Only two seasons ago the Raiders had trouble scoring touchdowns. All of that changed when Hue Jackson arrived as offensive coordinator prior to the 2010 season. Despite the continued problems pass blocking the Raiders vaulted into the top ten in total yards and top six in points per game. Despite the offensive improvement the Raiders had other problems that caused them to end the season with an 8-8 record.
Fast forward to 2011 and the Raiders offense appears ready to exceed their 2010 production, but the Raiders will need to curb a troubling trend of being unable to stop the run or create turnovers. The poor pass blocking was also a concern as the Raiders struggled with quarterback injuries in 2010. Unable or unwilling to retain the services of all-pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the Raiders pass defense is now under a microscope.
What’s in store for the 2011 Raiders? Let’s take a look at the key areas.
Can the Raiders Stop the Run?
The Raiders have been unable to play consistently against the run despite changes in defensive personnel. Richard Seymour and the coaching staff claim this is just a matter of attitude and the players all being on the same page.
Reality is that the Raiders defensive scheme makes stopping the run more difficult. The Raiders front four attempts to penetrate into the backfield and this creates running lanes. If the linebacker is blocked or does not fill the correct gap the running back is likely headed for the secondary, where sure tacklers are scarce save Tyvon Branch.
The defensive backs often have their back turned playing man-to-man and opposing offenses will often have their receivers run off the coverage on running plays instead of blocking.
Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy have the opportunity to be one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL, but if they can’t help stop the run they will continue to get accolades while costing the Raiders wins.
The linebackers will need to do their part to help the defensive front and fill the running lanes and make solid tackles.
It is a very important season for middle linebacker Rolando McClain. How he coordinates the defense and if he can play faster and more consistently will go a long way in helping the Raiders run defense.
The other key the Raiders run defense is veteran defensive tackle John Henderson. Henderson was brought in to be a specialist of sorts. He’s the Raiders run plug up the middle. If Henderson can stay healthy he should help solidify the Raiders run defense.
Quentin Groves is clearly the weakest link in the front seven. Absent a suitable replacement the Raiders are stuck with him. If Groves can’t improve his play defenses are going to target him.
Kamerion Wimbley may be the star of the front seven. As a strong-side linebacker Wimbley has played well enough. As a defensive end in passing situation Wimbley has been a force. He was paid according to his production this offseason.
If Al Davis gives Chuck Bresnahan the flexibility to change-up the defensive scheme, the Raiders may improve in 2011. It’s a risk for Bresnahan to change the defensive philosophy too drastically, but minor tweaks may result in significant strides.
Can the Raiders Pass Block?
The Raiders return three starters on the offensive line and Stefen Wisniewski will be the only new player to the team playing with the starting five. The Raiders must have realized the mistake in shuffling the offensive line too drastically, because the starting line remains relatively unchanged from 2010.
Jared Veldheer must make strides as the Raiders left tackle and protect Jason Campbell’s blindside so he can deliver the football down the field. His continued development is vitally important to the passing game’s success. Based on observations of his play he has already improved since the end of last season.
Samson Satele has played better during this preseason than he has in his career. He’ll still struggle with nose tackles, but his solid play is a welcome sign on the offensive line. If he remains consistent and plays like he is capable the Raiders will be content to keep starting him.
With Cooper Carlisle and Khalif Barnes on the right side of the line, expect much of the same. Occasionally lapses in pass blocking may be the norm. The Raiders can tolerate a certain level of mediocrity from these two provided they don’t also make mental errors that kill drives. However, poor play may cost Carlisle and Barnes their starting jobs.
The Raiders do have the benefit of depth for the first time in many years. Stephon Heyer, Joseph Barksdale and Bruce Campbell are a much improved group of backups. Poor play by the starters or elevated play by the backups could result in changes to the starting five. Heyer could force his way into the lineup quickly and take Barnes starting spot at right tackle.
Raiders’ new offensive coordinator Al Saunders is perhaps best known for his work with receivers. If the Raiders can pass block, Saunders will make sure the receivers are in position to make a play.
How Will the Raiders Adjust to the Loss of Nnamdi Asomugha?
Nnamdi Asomugha took his talents out of Oakland this offseason. The Raiders now will attempt to make up for the loss of one of the best players in the league.
Out is Asomugha, in comes former starter Chris Johnson. Johnson isn’t a terrible starter and the Raiders look adequate with Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson on either side. The problem comes is one of depth.
The Raiders have rookies Demarcus Van Dyke, Chimdi Chekwa and former UFL player Joe Porter.
One of Van Dyke, Chekwa or Porter will be the Raiders primary slot cornerback. Van Dyke has potential, but is rather green when it comes to his technique. He must learn on the fly and learn quickly how to be an NFL corner or Raiders opponents will spread the Raiders out and target him.
