Digesting the Raiders

Week 4 will feature the much-hated traditional division rival Oakland Raiders coming into Mile High, still feeling good about their come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh. Denver is coming off a tough loss to the Houston Texans, falling short by six points for the second time in two weeks to teams that remain undefeated. Both the Broncos and Raiders see an opportunity to rack up a divisional win in the AFC West. Let’s go through the two teams.

Key Points: Oakland on Offense

The Raiders come in with the same 1-2 record that Denver has, with both teams’ wins having come against Pittsburgh. The Raiders have struggled to throw for distance, as shown by quarterback Carson Palmer’s 1-of-10 completions for 21 yards when throwing long (20 or more yards). He hasn’t thrown long for a TD, but has an interception when trying to go deep.

Darrius Heyward-Bey appears to have dodged a huge bullet after a frightening cervical injury last week, but he wasn’t helping them in the long game either. Denver should be able to maintain that tendency: Their pass rush appears stronger than the Raiders’ line, and cornerback Tracy Porter is expected to return to the lineup after a brief scare with what turned out to be a bruised knee.

Raiders Offensive Line

The Raiders are very pleased with the work of Jared Veldheer, and trust him to protect Palmer's blind sides. Next to him is ex-Bronco Cooper Carlisle, who’s been up and down this year - he’s vulnerable to a strong inside presence, run or pass rush. Center Stefen Wisniewski has also been experiencing peaks and valleys from week to week - he had a very strong game against Pittsburgh, but had tanked against Miami.

Right tackle Khalif Barnes has a groin injury that forced him to leave the MIA game and miss the PIT game, and he will miss tomorrow's game as well. Willie Smith has filled in for Barnes; he played well against PIT, but not so much against MIA. Right guard is manned by Mike Brisiel, who stepped up in pass blocking against PIT, but was less effective in the run game.

Oakland has given up 28 hurries and 15 QB hits - Denver should add to the total in a big way.  In comparison, Denver has given up only 3 hits and 17 hurries. 43 pressures versus 20 is quite a difference - Denver needs to get to Palmer early and often.

The Raiders are also strong when running back Darren McFadden (who will be on the field but has a shoulder injury) carries the ball - he’s gotten 44 carries for 167 yards, a 3.8 per-carry average.

As I talked about earlier in the week, he’s also a constant threat to carry the ball to the end zone. Ted agrees that run defense against the Raiders remains essential if Denver is going to break their four-game home losing streak to the Raiders.

Denver’s Offensive Line

Despite the quality of the opponents, Denver's front five have been extremely effective in protecting the quarterback and blocking in the run game. Left tackle Ryan Clady is at the top of the league at his position according to PFF's grading, while second-year right tackle Orlando Franklin already ranks 25th in the league (out of 69 tackles). Denver has gotten great effectiveness out of its bookends.

Along the interior, J.D. Walton has been very effective this year and is currently playing like one of the top centers in the league. Left guard Zane Beadles has been effective in both pass and run blocking, and has stepped up his game substantially this year. Right guard Manny Ramirez has suffered more: in fairness to him, he went up against J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans last week, who is currently one of the top defensive players in the league.

Overall, the Broncos front line has been extremely effective this year, a combination built of excellent offensive line coaching by Dave Magazu, and the growth and improvement of a team that has kept its OL nucleus together over the last few years. The lack of continuity in offensive line play in the National Football League has been a problem for many teams.

Raiders Defensive Line

The Oakland Raiders defensive line play has been limited this year. Richard Seymour has been diminished, Tommy Kelly has not played well at all, and Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy have both struggled as well. This will be a good test to see how the Broncos play against a somewhat lesser opponent than those they faced in the last three weeks. With Willis McGahee somewhat limited due to injury, it’s an opportunity for the Broncos to see what Ronnie Hillman has to offer.

One point of note - defensive end Andre Carter may be taking some snaps for OAK. He’s not the player he once was, but he still notched ten sacks for the Patriots last year and could be dangerous on any given snap. The Broncos don’t know yet how he’ll be used, so Mike McCoy may have to make adjustments as they find out.

Linebacking

Denver's linebacking corps has been hampered by injuries and reduced by a somewhat controversial suspension of middle linebacker Joe Mays. It looks like Keith Brooking will be the starting middle linebacker this week; Wesley Woodyard will also be seeing additional snaps. Rookie sixth-rounder Danny Trevathan may see time on the field, as might undrafted rookie Stephen Johnson. Like many others, I am looking forward to seeing how Trevathan plays in a regular-season game. His work in the preseason was excellent.

Denver also brought back 2011 sixth-rounder Mike Mohamed and placed him on the practice squad; they can bring him up if a disaster ensues.

