Opposition Research: Oakland Raiders - Week 1

Happy Friday, friends.  Can I talk frankly?  Yes, I think I can.  Since I started my football writing “career” back in 2008, I’ve always been kind of a loose cannon.  I’ve mostly avoided agreeing to put myself in any boxes, rather than to generally say that I’ll have something written on this day or that day.  A lot of times, if I have something due on Friday at noon, I’ll have no idea what I want to write about when I’m driving home after work on Thursday afternoon.  I just like to let stuff go from my mind to my fingers to the screen.  It’s kind of like being a 30-something dude who lives with his parents and won't date a chick for longer than three months because he doesn’t want to grow up.

Well, I went and agreed to produce a recurring feature on Fridays as part of our game lead-up package, which is going to be just outstanding, even if it isn't scantastic.  I don’t have a fitting gluttony reference for it yet, so I’m just going to call it Opposition Research, because that's what it is.  Basically, I plan to watch some recent video of the upcoming opponent, take some notes, and then talk about some non-obvious things that I saw, particularly stuff that you can't get just by looking over a couple box scores.  Then, I’ll talk about what the Broncos can do to be successful in light of those observations.  Pretty straightforward, right?  Here goes, as we break down Tranny Nation after the jump.

Observations on the Oakland Raiders

Games watched:  Preseason Week 2 at San Francisco (1st Half), Preseason Week 3 vs. New Orleans (1st Half)

Raiders Defense

a.  My biggest observation of the defense is that I think OLBs Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves looked really bad in both games.  The Raiders’ gap control scheme is asking the OLBs to often play the edges, and both guys were consistently either taking bad angles or getting blocked way too easily.  Both San Francisco and New Orleans had a lot of success running to the outside.

Both Wimbley and Groves also struggled in the coverage area, too.  Neither is good moving backwards or laterally, and really, both come from pass-rushing backgrounds.  I think Groves is probably the worst starting 4-3 Will in the NFL.

b.  The Raiders have a really good group of players on their defensive line; it’s the strength of their team.  LE Lamarr Houston, DT Richard Seymour, and RE (and YGS Favorite) Matt Shaughnessy all have excellent two-way ability, and DT Tommy Kelly is solid too.  None of them is a quick-twitch pass rusher, though, so the Raiders end up blitzing a good bit to try to get pressure.

c.  MLB Rolando McClain, who I didn’t love coming out of Alabama, has really improved a lot in coverage, especially man-to-man.  I don’t see him as a guy who’s going to make a lot of interceptions, but I do think he’s a guy who’s going to stay with most RBs and tackle them right after they make a catch.  In the running game, I don’t see anything special from McClain, though.

d.  The Safeties are the same guys who’ve been there for a few years, and they’re pretty underwhelming.  Tyvon Branch has a CB’s coverage skill set, because he was a CB at UConn, and of all the guys who the Raiders can ask to cover a TE, he’s definitely the best bet.  FS Michael Huff is a below-average player, to me, and I don’t know why the Raiders overpaid him.  He’s supposed to be a matchup safety that you can play man-to-man against a slot guy, but he never prevents the catches.  I’d go right after him with a guy like Eric Decker.  It’d be a total mismatch.

e.  Outside, Stanford Routt has grown up to be a pretty solid player, even if he isn't quite worth $10 million per year.  He plays LCB and doesn’t follow the best WR, which is typical of the Al Davis defensive philosophy.  (Yes, he tells the Defensive Coordinator specifically how to run his defense, and always has.)  The RCB was rookie DeMarcus Van Dyke in the two games that I saw, and while he can definitely run with anybody, he lacks ball awareness pretty significantly.  The nickel guy was another rookie, Chimdi Chekwa, and he’s not very good.  Chris Johnson is the normal starter at RCB, but he was hurt, and he’s been pretty underwhelming in his career too.  Routt/Johnson/Van Dyke is better than Routt/Van Dyke/Chekwa though.

f.  In a general way, I saw the Raiders play more zone than usual, and I wasn’t surprised to see them suck at playing it.  In each game, Alex Smith and Drew Brees had no trouble at all completing passes to all depths and areas of the field, regardless of the coverage scheme.

