It seemed like only yesterday that the Oakland Raiders were the joke of the AFC West. That is no longer the case, but it doesn’t mean they are evenly matched with the Broncos. Let’s examine this year’s Raiders squad.
First, we must remember that when general manager Reggie McKenzie took over, the Raiders were a mess from both the roster and salary cap standpoint. He inherited a team that wasn’t going to be transformed overnight, even if the Raiders managed to get Andrew Luck, because the late Al Davis was still using outdated strategies to build the roster. And while Al’s son Mark Davis may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, he deserves credit for showing patience with McKenzie.
Now Raiders fans see their team on the rise again and that McKenzie’s moves are starting to show dividends. It starts with quarterback Derek Carr, who has improved from his second season. Pro Football Focus compares him to Teddy Bridgewater, in that Carr plays well under pressure and shows good poise in the pocket. I do think Carr will have his hands full with Denver’s pass rush, but he will make his share of throws and escape defenders on occasion.
I like running back Latavius Murray, but he’s not the game changer that Adrian Peterson is. Aside from that long touchdown run, the Broncos made Adrian Peterson a non-factor. The flipside, though, is that the Raiders have a better offensive line than the Vikings. Second-year guard Gabe Jackson was one of PFF’s selections for its All-Pro team after four weeks and he’s a very good run blocker. I think the Raiders overpaid for center Rodney Hudson, but he’s been effective. The Broncos will need to disciplined on run D because they might not penetrate into the backfield as much as they did against Minnesota.
Wide receiver Amari Cooper is a big-play threat but his biggest issue is dropped passes. Some of his drops have cost the Raiders chances to score. Honestly, it’s Michael Crabtree who is their best overall receiver, and that’s not a knock on Cooper, but a credit to Crabtree’s steady performances. Hopefully the Denver cornerbacks can put their subpar outing against Minnesota behind them, because Cooper and Crabtree have the makings of a quality WR pairing.
On defense, Khalil Mack is the biggest threat. He may not be tallying sacks, and no, he’s not as good as Miller, but then again, Miller is in a class by himself with a +19.8 grade from PFF. Mack is no slouch, though. He’s graded at +8.1 and ranked in the top five edge rushers by PFF. The Broncos cannot take him lightly and nor should any of you.
Aldon Smith is also a threat, but he’s not as good as Mack. I think time has shown that Smith, while a good pass rusher, is really the No. 2 guy in any pass rush, even if he’s had seasons that suggests he’s No. 1. He benefited from playing among some very good defensive players in San Francisco, but now there’s not quite the same level of talent. Again, Smith can’t be taken lightly, but he’s not going to dominate like Mack can.
The weak links in the Oakland defense are the guys in coverage. The weakest link is linebacker Curtis Lofton, who ranks as one of PFF’s worst-graded players. He’s exactly the player Peyton Manning needs to pick on. Lofton is the polar opposite of Anthony Barr; the latter is one of the better young linebackers in the NFL, while Lofton’s best days are behind him and he really wasn’t as good in his prime as some made him out to be.
If Peyton can pick on Lofton enough, it might open things up downfield for him to test D.J. Hayden, who has given up a couple of big plays this season and, more importantly, has missed too many tackles. The latter is important, because you need to tackle Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders well or they’ll break away in the open field. And while Charles Woodson has had a few big plays to help the Raiders, his best days are behind him. I’d take Darian Stewart over Woodson if I had to make that choice.
I think the key for the Broncos offense is to start with Peyton taking shorter routes underneath whenever possible and give Lofton a workout he can’t handle. We’ve seen how Jack Del Rio operated in Denver, when he would drop guys like Miller into coverage when somebody struggled with the underneath throws. Mack is fine in coverage, but that’s not where you want him to be. If Peyton can pick on Lofton enough, that should open things up for the running game and for Peyton to take a shot downfield.
I would personally stick with the offensive line as it was against Minnesota. This article our good friend Doc Bear shared on Twitter explains why. First of all, there’s no way you can take Michael Schofield out of the lineup after his showing against Minnesota. Second, it allows the unit that played against Minnesota to build on what it did. If Harris struggles, you can simply re-insert Ty Sambrailo into the lineup once he’s healthy. Keeping Sambrailo on the bench doesn’t mean you’ve given up on him. He’s still likely to be the starting left tackle next season. The main issue is ensuring Schofield can stay on the field while keeping some continuity after a solid performance.
Remember that the Broncos O-line gave up just two sacks against Minnesota, who has a good pass rush, and one of the Vikings’ top rushers, Everson Griffen, never touched Peyton Manning. If the Broncos repeat that against the Raiders, in which either Mack or Smith never touches Peyton, you’ve got something good emerging.
One other point about the offensive line: What really helped last week was Matt Paradis’ best performance of the season and Evan Mathis getting into game form. That’s crucial to getting the running game going. If Paradis keeps the arrow pointing upward (I have no reason to doubt Mathis), I have no reason to think the Broncos can’t improve offensively.
On defense, I look forward to the return of Derek Wolfe, but he’s going to have to earn his snaps because Vance Walker has definitely earned his. The good news is the Broncos have somebody else they can rotate into the game to keep other guys fresh. But I would expect Wolfe to be worked in slowly so he can get up to speed.
Also, I think this is a good game in which the Broncos can slip Brandon Marshall or Danny Trevathan in on a pass rush. The Raiders don’t really have a tight end who begs to be covered underneath on every play, and after T.J. Ward’s game last week, I think he’s more than up to that task.
I’m betting on this game being similar to the Minnesota game, a close one that the Broncos will pull out. The main issue is avoiding mistakes — let’s be honest, if Peyton Manning doesn’t make those two ill-advised throws, it’s likely a 10-point win. That’s still a small gap, though — one in which you know the other team challenged you.