It is also worth noting that Woodyard was extremely effective in run defense against a very strong Houston rushing attack: WW has been all year. With D.J. Williams looking at additional weeks of suspension for his DUI, it is good to see Woodyard picking up his pace and showing that he can take over. That may continue after Williams's suspension ends - If D.J. does return, it will probably be because the linebacking roster is very thin. If players like Woodyard, Brooking, and Trevathan all step up, D.J. Williams is probably gone.

Oakland linebacker Philip Wheeler has played extremely well in pass coverage this year, a fact that saved the Raiders last week. His game against the Steelers was one of the reasons that the Raiders were able to overcome Pittsburgh at the end of the game. Rolando McClain also has an improved game. The Raiders linebacking corps is as good as I have seen it in quite a while. That’s going to put more pressure on Denver’s tight ends to perform.

Defensive Secondary

With Tracy Porter returning from his knee injury, Champ Bailey healthy, and Chris Harris ready to go again, the Broncos should be good in the secondary. They had some cornerback and safety miscommunication problems against Houston, and that cannot be permitted to happen again. Veteran safety Mike Adams has shown his value in both the run and the pass game, while Rahim Moore is proving that his improvement in the offseason was substantial. He is diagnosing plays more effectively, taking good angles, and when he communicates, he has been a very good player in run support as well. I wish Quinton Carter well in getting his knee back to normal - Denver could use the depth.

Denver is going up against a pretty limited bunch of receivers. Denarius Moore is a definite, but on the other side, it’s likely that rookie Juron Criner will see additional reps. Derek Hagan is another possibility, but in any case, this isn’t Oakland’s strong suit. Advantage Denver.

The Raiders are going with the defensive backfield group of Patrick Lee, Joselio Hanson, and safety Michael Huff; Shawntae Spencer is out due to a foot injury. Their best backfield option has been strong safety Tyvon Branch: he is able to move all over the field and bring some power in run support as well as effectiveness in coverage. Both Huff and Hanson are open invitations to completing the pass. This is an area where the Raiders are struggling mightily, and it could be a great day for Denver if Peyton Manning and his receivers can get back on track.

Denver has a big opportunity here. Obviously, their six dropped passes so far cannot be allowed to continue. Starters Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas have an opportunity to step up, show that they can achieve separation, and take this game for the Broncos. Andre Caldwell should also be joining the group, with Matthew Willis listed as questionable (hamstring).

Brandon Stokley has been playing extremely well. With McGahee injured, I expect to see more out of the rookie Hillman. Although it was not much of his role when he was in college, Hillman is reputed to have good hands and if so, it would be a good opportunity for him to show those wares on Sunday.

Manning versus Palmer

I know, it’s not that these players actually play against each other. Even so, the quality of play from the quarterbacks must always be accounted for; both of them are extremely talented. Manning’s skill and cerebral mastery are superior to Palmer's, however. Given that the Broncos have a stronger secondary and the Raiders have a weaker one, I have to give this battle to the Broncos.

What isn’t comfortable for Denver is that Palmer has been effective throwing underneath, particularly to TE Brandon Myers, who has 15 receptions for 206 yards despite currently fighting a concussion. Denver hasn’t been effective enough in covering there, especially on longer third downs. Stopping the pass and getting off the field will be another key to stopping Oakland. With the Raiders bringing an excellent run game to the table, Denver will have to be sharp in reading their keys and diagnosing pass vs. run. Palmer is able to take advantage is they don’t; he’s very effective in play action.

Conclusion

Given that Denver is thin on linebackers and that Von Miller has been taking a more traditional Sam linebacking role in base, spending more time in coverage, the Raiders can show pass and run the ball, making it difficult for the Broncos to employ Miller in the pass rush. Elvis Dumervil will be going up against the Raiders' best offensive lineman, Jared Veldheer, when he’s on the defensive right. While Denver has flipped their DEs, that would put Derek Wolfe up against Veldheer when Denver is in their base offense. That might end up being Denver’s best option - Wolfe’s extra size could be helpful in setting the edge, although Doom has made visible strides in his run defense this year and Wolfe is, big as he is, still a rookie, learning the NFL game.

Since this is the first division game for the Broncos, it is essential that they get off to a good start. Denver has been up against three of the best teams in the league so far. Falling to 1-3 would be a serious problem for them at this point in the year.

I do not have any doubt that Denver is the stronger team of the two. Although the Raiders have won every matchup in Denver since 2008, that does not have a bearing on this game. The Raiders are in rebuilding mode, it is true, and so were the Broncos. However, Dennis Allen just inherited the mess that is the Raiders. John Fox has had a full year to begin fixing the problems the Broncos had created.

I expect it to be a tough battle. The Raiders know the importance of this game, and so does Denver. The teams dislike each other on a deep visceral level. It should be a knockdown, drag out battle between the two.

Hey, it is the Raiders against the Broncos. You know it is going to be fun.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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