The other likely scenario is Michael Huff playing slot cornerback and Chekwa playing free safety. Huff filled in as the nickel corner at times last season and had success. He’ll continue this role until the Van Dyke is ready.
It’s not likely the Raiders will play a lot of zone this season, but expect more zone than in past years. Al Davis is comfortable with Chuck Bresnahan and one benefit to it is Bresnahan knows how far he can stretch Davis when it comes to zone coverage.
A bit of zone coverage may ultimately help the Raiders safeties. Tyvon Branch has been criticized for his coverage the past couple years and that has been a question with Mike Mitchell and Jerome Boyd as well. Michael Huff is on the other end of the spectrum.
Again, don’t expect a lot of zone, but a little more zone coverage and blitzing may ease some of the pressure on the secondary redirecting it the Raiders strong front seven.
Run DMC, Pound the Bush, Taiwan on Track, Reece a Piece
The Raiders running game can’t get much better than it was in 2011. The offensive line needs to block, but appears as strong as 2010 or better. So the pressure will be the backs to be productive.
Darren McFadden remains the pack leader. The Raiders will continue to put him in positions to be successful. He’ll carry the bulk of the load and is also a receiving threat. Michael Bush remains the change of pace back. He’s not really a bruiser as he is made out to be, but he is a big man that is surprising fluid and always seems to chew up positive yardage.
The new weapon the Raiders have is rookie Taiwan Jones. He might be one of the fastest players in the league. An odd build for a running back and prone to injuries so the Raiders will use him to return kicks and implement special packages designed to get Jones in space. He may not get a lot of carries this season, but he will be exciting to watch when he does. Jones is a home run threat; the Raiders will use him to swing for the fences.
Marcel Reece will remain a big part of the offense. With weapons all over the field it is hard to redirect much attention to Reece. He’s a receiving threat first and foremost and fast enough to gain yards after catch. Reece needs to continue to improve his pass blocking to stay on the field. Part of the reason the Raiders kept four tight ends was because of the injury to Kevin Boss, the other was because rookie Richard Gordon may translate his blocking skills to be a blocking fullback.
Young Receivers Primed For Breakout?
It is the third season for Darrius Heyward-Bey. It’s now or never for the much maligned Raiders first rounder. It’s also the pivotal third season for Louis Murphy. Is he any better than a number two? Jacoby Ford, is he another Steve Smith or will he regress in his sophomore year?
DHB and Murphy should be hitting their stride as professionals this season. Ford should be progressing towards it. Hopefully Al Saunders influence can thrust these receivers’ careers forward.
One way the Raiders may help Heyward-Bey is by having him run shorter routes where he doesn’t have to go up to battle for the ball. He’ll be forced to make a quick catch and run.
Much celebrated rookie Denarius Moore will figure into the mix and the Raiders are looking for big things out of Moore. That leaves the much less explosive Derek Hagan and the oft-injured Chaz Schilens to round out the group. How much production the Raiders get from these veterans will be important to passing production on third down.
Nick Miller finishes up the group, but should mostly be used as a punt returner this season. If he doesn’t win the punt return job he likely will not stick around for long.
Jason Campbell Must Lead The Way
No excuses for Campbell will be made. He must lead the Raiders this season. Gone is the safety net of Bruce Gradkowski when Campbell played poorly. Campbell seems more than capable when given time, so the Raiders must give him time.
One problem Campbell has yet to correct is his rollout from center on pass plays. Certainly defenses have spotted this on tape and will continue to exploit his problem. More time in the pocket means more comfort for Jason Campbell.
The moment Jason Campbell stops tipping pass plays will be the same day the Raiders give him enough time to throw. Campbell has a longer than normal delivery and he needs the extra time to properly deliver the ball.
If the Raiders can pass block more effectively and Campbell can correct his rolling start the Raiders passing game could really take flight.
No one wants to see Kyle Boller starting for the Raiders. Even worse would be Shane Lechler or Terrelle Pryor. So the Raiders must give Campbell time and he must be smart and avoid preventable injuries.
How Do They Finish?
There are just too many problems to confidently say the Raiders are a playoff team. With a tough schedule and the unknowns the Raiders will have their struggles this season.
8-8, +-2 wins. The Raiders could gel and win 10 with corrections to the major trouble areas or regress and have great difficulty winning six. Hue Jackson talks a good game and handles Al Davis well, but Davis is much more difficult boss when the Raiders aren’t winning.
The first four games will be a barometer for the Raiders. If the Raiders start 1-3, perhaps six wins is in their future. If they go 3-1, maybe they can get to 10. A 2-2 start might just mean another .500 season.