 pounds, he is solid at holding the edge and not giving up ground. He is a strong tackler and has good vision for finding the ball carrier.
The Raiders received improved play from two starting linebackers during the preseason. Rolando McClain, the Raiders first round pick from a year ago, has looked more aggressive and is making more plays near the line of scrimmage and in coverage.
Quentin Groves still needs to improve a lot but he has made strides in coverage and at 266 pounds, he can bring some heat.
Kamerion Wimbley was one of the best free agent acquisitions of any team in the league last year. He had nine sacks for the Raiders and was a dominant force on passing downs. I would like to see him make a few more tackles in the running game but all in all, the Raiders have a strong front seven.
The Broncos rushing offense ranked 26th in the league last year and averaged just 3.9 YPC. Their offensive line returns four starters from last year and they will start a rookie a right tackle in Orlando Franklin.
This bodes well for an Oakland Raiders defense looking to improve against the run.
They Must Get Pressure on Kyle Orton
The forgotten man on Oakland's defense appears to be Trevor Scott. Scott has shown versatility playing at both defensive end and outside linebacker where he racked up 12 sacks in his first two years.
Scott is a versatile weapon on defense to get pressure on the pocket in much the same way that Kamerion Wimbley is. Either of these men can be blitzed from the linebacker spot or put their hand in the ground and rush the passer as a defensive end in obvious passing downs.
Matt Shaughnessy looks to take the next step and become an elite defensive end. He tallied four sacks in his rookie year and increased that number to seven last season. He has received high praise from the coaching staff as well as teammates including Richard Seymour.
Shaughnessy only started eight games last year but did receive significant playing time. He should be a full-time starter this season and I expect him to be one of the more impressive players on the Raiders defense.
Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly have the ability to push the pocket and they need to make Orton feel that the pocket is closing in around him.
Lamarr Houston is often overlooked as he was in the draft. He was impressive at Texas and the Raiders happily selected him in the second round. He started 15 games last year as a rookie and was solid against the run and pass on his way to five sacks.
Kamerion Wimbley was a great addition to the Silver and Black last year. Wimbley led the Raiders in sacks with nine in his first season in Oakland. The Raiders were more than happy to part with a third round pick for the talented and athletic linebacker.
With the thin secondary, I don't expect to see too many corner or safety blitzes. I wouldn't say it's out of the question but more unlikely than last year.
The Raiders would love to get adequate pressure with their front four but you can expect to see a steady diet of Kamerion Wimbley and possibly Trevor Scott on passing downs.
The Broncos offensive line gave up 40 sacks last year and it's crucial for the Raiders to get pressure to steady their somewhat shaky secondary.
The Secondary Must Hold Up in Coverage
Yes, Nnamdi Asomugha is gone. With him, he took his zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles and zero fumble recoveries from last season. Truth be told, if he would have collected any one of the three, he would still be a Raider.
I'm not saying he wasn't an elite corner but it's not the end of the world.
Stanford Routt did a good job last year being the man with a target on his back. Lining up opposite Asomugha meant they were coming after him and he showed he was up to the challenge. He is now the No. 1 corner in Oakland and he needs to show he's worth the dough.
Throughout the preseason, the Raiders pass defense was obliterated by offenses. Many in the media loved to immediately point to the loss of Asomugha but let's take a look at what was really going on.
Chris Johnson is the No. 2 corner in Oakland and he started only the game against the Cardinals and was out of there quickly with the rest of the starters. After that, he had a minor surgery and spent the remainder of the preseason rehabilitating to be ready for the season opener.
In his stead, the Raiders threw rookie Demarcus Van Dyke into the fire and like most rookies in that situation, he was burned. When you look closely at many completions made on Van Dyke, he was in excellent position but failed to locate the ball. I see promise in this young man and I trust in Rod Woodson to impart his wisdom to him.
I said it before and I'll say it again: I don't believe Joe Porter has any business on the 53 man roster. He looked horrific in coverage and embarrassed himself and the Raiders whenever he attempted to make a tackle.
Word is that special teams might have kept Porter on the roster. Whether that is true or not, Sterling Moore should have made the cut. He played well in the preseason and showed good instincts breaking on passes to force incompletions.
Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch need to step up in the passing game to alleviate some of the stress on the corners. Huff may be used as a nickel corner and that would mean Branch would have to be that much better.
I would not rule out the Raiders bringing back Lito Sheppard after Week 1. He was cut but this had more to do with his vested veteran status than his play in my opinion.
A vested veteran is a player with four or more seasons in the league. If they are on a team's roster as of Week 1, their entire base salary becomes guaranteed. If he were to be released later in the year, he would still collect his pay even if he signed with another team.
It makes more sense monetarily to bring Sheppard back after Week 1 with significantly less risk if the move doesn't work out.
In any case, the Raiders will have to stop the likes of Brandon Lloyd, Eddie Royal, Eric Decker and may even have to keep an eye on rookie tight end Julius Thomas who showed pretty well in the preseason.
Pressure on the pocket will be critical to make sure corners aren't locked into man coverage for too long. If the Raiders don't get pressure, Orton can take his time and wait for someone to get separation.
If Eddie Royal is healthy, he may be the toughest match-up for the Raiders. Royal's agility and acceleration make it difficult to stay with him on short routes and he has the speed to turn them into big gains.
The Offense Must Spread the Ball Around to Their Play Makers
If you watched the Packers and Saints game to open the season, you saw what top teams do with their talented players. They find ways to get the ball in their hands and let them win individual match-ups for extra yardage.
