3TFO: Raiders @ Colts, Week 1
Fresh off an impressive turnaround season, the Colts offer hope for a team like the Raiders that a wild swing from bottom-feeders to playoff contenders can happen in a short span. Oakland is a bit further out from that kind of upward bounce, but the hope is there, nonetheless.
The key piece the Colts secured was a young franchise quarterback to lead them into the team’s next iteration. Oakland, of course, is still searching for that block to build around, but could be answering this week – perhaps for lack of another option — with an exciting young signal-caller of their own.
There will plenty to look for in this 2013 opener. Here are three things of particular interest.
Colts Receivers vs. Raiders Corners
For the second straight season, the Raiders have scrapped plans at cornerback and started over, and this year’s hunt for veteran help yielded Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter. That duo will line up as the Week 1 starters with Porter bumping down into the slot in nickel situations, making room for first-round rookie D.J. Hayden to come in and cover on the right edge. Hayden should see plenty of action as the Colts used 11-personnel on 50% of their offensive plays in 2012 and continued at near the same clip this preseason.
Waiting for Porter in the slot will be old-era Colt holdover, Reggie Wayne. Outdone by only Wes Welker in the number of routes run from the slot last season, Wayne saw 90 targets (caught 48) and gained 679 of his receiving yards from the slot. As heavily as he was used there, he and then-rookie quarterback Andrew Luck left room for improvement as the 53.3% catch rate the combo produced was among the league’s lowest in slot play.
While Porter and Wayne square off inside, the matchups outside should flip back and forth. As they did this preseason, Jenkins will stay on the left and Hayden on the right, but Indy’s T.Y. Hilton and ex-Raider Darrius Heyward-Bey will give equal time to each flank. Hilton proved a good match with Luck in 2012 — Luck posted by far his best QB rating when throwing his way (102.5) — but the best storyline matchup will show when we see former Raider first-rounder Heyward-Bey against the most recent Raider first-rounder, Hayden. In limited action this preseason, Hayden allowed catches on three of the six targets he saw and defensed one pass. Heyward-Bey caught seven of the nine balls that came his way.
Oakland’s O-line Edges
Oakland could be on to their fourth starting left tackle since Jared Veldheer went down to injury just three weeks ago. With Veldheer gone, Alex Barron proved himself incapable of stepping in, and rookie Menelik Watson followed his surprisingly strong effort in the final preseason game by not being able to answer the bell at practice this week. That leaves right tackle Khalif Barnes as the possible starter on the left in this particularly brutal ‘next man up’ scenario. If Barnes does indeed slide over for the season opener, recently signed Tony Pashos is expected to replace him on the right. As SF Chronicle beat writer Vic Tafur tweeted Thursday, the last time Barnes was a starter at left tackle was in Jacksonville in 2008 and Pashos was his right tackle counterpart then as well. Their PFF grades in that last game? -1.8 and -1.3, respectively.
Lining up across from the Barnes-Pashos tackle set will be a left-right combo of 3-4 outside linebackers: tenured Colt Robert Mathis and offseason free agent addition Erik Walden, with a dose of rookie Bjoern Werner mixed in. Mathis spent 75% of his snaps on the left last season and generated 26 of his 29 total QB pressures from that side. Walden, as a Packer in 2012, also lined up primarily on the left, spending 90% of his time there (and 21 of his 24 pressures came from the left). This preseason both have seen roughly 55%-45% snaps splits favoring the right, so it would be fair to expect some moving around for the two.
Whatever the matchups end up being – too many moving parts at the moment to tell for sure — the edges of the Oakland O-line are sure to be worth a watch.
Indy Interior vs. Raiders Run Game
Indianapolis is hoping for some impact from free agent signings on the defensive interior, Aubrayo Franklin and Ricky Jean-Francois. Long an issue for the Colts, the porous middle could finally have a plug in the form of Franklin. Jean-Francois and Cory Redding on the other side are not quite of the same level — and inside linebacker Pat Angerer behind them has had his troubles against the run (-8.7 in 2012) — so they’ve still got work to do, but this week’s task could give them something to build on. Facing a bit of an unknown in the Raiders’ run game, the Indy interior could feed off the instability across from them and be disruptive almost by chance.
This season’s twist to the perpetual preseason question of “what will the Raiders get from Darren McFadden?” is the potential influence of a Terrelle Pryor-led offense. Oakland’s disastrous zone blocking plans from 2012 have been burned and, though the power scheme of Greg Olsen and Tony Sparano was penciled in, the state of the O-line and a growing package of plays for Pryor could have McFadden’s carries looking different still. With just eight carries and 22 yards for McFadden this preseason, there hasn’t been much to go on. It’s all in its infancy and heading into Week 1 with not much more than fingers crossed could open the door for Franklin, RJF, and Redding to make a mess between the tackles and accelerate the confusion.
Follow Rick on Twitter: @PFF_Rick