PFF Preview 2011 – Oakland Raiders

| August 30, 2011

The 2010 season for the Oakland Raiders was just a bit out of balance. A strong showing in the run game wasn’t enough to offset their questionable passing offense. Highlight defensive moments couldn’t hide the porous run D. Their record took a leap upward to an even 8-8 and promising young players emerged, but nonetheless, changes were in store.

Taking the team into the 2011 season, promoted Head Coach Hue Jackson and his new coordinators, Al Saunders and Chuck Bresnahan, will attempt to build on the upswing with a team that has finally started to believe.
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This past offseason, with a long list of players set to become free agents, the team elected to bring back as many of their own as they could before the lockout rather than chase down new blood in the whirlwind that followed it. Not able to recoup them all, gone now are Pro-Bowlers Nnamdi Asomugha and Zach Miller and left guard Robert Gallery.
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The offensive line remains as much of a weakness as the defensive line is a strength and though there are spots of talent that lend hope to a continued resurgence, several units have significant question marks. As the Raiders move into 2011, we look at a few reasons they should be smiling, and a handful that should have them worried.
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Five Reasons to be Confident
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1.) Dangerous D-line

A mix of youthful energy and veteran guile with high performance marks and varied skill sets across the board, this group could prove to be one of the NFL’s best in 2011. Defensive leader Richard Seymour is not only the face of the unit, but also took it upon himself to organize the team’s offseason camp during the lockout — using coin from his newly-signed megadeal to fly teammates to Atlanta.

Seymour’s influence was a boon to a line whose other three starters are all busy carving out niche’s for themselves as key parts to a destructive whole. Our Sam Monson recently included Tommy Kelly among the league’s D-line technique prototypes, Lamarr Houston received some PFF love from the get-go in last season’s Rookie of the Year Race, and I named Matt Shaughnessy the Raiders’ Secret Superstar back in April. It remains to be seen whether or not Bresnahan will allow the interior to work upfield as aggressively as they did last year. While it paid dividends in the pass rush, Oakland was gashed in the run game and sorely needs to find a fix. Could tinkering with the assignments for Seymour and Kelly factor in?
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2.) Versatile Backfield

Darren McFadden showed last season what he is capable of: finishing fourth in PFF’s Elusive Rating and among the Top 10 in forcing missed tackles, he also proved to be a valuable outlet for a passing game so often in need of an escape. Mixing in the defense-be-damned, I’m-gettin’-upfield style of Michael Bush and the un-fullback-like fullback play of former college receiver Marcel Reece, Oakland has a number of ways to attack out of the backfield. With another interesting addition on the way in rookie Taiwan Jones, there’ll surely be no shortage of intriguing looks and mismatch-making combinations in 2011.
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3.) Wimbley’s Way

Playing the most snaps of any Raider defender in 2010 (tied with Tyvon Branch), it’s flatly amazing that Kamerion Wimbley contributed nothing toward their league-leading penalty total; zero penalties in 1017 defensive plays. Beyond the flag-free play, Oakland got a lot out of this reclamation (he finished as our top-rated 4-3 OLB with an overall grade of +23.7) by creating a dual role opportunity that kept him on the field as a 4-3 OLB on early downs and then as a defensive end in nickel situations. Something the new regime would be wise to continue, given his unique ability to excel in both duties.
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4.) Creative Coaching

Realizing that going with the offensive line they had in place in 2010 would bring on trouble, new offensive coordinator at the time, Jackson, made full use of extra blockers and unbalanced lines to not only add help, but also to dictate defensive alignments and generate more palatable matchups. The fact that that kind of necessary creativity is part of his thought process is encouraging — as is the willingness he’s shown to search out those small edges that can mitigate weaknesses. With Al Saunders on board, there’s one more brain in the house that will add to the tweaking and twisting to get Raider players in the best spots possible to succeed.  
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5.) Making a Long Field

The Sebastian Janikowski / Shane Lechler combo as two of the biggest legs in the league will once again be a weapon for the Raiders. Whether it’s Lechler deftly dropping in a perfectly-placed punt or Janikowski crushing a kickoff through the uprights from the new starting spot, every potential big return that gets erased and each yard gained in this phase is a plus for a defense that can use some plusses. Likewise, the threat posed by Jacoby Ford in the return game could often afford the spark-needy offense a jumpstart.
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Five Reasons to be Concerned
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1.) An Offensive Line