Raiders Offense

a.  The offensive line is horrible, especially in pass protection.  There’s some future hope for LT Jared Veldheer because you can see that he’s a good athlete, but for now he’s below average as a player at that position.  That’s better than the other starters, though, a motley bunch that included LG Daniel Loper (vs. SF), LG Stefen Wisniewski (vs. NO), C Samson Satele, RG Cooper Carlisle, and RT Khalif Barnes.  I’d put each of those players near the bottom of the NFL at their positions.  (Loper ultimately got cut, but I wanted to make clear that I only saw Wisniewski with the starters for the one game.)

Operationally they’re hit or miss in the running game, but they’re consistently lousy with pass protection.  They were really susceptible to the blitz in both games, and I honestly don’t think the Broncos will need to even blitz much to hit Jason Campbell.

b.  The Raiders do continue to like to use a sixth offensive lineman at times.  As with last year, you can just about bank on a running play when they bring one in.  In both games, it was backup RT Joseph Barksdale who came in, and he’s a big, strong dude.  The role really suits him.

c.  Jason Campbell looked good in both games when he wasn’t getting sacked.  I called it when he was still in Washington, but he’s a really good fit for the screen and vertical stuff that the Raiders like to do.  Schematically, they really do well at messing with the depth of defensive players, especially if you can’t hit Campbell on his seven-step drops.

d.  At the WR position, it’s a mixed bag.  The big money guy Darrius Heyward-Bey looks improved on one play, and then like he’s still terrible on the next.  He can obviously run, and he did make an impressive catch in double coverage against San Francisco, but then he’d run a bad route on a deep ball and not separate from a slower CB, simply because he was too lazy or mentally unaware to take a jab step or two inside on his way downfield. 

The guy who looks like a player is rookie Denarius Moore.  I saw a lot of him at Tennesee and never was too impressed, but his athleticism really jumped out at me in both games.  Veteran Derek Hagan looks like he’s found a good home too.  He’s a big, physical slot guy in the mold of Jason Avant.  New Orleans had nothing for him.  I didn’t see Louis Murphy or Jacoby Ford do much in either game, but Murphy’s historically a deep threat that you have to respect, and we know that Ford is dangerous from last year's games.  (Murphy is listed as Doubtful for Sunday’s game.)

e.  Darren McFadden didn’t play in either game, so I saw a lot of Michael Bush and Taiwan Jones.  Bush looked like what we’ve seen from him, which is a pretty ordinary big back.  Jones is fast and dangerous, though.  He’s especially a guy to watch in the screen game and to understand as a guy who is usually going to be on the field specifically when the coaching staff wants to give him the ball.

f.  Kevin Boss is a decent TE, but he’s been hurt and missed both games that I watched.  He’s listed as Questionable for Monday’s game, and if he can’t go, the other guys are dreck.  I was chatting with TJ about this this morning, and he pointed out that last year's Raiders used Zach Miller really prominently, particularly with putting him in motion to get man/zone reads, and to give him favorable matchups.  Neither of us think that this year's edition of the team has anybody who can do that stuff, and we think that Miller was an enormous loss.

g.  The Raiders were shifting a lot pre-snap.  I didn’t see it affect much in either game, but it’s the kind of thing where you could get McFadden or Jones shifted outside against somebody who isn’t fast enough to cover them downfield.

h.  Oakland did about as much 21 and 22 personnel as any team you’ll ever see in the modern era.  FB Marcel Reece is a physical player, and he usually comes on the field to hit a LB.  (He had 25 catches in 2010, so he’s a minor receiving threat.)  There’s little pretense to how the Raiders run the ball or when they want to do it.  You can mostly tell from the presence of Barksdale and Reece.

i.  In both games, the Raiders were penalty-prone.  Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.

Beating the Raiders Defense

a.  I really think that the only way the Raiders can stop the Broncos' offense is to hit Kyle Orton a lot.  They don’t have the players to play coverage the way the Chiefs did last December, so it’s going to have to come from the pass rush/blitz, most likely a lot of blitzing.  I think Denver is sufficiently improved up front to protect Orton better than they did last season, but I think it’s prudent to plan on playing a lot of six-man protection, with either a RB or TE staying in to help.

b.  The old-school way in which the Raiders play their CBs as Left and Right offers significant matchup opportunities.  (That’s why most teams don’t do it anymore, incidentally.)  I really like Brandon Lloyd against Chris Johnson, and the Broncos tend to play Lloyd as the X guy (meaning on the offense’s left side) a lot anyway, so I’d expect to see that throughout the game.  I also think that Eddie Royal is the type of player that Stanford Routt will tend to struggle with, and that the Raiders have nobody inside who can handle Eric Decker.  There are a lot of matchups to be exploited in the passing game.

