Thursday, August 13, 2009

Analyze the Enemy: Oakland Raiders

raidersDuring the regular season, here at Inside Corner, we are planning quite a few weekly features to help you through a Dallas Cowboys season with more information than you could ever possibly need to get you ready for the following Cowboys opponent.

Obviously, there isn't too much you likely are worried about regarding tonight's opponent in the preseason opener, but I thought I would have a few pre-season run throughs to refine the idea in my head for this feature known as "Analyzing the Enemy". I do plenty of out-of-town research every week for my own personal use, but since we are all now fast friends at IC, let's share notes with the class and see if that helps prepare for Sundays.

This feature will run on each Thursday during the season, I do believe.

Gametime: 9:00 Central, Channel 11 in Dallas. Pregame show: 8:00 pm

The Raiders are the Raiders. The level of ineptitude the last several years has been quite shocking, really. At some point, they will return to their spot as a power in the National Football League, but since representing the AFC in Super Bowl 37, the team has had some incredibly tough times:


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Of course, out there, they may have the only team that has a louder discussion about whether the team can ever flourish with its owner being as "hands on" than the one we have here in North Texas constantly. Al Davis is a lightning rod of the highest order, and he lived up to his reputation of odd decisions with both of their top 2 picks in the draft last April. Darrius Heyward-Bey was taken #7 overall by the Raiders while OL was still an option (and a tremendous need) and while Michael Crabtree was still on the board (and taken 3 picks later by their Bay-area mates, San Francisco). Meanwhile, in Round 2, they snagged Michael Mitchell, a Safety from Ohio University who some had ranked out of the Top 40 safeties in the draft, yet the Raiders took him as the 2nd safety off the board.

Insanity or genius? Time will tell, but we have enough evidence against the Al Davis regime in the last several years to suggest we will lean towards insanity.

If you are looking for a big storyline out of Oakland for the preseason's 1st game, you will be disappointed. This is the best I could find in the Oakland papers :
The Raiders have a real-life quarterback controversy brewing. No, it has nothing to do with starter JaMarcus Russell and backup Jeff Garcia.

The real action is between backup arms Bruce Gradkowski and Charlie Frye. Call it the Contest of Third Stringers when the Raiders host the Cowboys in tonight's exhibition opener at the Coliseum.

Sure, there are more consequential jobs to be won, but when asked for competitions to watch, Raiders coach Tom Cable put that on the top of his must-see list.

"I think you'd have to start with the two quarterbacks," Cable said. "There's a good battle."

Gradkowski has the advantage of having been here since mid-January, giving him an entire offseason of reps and playbook study. He's made 12 starts in three seasons, with 11 coming as a Tampa Bay rookie.

Frye has the advantage of looking more fluid and accurate than Gradkowski since joining the team in June. He's made 20 starts in four seasons, with 13 starts and 2,454 passing yards for the Browns in 2006.

Both will get a ton of snaps against Dallas because a) Russell will play only one quarter and b) Garcia remains out with a strained calf.

Winner gets a clipboard and headset.

Be still my heart. The Raiders big objective tonight is to decide who their 3rd QB will be. What did we expect? Preseason football is something we all want until it arrives. Then, about 10 minutes into it, we are tired of it, and we want the season to begin.

Other items the Raiders are watching:
-- Darrius Heyward-Bey: The No. 7 overall draft pick will probably start and will definitely play an entire half. His job is to stretch the field and hold on tight.

-- Greg Ellis: The 12th-year defensive end faces the only team he'd known until the Cowboys cut him two months ago. His job is to make fans glad the Raiders traded former Pro Bowler Derrick Burgess.

-- Mario Henderson: He'll face the same sort of 3-4 defense used by the three other AFC West teams. His job is to make Barnes' injury a moot point and keep Russell's blindside clean.

-- Darren McFadden: He is ready to line up as a tailback, slot receiver or wideout. His job is to make it possible to have Justin Fargas or Michael Bush on the field at the same time he is.

More details From the Silver and Black Blog
** Strongside linebacker Jon Alston is questionable with a foot injury. Either way, Ricky Brown will start at that spot with Kirk Morrison starting at middle linebacker.

** As expected, left guard Robert Gallery will not play as he eases back from an appendectomy. Chris Morris will start in his place.

** Justin Fargas, Darren McFadden and Michael Bush will all play in the first half as Cable initiates his plan to use all three in the same game plan.

** JaMarcus Russell and the starters will play one quarter. He'll be replaced by Bruce Gradkowski and Charlie Frye as they split the next three quarters.

Like I said, this feature may not float your boat until we are breaking down Tampa Bay in Week 1, but there is still something to consider tonight - which is that Oakland is on the schedule this year, and will visit Cowboys Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. Then, the battle of Felix Jones and Darren McFadden will be a bit more interesting.

