First Impressions – Raiders @ 49ers

| August 21, 2011

The ability to finish is a trait shared by teams capable of challenging for a title. It’s a few checkmarks away for both of these squads as both Oakland and San Francisco have more basic issues to resolve, but watching steady drives fizzle throughout the first half of this game brought that thought to the forefront.
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San Francisco’s offense chewed-up nearly the entire first quarter last night, executing for the most part with a calm that Coach Harbaugh had to be pleased with. The second quarter belonged more to the Raider offense, but, as the teams headed to the locker room at the half, there were just three points on the board to show for all of the marching back and forth.
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Oakland – Three Things of Note
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●  With Jacoby Ford still out, Chaz Schilens nursing his annual camp injury, and Louis Murphy shelved until after the opener, Oakland turned to rookie Denarius Moore for the starting call opposite Darrius Heyward-Bey. Moore has been this season’s hot training camp topic; “Wow” as his teammates have taken to calling him, has been flashing style in practice and transitioning smoothly to game day. With a pair of catches in the opener and regular looks in this contest, he’s becoming a target Raider QB’s are comfortable looking to.

While Moore has seemed at home from the outset, Heyward-Bey is entering his third season and is just now offering glimpses of the same. Against the 49ers, he did what he’s been unable to do to this point in his career – adjust to and bring down a ball with coverage in tow. A 22-yard catch early in the second quarter got Oakland inside the 5 and, though they were unable to solve the final 2 yards of the field, they had to take notice of what may have been an actual turning-the-corner moment for a player rumored to have turned the corner so many times before.
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●    Oakland’s offensive line was a wreck last season and lost its central figure when Robert Gallery fled to Seattle. To their credit, the Raiders appear committed to bringing it back to form by grooming young talent as opposed to duct-taping over holes with stop-gap veteran options. Still very much in flux outside of Jared Veldheer on the left, there could be movement at each of the other four spots before Week 1. After drafting Stefan Wisniewski, Samson Satele was brought back in a move that initially suggested security but now looks more like a versatility tack.

With Satele starting again at center and Wisniewski working in at left guard, the possibility exists that a fight is on the way for the right guard job. Daniel Loper could be forced into that scrum with incumbent Cooper Carlisle and slow-developing Bruce Campbell. In the final spot, third-round pick Joseph Barksdale is in play at right tackle with Khalif Barnes tenuously holding the job. Well worth watching Wisniewski, Campbell, and Barksdale in the remaining preseason games as the tipping point could be near for a full-fledged shift toward youth..
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●   In the wake of Nnamdi Asomugha’s departure, questions remain about what shape the cornerback stable will take. Stanford Routt is locked in as the No. 1 and Chris Johnson is presumed to be stepping back in as the other starter, but four players drafted in the past two seasons are in the mix to fill out the group. Last night, with Johnson sitting out, rookie Demarcus Van Dyke started across from Routt and had a relatively uneventful evening, surrendering just a 10-yard completion to Braylon Edwards.

Van Dyke’s competition, Walter McFadden and Jeremy Ware, got peeks last season and failed to impress, while first-year player Chimdi Chekwa has missed a large chunk of camp with an injury. All three saw action later in this game, but in nickel opportunities for the starting D, Oakland opted to add a safety and bring Michael Huff to the slot. I’d suggest they stay with this method, putting Huff in position to use his blitzing ability and limiting exposure of the questionable young CBs.
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San Francisco – Three Things of Note
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●   Seeing Alex Smith appear settled-in makes me uneasy – purely because it’s not what I’ve come to know of him. In this game, the offensive calm that I mentioned at the top began with a forceful run game, but Smith handled his role without major error … scratch that, with just one major error. Driving into Oakland territory, Smith and Co. arrived at a 3rd-and-8 situation. With safeties Huff and Stevie Brown blitzing from his right, Smith blindly fired to Vernon Davis on an out route to the left without noticing Matt Shaughnessy’s unexpected drop directly into the ball’s path. The Raider defensive end hauled in the pass and Colin Kaepernick’s name leapt back to the minds of 49er fans.

The rest of Smith’s night, though, wouldn’t be summed by negatives on his part; he suffered from three drops on his first two drives and did pull off a well-placed throw with Tommy Kelly barreling down on him. The team’s inability to score will surely be attributed to him, but he attempted just one pass in six redzone plays and a botched field goal took away three likely points. The interception may cost him more with Smith-fatigued fans than with Harbaugh who seems plenty patient with and optimistic about the idea of him leading the team’s version of the West Coast Offense.
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●   In keeping with the notes above, San Francisco’s plan was not rushed or haphazard when looking at their skill player usage in the first half. Not only did they work in all three running backs with the first unit (Frank Gore, Anthony Dixon, and Kendall Hunter), but Delanie Walker’s interesting mixed-use role continued as he was shifted from fullback to tight end to split out wide in various sets. His list of duties has been tinkered with before, but the new staff was making a clear effort to find spots for him on the field and must believe in his ability to elicit favorable match-ups.

Also involved in some three-receiver formations was Braylon Edwards who, notably, given his history and the common perception of him, couldn’t hold on to the first pass sent his way — though he did come back with an outstanding grab to balance the record. Making good use of a preseason game in a very scripted manner, San Francisco surely got the film they wanted to see.
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●   The void in the middle of San Francisco’s defensive front that resulted from Aubrayo Franklin’s departure didn’t appear to be as much of an issue as may be expected. Ricky Jean-Francois, in limited chances with the first team, did a remarkable job when tasked with gumming up the inside and made a pair of plays that stood out. Showing ability in two departments, he first dug under a block to submarine a Marcel Reece run at the goal line and later sniffed-out a screen, evaded blocks, and pursued to make the tackle outside the numbers.

Franklin’s former role of handling the dirty work in front of Patrick Willis needs to be adopted by the next ‘Niner nose man and if Isaac Sopoaga doesn’t turn out to be that guy (he hasn’t shown us in the past that he’s a stout run stopper), it would be interesting to see Jean-Francois get a shot. His PFF run D grade last season was  a +3.8 compared to Sopoaga’s cumulative -4.3.
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The teams have a couple more weeks to settle on their choices for the best mix of starters for key spots, but have shown signs of improved — or at least altered — plans from their new staffs. A more disciplined and varied offensive look for San Francisco and perhaps a more aggressive Raider defense ought to be welcomed ideas by players and fans alike and could be the changes needed for these two to take the next step toward challenging in their respective divisions.
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Follow Rick on Twitter: @PFF_Rick … and the main feed: @ProFootbalFocus
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