Training Camp. The time year when players have the chance to showcase their off-season hard work, coaches get the chance to put their visions into motion, and speculation begins flying around at an unprecedented rate. Some teams choose to stay the course from the previous season hoping to build on what they have accomplished while other teams turn to change and a fresh start to be their saving grace. Regardless of the route each team chooses to take, the target destination of Super Bowl XLVII remains the same.
The Raiders are no doubt introducing change across the board this season as they usher in the “New Era” of Raiders football under General Manager Reggie McKenzie. As part of this new era, much has been made of the obvious changes in philosophy on the field as the Raiders look to get away from their strict man to man base 4-3 defense of the past and look to be spontaneous and more “multiple” on defense in 2012. The change doesn’t stop there though as the Raiders also look to switch things up on the offensive side of the ball bringing back former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and his strong belief in the Zone Blocking scheme and West Coast Offense.
While many are excited to see the end result of all the changes, few people actually understand the difficulty in changing so much in such a short amount of time. To the fans, what seems like an eternity of waiting for the next NFL season to arrive, is all but a blur to the coaches and players trying to figure out how they will ever cover everything in the little time they have together before the season starts. 10 days of organized team activities, 26 training camp practices, and 4 preseason games. Under the new CBA, that is all the time an NFL team has to implement their strategy and prepare for the upcoming NFL season.
In what seems like an impossible task to change almost every part of a teams philosophy in one off-season, the Raiders actually have a big asset working in their favor. That asset happens to come in the form of player versatility. The Raiders are unmatched when it comes to the ability of their players to play multiple roles on the field. It’s a weapon that has arguably been under utilized by previous coaching staffs, and its a weapon that coach Dennis Allen and the rest of his staff must take full advantage of if they plan to maximize their level of success while implementing their new schemes.
While the Raiders have had a good amount of versatility on their defense in recent years, their scheme has restricted how far it could take them. This year the restraints are gone and the versatility of these players will be very important to the multiple looks the Raiders want to use this season.
Tyvon Branch will play a key role in how successful the Raiders defense will be in 2012, and the amount of things this guy can do on the football field are almost endless. Branch came out of the University of Connecticut where he focused mostly on playing corner back and returning kicks. After joining the Raiders he began his transition from corner back to strong safety, a transition not many guys can claim to have effectively made. Tyvon was not only effective in his new role, but he is now a top five player in the league at that position. With the Raiders short on corner back depth, Branch was also asked to fill in there at times last season. Being able to make that switch mid game is impressive on many levels but his ability doesn’t stop there. Branch also has the range and instincts to play the free safety position, meaning he can be effective at any one of the 4 main defensive back positions. Having a player with that ability adds a tremendous amount flexibility to a defensive game plan, and the fact that he has 4.3 speed means he is never far from the ball regardless of where he begins the play.
Philip Wheeler played his college ball at Georgia Tech where he thrived as an inside linebacker in an aggressive blitzing defense. As a matter of fact, Wheeler was considered by many as one of the nation’s best-blitzing linebackers. That is a skill Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver plan to take full advantage of as the transition to a more aggressive defense has been no secret to this point. Wheeler also possesses rare coverage abilities in the open field, not something a lot of linebackers can say. Having a linebacker who can both attack and cover is a tremendous asset.
Rolando McClain brings his versatility to the table in a different form. McClain was the center piece in Nick Saban’s famous 3-4 defense at Alabama. He excelled there and it’s a role that McClain began to really become comfortable in. However, when he was picked by the Raiders in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, they felt he had what it took to make a the transition to a 4-3 middle linebacker. While he has not had instant success there, he has improved as a 2-gap linebacker and seems to be looking a lot better in training camp this year. That is very important as the Raiders want to use both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts this season. They will need their leader in the middle to be able to call the plays in the huddle and play as both a one and two gap linebacker depending on the formation.
Lamarr Houston played defensive tackle at the University of Texas, but was brought to Oakland to fill a hole at defensive end. Houston is a physical specimen who has proven he can play either position in the NFL with his rare combination of quickness and power. Maybe one of the most intriguing things about him though is where he fits into the 3-4 packages. He certainly has the power to hold his own as a 3-4 end, and does a great job at getting leverage on offensive lineman to be able to drive them back. It has also been noticed that Houston is looking like he’s in good shape this season and might trimmed down some weight to be closer to 280-290 instead of 300-310. Could we see him play some elephant backer (a combination 4-3 DE and 3-4 OLB) this season?
Richard Seymour and Desmond Bryant have also both played inside and outside on the defensive line in the 4-3, and Seymour has experience as a 3-4 defensive end from his time in New England where he won two super bowls. Those two being able to move around on the defensive line will help out tremendously as well.
Of course there are others players on the defense capable of doing multiple things, but i believe the six guys listed above bring a lot of value to what Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver are trying to accomplish on defense. Switching gears to the other side of the ball, the offense is not short on dynamic players either and most seem very excited about the system Greg Knapp is using this season.
Darren McFadden is a one of a kind running back. He has the speed and agility to score every time he touches the ball, but unlike most backs with those attributes, he can also use his power to effectively run between the tackles as well. He is not limited to his running ability though. McFadden has shown many times that he can line up in the slot, run routes, and catch like a wide receiver too. There is not another running back in the NFL that can do all of those things at a high level, and he shares a back field with none other than Marcel Reece. A converted wide receiver from the University of Washington, Reece has played wide receiver, tight end, fullback, and has even carried the ball a few times. He is an X-Factor for the offense, and is incredibly hard to game plan for because he can do so many things from the fullback position. How many times does a defense have to game plan for the fullback? McFadden and Reece are without a doubt the most dynamic backfield duo in the NFL and it’s not even close.
The offensive line is not normally thought about as being versatile, but in the Raiders case they are. Jared Veldheer, a 6’8″ left tackle also spent time playing center his rookie season. Stefan Wisneiwski played center at Penn State, but spent almost his entire rookie season at left guard and played very well there for the Raiders last season. He has now moved back to center. Cooper Carlisle has spent the majority of his career at right guard, but when the team brought Mike Brisel aboard via free agency Carlisle was moved to left guard where he will play this season. Khalif Barnes has started at left tackle and right tackle at certain points in his NFL career. He was also used a lot as an extra lineman in jumbo packages that Hue Jackson liked to use, one of which had Barnes running a route into the end zone where he caught a touchdown pass. Aside from all of that though, they are also making the switch from the power blocking scheme to the zone blocking scheme while returning all starters from last season with the exception of one. In most cases, there are major personnel changes a long the offensive line when you make that kind of switch. At face value it might not seem like a tall task, but any lineman who has played in both will tell you it’s a very tough thing to grasp.
Darrius Heyward-Bey is really starting to develop into a solid wide receiver, who possesses great speed and a big frame capable of breaking tackles. He is getting much better as route running which creates separation from the defensive back and timing with the quarterback. He also excels at running blocking as well though which does not get near enough credit. It is the job of the offensive line to get the running back to the second level, but it is often times a block by a wide receiver that springs the running back for a long gain or a touchdown. DHB’s hard work has made him into a dynamic player in the Raiders offense, and he should only continue to get better.
If the Raiders are able to successfully change so many parts in one season, the one thing that will allow them to do it is the flexibility that have with their roster. As you can see there is not another team in the league that matches the Raiders versatility in all facets of the game, and it will be up to the coaches to use that to their advantage to gain a competitive edge.