Here are some more stories I read to prepare for tonight that I thought you might use to kill off your work day:

The Raiders will not win until they learn to stop the run ...
The Oakland Raiders have spent plenty of time in training camp preaching the importance of being in the right spot to stop the run.

With the team doing almost no tackling in practice, the focus has been entirely filling the right gaps, making the correct calls and communicating as a defense. In the exhibition opener on Thursday night against Dallas, coach Tom Cable will get to see if the improvement he has seen in practice will carry over into games.

"I've certainly seen it get better," Cable said. "We're starting to squeeze things, have people overlapping gaps where we're supposed to be. But we'll find out starting Thursday. Dallas is a big, physical team, likes to run in it, too. So we'll find out pretty quick."

With Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice in the backfield, the Cowboys figure to have one of the best running games in the league. Then again, it hasn't mattered much of late who was running the ball against the Raiders. Almost everybody has had success on the ground.

Since going to the Super Bowl following the 2002 season, Oakland has had the worst run defense in the NFL, allowing 141.7 yards per game on the ground and 122 rushing touchdowns. The Raiders have allowed a 100-yard rusher in more than half of their games the past three years, with journeymen backs such as Ron Dayne, Maurice Morris, Kolby Smith reaching the mark.

That led to a change at defensive coordinator this season, with John Marshall taking over for Rob Ryan. Marshall has said it wasn't an issue of talent but of being in the right place at the right time.

"I think a lot of times last year, sometimes you get frustrated when you see guys in their gaps and a run hits us here and a run hits us there and everyone's trying to make the play instead of saying, 'Hey, let's trust what we're doing and we can't make every play, let's make sure we're in our gaps and the guy who is supposed to make that play needs to be there,'" middle linebacker Kirk Morrison said. "That's why it's a trust factor and why we trust and believe in what we're doing."

USA Today features Heyward-Bey ...
Murmurs of disappointment could clearly be heard from silver-and-black-clad fans at Radio City Music Hall last April when the Oakland Raiders took wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh pick in the NFL draft.

With higher-profile receivers such as Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin there for the taking, the Raiders opted to go with the University of Maryland product?

Many draft analysts were vehement in their criticism of the choice, finally prompting NFL Network's Jon Gruden, the former Raiders coach, to chuckle and say that Raiders owner Al Davis couldn't care less about their analysis.

Was Heyward-Bey aware that the Raiders were being pilloried for their pick, and that he, by association, was similarly being ripped?

"Of course I was," he says with a laugh after a recent Raiders training camp practice. "I watch TV just like everybody else.

"Does that stuff bother me? No, not at all. I mean, coming out of high school, people said I couldn't play football at the D-I level, and it's the same thing now."

Yet one of the primary knocks against Heyward-Bey was that although he has sizzling speed, as he demonstrated by running the 40-yard dash in 4.30 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, his pass-catching ability is suspect.

And sure enough, holding onto passes has, at times, been difficult for the genial, soft-spoken rookie during the first week of camp.

Not that he hasn't had some great grabs. He has. But it seems that nary a session goes by that Heyward-Bey doesn't drop passes he knows he should have caught.

Already in this camp, major concerns about JaMarcus Russell in year 3 have emerged ...
JaMarcus Russell’s highly inconsistent start to training camp has to be frightening to the coaches and the type of opening Jeff Garcia needs to slide into the starting role if the 24-year old is not ready to step it up in 2009. Early on, he has not shown touch on his tosses, is erratic from session-to-session and until proven otherwise, his ethic and leadership will be questioned.

“At times, he ripped it,” Tom Cable said Tuesday. “He had that streak where he really targeted well and all that and then he got on a roll where everything was overthrow and overthrow.”

Garcia is not healthy enough to put the heat on Russell yet, but with the fiery mind-set the former 49er plays with and his ability to adapt quickly to schemes, it will be a quick plug on the former number one overall pick if he can’t show that he is ready to become a productive player on this roster.

And, you can imagine how this is dominating discussions about the Raiders these days ...
People can question Russell's weight, work ethic, leadership and whatever else they want. The Raiders selected Russell No. 1 in the 2007 draft because they felt he is talented enough to lead them from the depths of six straight losing seasons.

"You can ask those (questions) to death," Cable said, "and it really comes down to, do you feel you can go out and lead your team to win?"

Russell is 5-11 as the starter the past two seasons — he missed one game last season because of a knee injury.

The third year typically is about the time an NFL quarterback settles in and makes huge strides. The Raiders hope their guy is on the verge of a breakout season, especially since they added wide receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy to an offense that already features three quality running backs.

It all starts tonight. We actually have football. With actual live tackling, and potential injuries.

Let's get it on.

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