Sunday Morning Scout--Oakland at Denver Edition

I take an inordinate amount of notes on the upcoming games throughout the week, culled from all of Doug's great links in Tracks, emails with local and not-so-local sportswriters and analysts, and a few rare gems that I manage to find the time to dig up myself.

I finally decided it was time to settle on a format and share the info with MHR, so bear with me if this seems clumsy or ham-handed in its first incarnation;  as in any analysis, whether it is draft prospects or short yardage running games, the choice isn't "what do I include?" but, "what do I leave out?"  Let's see how it goes.  Welcome to Sunday Morning Scout, the best way to begin a Broncos Sunday:  MHR style!

A clear playoff picture.  Home division games.

With three weeks to go, this is pretty easy:  beat Oakland and beat Kansas City, two sub-.500 teams whom Denver has beaten by double digits already this year.

Worst-case scenario if they do this is 10 wins, which can only be challenged by both Miami (7-6) and Baltimore (7-6) going 3-0 and having Miami's Strength of Victory clock in higher than Denver's.  Denver currently owns the higher (adjusted for assumed wins and losses by the above scenario) strength of victory, and a little projective number crunching puts the remaining variables in Denver's favor by a slight 2-1 edge (out of 27 variable games Denver only requires 9 favorable outcomes compared to Miami's 18).

The NFL is a game of percentages over time, and those percentages say that in the above tiebreak scenario, Denver's slight advantage is all they need, so Denver's job is as clear as it has ever been:  win division games at home.  That was true on day one of the season, and it will still be true on day 119.

STRATEGY

Run/pass balance.

Denver pummeled the Raiders with an unbalanced 67% - 33% run/pass split earlier in the year.  For that game, it worked out to 4.8 yards per play (45 total) on rushes and 6.8 yards per play (23 total) on passes.  A 2-yard "passing premium" (a concept which represents the risk inherent in passing plays and shows up as the difference in avg yds/play for pass vs. rush) is rather high, and the indication is that a few more game-planned passes would have been highly effective in deepening the domination and blowing out the score completely.  Thinking back, the reasoning behind NOT passing more was likely the slow start that our passing offense was experiencing with Kyle Orton's injured finger and the general learning curve of Josh McDaniel's offense.

Going into this game the expectation of the pundits is that Denver will attempt to re-enact their 200+ yard rushing game of Week 3, but in true amoeba fashion, McDaniel's first game-planning priority will be maximizing his yards per play from that matchup, and that means calling more passes, especially run-based passes like the playaction.  With Oakland's strength languishing in the running game, and a "journeyman" QB under center, the expectation is for Oakland to attempt to run a risk-averse running scheme early, using short, high-percentage passes to backs Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden and a high percentage of running calls, probably designed to use clock and shorten the game.  I would expect Denver to start the game with a slightly more risky package than we have become accustomed to seeing, in an attempt to setup some fantastic matchups in our running game and against their passing attack.

A huge key to what we will be seeing in this game will be to identify early just how risk-averse McDaniels is in the playcalling.  With key injuries on offense and defense, he may not be willing to take any chances against Oakland.  On the other hand, he may be comfortable with Knowshon Moreno and David Bruton, among others, and be willing to ride those guys.  Confidence in the team right now will go a long ways if they make the playoffs, in terms of adding a dynamic that other teams must prepare for.  The good news is that if they pass on that opportunity this week, they may well have another opportunity in the final week of the season to accomplish many of the same goals.

PERSONNEL

Moreno and the rock.

The good news about the likely addition of passes to the Broncos' gameplan is that their running corps could use a break.  With Correll Buckhalter likely out, Moreno, LaMont Jordan and Spencer Larsen all playing at significantly less than 100%, and Peyton Hillis struggling to get on the field, this is very good news.  Denver may be able to focus on keeping Moreno in the 20- to 23-carry range, where he was most effective in college.  The calls for Knowshon to shoulder "a heavy workload" are a bit misplaced.  If you can't use him effectively at 18 carries, you start to see diminishing returns afterwards.  In college he averaged around 107 yards rushing per game (130 all purpose).  He may reach and surpass that in the NFL, but it isn't a viable target to aim for.  Focus on keeping him in a good range with his carries and let the rest take care of itself.

Clady vs Seymour, Seymour vs. Clady.

Ryan Clady ain't talking, and Richard Seymour is deflecting criticism of his hair-pulling stunt in Week Three, but for all intents and purposes this is probably a developing grudge match in Broncos-Raiders history.  Clady and Seymour first met in 2008 when Seymour disrupted Clady's perfect rookie season with a half-sack in NE's blowout of Denver.  When they met again, in Week Three in Oakland, after Seymour got, frankly, dumped by NE, a bit of frustration boiled over into a personal foul and fine when Clady dominated the matchup and caused Seymour to yank his Samson-like locks.

Now, with Clady fighting not only a generally slumping season for the O-Line in general, but his own personal slump within a slump where his expected level of consistent excellence seems just out of reach, and with Seymour needing to prove his professionalism in the face of what is looking like career murder in Oakland, this matchup may very well be one of the best in the game.  With Daniel Graham staying in to help Tyler Polumbus, it would not be surprising for Denver to attempt to single Clady up against Seymour in the passing game, a high-risk, very high-reward scenario.  Tied 1-1, let Round 3 of the Clady vs. Seymour grudge match begin.