Indeed. Seeing Robert Gallery leave and Cooper Carlisle stay wasn’t what Raider fans had in mind when they talked of getting this group that PFF ranked as the NFL’s 27th O-line on the right track. With Jackson’s pledge to return to a power-blocking scheme, it’s also a surprise to see Samson Satele back in the fold and Langston Walker walk. They have made an effort to add through the draft — a strategy will take time to bear fruit — but the bottom line right now is: no matter the combination of available players, the talent in this group is limited, raw, and/or too young to be sure of and as this unit goes, so goes the entire offense.
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2.)  Questions at Corner

As Stanford Routt (who measured up well in Khaled’s look at CB’s) inherits the top job, a mob of hopefuls line up to make a run at the next. Aging and injured Chris Johnson is still expected to fill the No. 2 role once he returns and Oakland better hope he is up to the task. Rookie third-round pick Demarcus Van Dyke has shown little other than the ability to run, give up catches, and miss tackles this preseason and none of the other youngsters have shown themselves to be the one… outside of, possibly, Sterling Moore, an undrafted free agent fan favorite, but his first worry is making the roster.

Oakland added Lito Sheppard this week, in a move that signals their understanding that these are indeed desperate times. The 30-year-old Sheppard played well for the Jets in the second half of 2009 opposite Darrelle Revis’ insane year, but spent 2010 as a part-timer for Minnesota and, in limited snaps, his coverage grade fell off significantly. So, while Routt himself will have Nnamdi-sized shoe-filling issues to deal with, the rest of the cornerback roster is an amorphous mess and you have to wonder if Rod Woodson is missing that comfy seat in the studio yet.
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3.)  What to Make of the Receivers

The splash Jacoby Ford made in 2010 might be enough to push this topic into another category for some fans of the team, but talking big picture, the Raider receiving corps still needs help. Darrius Heyward-Bey has heard all of the criticism before, so I’ll apologize in advance for taking this bat to that dead horse. He’s a tease, plain and simple. A positive word from a coach, a momentary breakthrough, a glimpse of something actually receiver-ish is too often followed by 50 snaps of nothing. He’ll get his shot again this season, but with the group filling in around him, his free pass is about to expire.

As for the rest, Louis Murphy turns in far too many sloppy efforts to be considered a reliable option, Nick Miller has placeholder written all over him, and — news flash — Chaz Schilens is injured. With the door open for newcomers to compete, veteran Derek Hagan and rookie Denarius Moore have each taken advantage and will both have names on lockers in September.
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4.)  When McClain?

Maybe an odd one to include here, but so much is expected out of him, the potential to fall short is there. Touted as a brainy and reactive force as he entered the league, Rolando McClain spent his rookie season feeling his way through long stretches of mediocre play. Leadership isn’t an issue as he’s plenty confident, but the “cut it loose” must-make-the-play sense you see in the NFL’s best hasn’t been apparent.

He has size, he can move, he understands his job and that of the D around him, but the next step will be the difference-maker — can he become that I-cannot-be-blocked center of destruction? can he be that Raider? Because that’s where the bar is set for him and if he’s anything short of “pillaging just for fun,” he’ll ultimately count as just another that held the MLB job for a defense that couldn’t stop the run. If his play in this last preseason game is an accurate indicator, he may well be on his way.
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5.)  A Quarterback to Lead

Last season was the last chance for Jason Campbell fans to fall back on the “different system each year” reasoning for his uninspiring play. With his play-caller remaining in place, his former coach brought in, and no immediate challenge from a second passer on the roster, he’s got no excuse to not show himself at his best. Sure, I’ve just outlined a couple of pretty important pieces to the puzzle around him that need work (the O-line and the receiver group), but if he’s to be the man, he’ll lead in spite of those things and bring them up with him. Too much to ask? Maybe. But rather than approaching it as having built-in excuses to fail, this is his opportunity to overcome.

OK, end of the “he needs to lead” rant and time for one last semi-serious thought: In this offense that is likely heading back to the pound-the-run-and-strike-deep-through-the-air mentality, Campbell will need to improve on his long ball accuracy and not temp the old man to call for Terrelle Pryor in a fit of “get the athletes on the field!” rage.
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The 2010 Raiders laid the groundwork for a return to respectability but there is plenty of work left to do. There is talent here and the environment is changing, but success in 2011 will come down to the effectiveness of a few select groups and Hue Jackson’s ability to draw out of them what’s needed.
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Follow Rick on Twitter: @PFF_Rick … and the main feed: @ProFootbalFocus
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