c.  In that vein, I think that the Raiders are really susceptible to being attacked by the TE in the middle of the field.  I wouldn’t go after Branch too much, but if you can get Huff or Groves or Wimbley covering Julius Thomas or Daniel Fells, I’d be looking to take advantage of that matchup a lot.

d.  The place to try to run the ball is to the outside against Oakland.  They’re pretty stout inside, and while you never want to concede anything before the game starts, you should at the very least be aware of it.  The side to run to is the offense’s right, because Shaughnessy and Seymour are the two best players up front, and they generally play to the other side, though Seymour moves around.  Kelly and Houston are also good, but it’s an easier road to hoe to that side.

e.  When the Raiders get blitz-happy, it’s a good idea to hit them with screens.  Of course, I don’t have much confidence in Orton’s ability to execute them well, but it’s worth trying anyway.  If Orton can manage to make a good, on-time throw without tipping the play early (which is consistently his issue), Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee can do some damage.  Even if you don’t get much yardage on screens, doing it will cause defenders to be less aggressive, and that’s a good thing in and of itself.

Stopping the Raiders Offense

a.  This is all about gap control and personnel matching.  While a lot of teams will sub package you to death with extra receivers, Oakland likes to bring in the sixth O-lineman and play a FB with him.  I have a strategy for dealing with this.  Let’s say that in addition to Jason Campbell and the five starting OL, this is the Raiders’ grouping:

WR         Jacoby Ford

RB          Darren McFadden

FB           Marcel Reece

TE           Kevin Boss

TE*         Joseph Barksdale

I'd have a coach specifically watching for this substitution, which I’d call a Big 22 grouping, and I’m subbing in a third DT (let’s say it’s Ryan McBean, if we’re being pessimistic about Marcus Thomas' health) for Andre’ Goodman.  Then, I’m going to simply play what amounts to a 5-3, with Brian Dawkins as a ninth man in the box, Champ Bailey locked up on Ford, and Rahim Moore as the single deep safety, slightly shading the side away from Ford and Bailey.  I’m not assigning Von Miller a specific gap, and his job is simply to follow McFadden and go hit him, while the other eight guys take specific gaps, to this effect.

(From defense’s perspective)

Left Edge             Wesley Woodyard

Left C gap            Robert Ayers

Left B gap            Ryan McBean

Left A gap            Brodrick Bunkley

Right A gap         Kevin Vickerson               

Right B gap         Joe Mays

Right C gap        Brian Dawkins

Right Edge Elvis Dumervil

Remember, that Big 22 package strongly indicates Run, and even if it’s a pass, you’re not that threatened with Bailey, Moore and Dawkins on the field.  Most teams don’t have the personnel flexibility on defense to do that, but the Broncos do.  Remember, this is a team that when they go Nickel, they take out a DT like Brodrick Bunkley and bring in an extra CB.  They can go from fast to big just as easily, and Miller’s ability is going to be the primary reason why.  Dawkins’ ability to be strong in the box also certainly helps.

b.  In regular 21 or 12 personnel, the Broncos need to also be consistent and disciplined in their gap scheme.  This is the single part of the game that worries me the most, because it’s all new this season, and the Broncos have some guys who historically freelance too much.  Even a passable performance in this area leads to a likely Broncos win.

c.  The Broncos will need excellent coverage, because the Raiders can really stretch you out with their speed.  I like a lot of Cover-3 concepts in base personnel for this game, because it allows Dawkins to play in the box, and it specifically accounts for the deep ball and the screen game - and those are the two things the Raiders do the best.

d.  I believe that the Broncos don’t need to blitz much, and can sack Campbell with four men from the Rush 40 front that sees Miller as a DE, and Ayers inside as a DT.  By being a little more judicious with the blitz, you can maximize its effectiveness when you do dial it up.  The offense gets less used to it, and as an added bonus next week’s opponent sees less of it for their preparation.

e.  This is the most obvious thing I can say, but above all, the Broncos have to tackle well.  They haven’t lately against Oakland, and that’s been a major problem.  This game will come down to whether the Broncos can finally match the power and physicality of the Raiders on both sides of the ball, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the answer is that they can.

What say you, rational Broncos fans?

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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