The Raiders have as many legitimate offensive weapons as either of the teams that played in that game. Let's take a look at who needs to get the ball on Monday night.
Darren McFadden is the workhorse on offense and exploded last year going over 1,100 yards rushing and adding more than 500 more on receptions, all while missing three games to injury. He has good size and power and the most noticeable difference last year was his yards after contact. I look for him to run wild this year.
Michael Bush may not be considered a play maker as he does not have the elite speed associated with so many on the Raiders roster. Bush is a perfect compliment to Darren McFadden, at 245 pounds he brings the lumber into the line of scrimmage, keeps his legs churning and picks up tough yards. He wears down the defense with the pounding they take from him and if he finds a crack, he is capable of breaking a long run.
Taiwan Jones definitely has some rare skills and I'm sure they will look to get him involved at some point. He has elusive speed to get to the edge and is slippery in the open field. He has excellent vision for the cutback. I would caution using him early only because of the nerves of his first NFL game, it being a Monday night game and his history of putting the ball on the ground. The Raiders can ill-afford an early turnover.
Marcel Reece is a tough match-up for any team when he catches the ball out of the backfield. A former wide receiver in college, Reece has a rare blend of speed, size and power. He should get some opportunities to make plays downfield on mismatches.
Kevin Boss will be out and that means Brandon Myers will start and either David Ausberry or Richard Gordon will see action as well. Ausberry appears to be the biggest play maker of the group, but without knowing who will start I will move on.
Jacoby Ford showed last year not only that he was a talented kick returner and receiver but that he is also not afraid of the big situations. When the game is on the line, you want guys like Jacoby Ford touching the football. He is a special talent and don't let the small stature fool you, he plays big.
Denarius Moore burst on the scene in training camp and has shown game breaking ability. It appears he is the future of the wide receiving corps. He has fought hard and played well enough to earn a starting spot.
Derek Hagan was a free agent signing that didn't make much news. He has been in the league for five years and bounced back and forth from Miami to the New York Giants before landing in Oakland this offseason. He has been a welcome surprise. He has good size (6'2" 215 lbs.) and reliable hands. He has shown a knack for getting open and making plays. Enough said.
The unknown commodities of Chaz Schilens, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy will all be bonuses if they are healthy and can be productive. It's nice to not have to pin the hopes of a season on these three.
With all of these weapons, how could a defense possibly keep up? If the Raiders were paying attention to the Packers and Saints, they will find ways to utilize these players. I'm confident that Hue Jackson and Al Saunders are in the lab drawing up ways to get them all involved. It will be fun to watch.
They Must Limit Their Mistakes
Yes, I'm showing Khalif Barnes again. It's going to be very interesting to see how the twitchy right tackle performs in the hostile environment of Mile High. The crowd will be pumped for the season opener and Barnes has already shown a tendency to jump before the snap. He must be able to control his nerves and concentrate on the task at hand.
It could be tough for Barnes and Jared Veldheer as even slight hesitation getting off the line could prove to be devastating against the likes of Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. The running game will be key to establishing a tempo, taking the crowd out of the game and slowing Dumervil and Miller down.
Penalties can stall Raider drives and turn the momentum of the game. If possible touchdowns turn into field goals or punts due to penalties, it will make their task of victory that much harder.
The Raiders need to avoid prolonging or advancing Denver drives by aiding them with penalties in the secondary and/or personal foul penalties.
Hue Jackson has attempted to address penalties with his Raider team as many coaches before him tried the same thing. One would like to be hopeful the results will be different this year but we will have to wait and see. The Raiders averaged just over nine penalties per game last year. They need to find a way to cut that number in half.
One of the most telling stats in all of football is turnover margin. The great teams limit their turnovers while creating turnovers by the opponents. The Raiders cannot afford fumbles or interceptions, especially early on. If the Raiders have control of the scoreboard and momentum that's one thing. If it's an early turnover on special teams or in our own territory, it could prove very costly.
The Raiders must come out of Denver with a win to open the season and taking care of the football will give them the best chance to do just that.
They Can't Settle for Less Than Touchdowns
It is true that the Raiders were sixth in the NFL in scoring last year but they also tied the Rams with a league high 33 field goals.
The plain and simple truth is that if they can turn a handful or more of those into touchdowns on the season, it would go a long way. It might not seem like much but it can make a big difference in the right situations.
Too many times, the Raider offense is moving the ball down the field and the drive will stall as a result of penalties or not converting a 3rd down. Being forced to kick a field goal or punt can be a victory for the defense and cost the Raiders momentum.
Something else to take into account is that Oakland returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last year. The kickoff line has been moved up and less kicks are being taken out of the end zone. I'm sure Jacoby Ford will still have some opportunities but that was a weapon that's effectiveness will now be limited.
The biggest factor in the Raiders turning more possessions into touchdowns is Hue Jackson. Hue Jackson came in as the offensive coordinator and took over play calling from Cable during the season last year. The offense was highly productive with Jackson calling plays.
This was a team in flux when Hue came along and now, he has begun to solidify his squad. The offense is all on the same page with him and Al Saunders. I expect to see a more crisp looking offense with a much more balanced attack.
The passing game will undoubtedly improve from last year and the stable of running backs are prepared to run wild on the competition. If the Raiders are able to execute the game plan I could see them becoming one of the most potent offenses in the NFL.
Make no mistake this is a process of "building Hue's bully." There will be setbacks and there will be conquests. The offense appears poised on the verge of shocking the NFL. Will they take the first step on Monday night? You tell me.