21 catches vs. $28.5 million.  Pundits are already salivating over the matchup, and they should; it would be a matchup that would pit an immovable object against an irresistible force.  Except it probably won't go down that way.  To date, 90% of Oakland's coverage in the past two matchups has consisted of Chris Johnson on Marshall, and the results have been a workmanlike, if not effective total of 151 yards and 1 TD.  A sizzling-hot Marshall against a slumping Johnson plays right into the game-planning hands of the Broncos, and for what it is worth, Johnson has basically noted that he can't stop Marshall from getting his receptions.  "The key is stopping those plays after five or six yards and not letting him get further downfield," Johnson said. "The big ones -- the ones he makes 20 or 30 yards -- those are the ones that hurt you."  If the Raiders are smart, they will assign Asomugha to shadow Marshall, and not leave that decision in the hands of the Broncos...

Another starter for Oakland at QB:  out of the fire and into the Frye-ing pan?

First thing to note about Charlie Frye:  he took  a devastating situation and turned it into something positive once before.  After being the first player in NFL history to be an Opening Day starter one week and traded the next (from Cleveland to Seattle), he immediately recognized a golden opportunity:  the chance to study under Mike Holmgren, a Bill Walsh-descended QBing guru.  "I wouldn't take that away for anything. If something happens to you, it makes you hungrier and keeps your eye on the prize as far as getting back on the field."   The result is that he took a part of his game to a level he never even knew existed.  He learned how to prepare himself, and as a result he has earned a reputation as one of the hardest working players in the Raider's locker room.

That has to be something Frye can build on as he prepares to be the second QB this year to leapfrog JaMarcus Russell for the starting job in Oakland.  Bruce Gradkowski had salvaged a shred of respect for his team, and in the process had earned the respect of his teammates.  When he went down, it was exactly that last shred of confidence which was threatened with extinction as well.  Tom Cable's choice to bypass Russell was an attempt to maintain that thread of team unity, and it might just work.

Frye, who hasn't started a game since Oct. 12th of last year (12-of-23 for 83 yds, 2 TD, 2 INT), which was his only game in the past two years, has been found in the film room, in the gym and in the meetings, and rarely anywhere else.  He had taken it upon himself to submit ideas for the offensive gameplan once Gradkowski was promoted to starter, and in the process had forcibly wedged himself into the game-planning session's give-and-take.  When Russell's second demotion came down, and Cable announced that Frye would be the starter, within moments Frye had his position coach on the phone to go over the week's gameplan.  He came in early the next day with a complete understanding of what it was that Oakland was going to try to do, as well as Denver's perceived strengths and weaknesses.

And while nobody is saying exactly what that plan is going to be, Denver should be playing close attention to how the offense ran under Gradkoswski, because they are going to attempt to do most of the same things.   With the team expected to be firmly behind Frye, his biggest challenge may be getting enough of the rust off to be effective.  Denver would be wise to bring pressure early and often.

Henderson is coming off of a disheartening performance where he allowed three sacks alone, and where his linemates surrendered JaMarcus to the wolves six times, overall.  In an overall disappointing season, Henderson has been particularly poor, and his confidence seems decimated.  With poor depth on the line, he is at serious risk of being DOOM's plaything in this matchup, and with DOOM in the neighborhood of a couple of fantastic individual achievements, he may be able to generate some momentum that gets out of hand.  DOOM got 2 sacks in his first matchup with Oakland, and the Raiders give up a sack on average every 9 passing attempts, to rank near the very bottom rung of the NFL.

On the other side, DOOM has to be excited to see Frye again.  The last time they faced off, when Frye was still a Brown, Elvis notched his first three-sack game.  DOOM has never recorded more than two sacks a year against Oakland, so he will be shooting to break that trend in this game.

By The Numbers

#20

Look for this number on every Raiders offensive snap.  For the Broncos it will be Brian Dawkins, and for the Raiders it will be Darren McFadden.  Last week, Redskins safety LaRon Landry made the mistake of not consistently accounting for where #20 was on the field, and McFadden took advantage twice in the first half.  Twice McFadden was split out wide and sent in motion, where he beat Landry on slants across the middle, the first time for a whopping 48-yard gain, and the second time for 26 yards.  On the afternoon, McFadden caught three for 84, and should be expected to be moved around again to create matchups in space in the middle of the field.

It will be Dawkin's responsibility to close fast and break things up.  If McFadden gets the ball in his hands out there, it is absolutely critical to make the tackle, easier said than done.

19-3

Kyle Orton's home record, best in the NFL since the 1970 merger.  Kyle Orton needs to just be himself, and the Broncos can start working on the nice playoff bow to put on this present season.

4.5, 3.8, 3.1

That is the average rushing yards per carry for Oaklands top three runners.  Lucky for Denver, Cable is too ignorant to use the 4.8, and Al Davis is too senile not to use the 3.1.

Michael Bush is the great secret of the Oakland offense - so great in fact, that even the Raiders don't seem to know about him.  He is their only rusher to break 100 yards in the last 13 games.  Despite seeing a significantly-reduced workload since the beginning of November, he maintained his average at 4.8, only to find himself without a single offensive touch in the blowout loss to the Redskins.  Even the underwhelming fullback Gary Russell got two carries and two receptions.  And even though Fargas averages almost 85 yards a game against the Broncos, you can count on McFadden being Al's choice.  The insistence of drumming McFadden's low yards per carry into the gameplan, all in the name of "flow," is the antithesis to the Broncos' game-planning mentioned at the beginning of this article.  The Raiders are essentially forcing their "passing premium" into the stratosphere, which forces them to take only the highest-risk passing options available, at the worst times.  Well done, guys.

142

Number of rushing TDs allowed by the Raiders over the past 109 games, a stretch of futility unmatched in the history of the NFL, and leading to the worst record in the NFL over that same span:  28-81, an epically awful .257 winning percentage.

90 for 902

Number of penalties and penalty yards logged by the Raiders in 2009, with 3 games still to play.  After spending the first half of the year playing uncharacteristically sound football, Oakland has imploded as of late, dropping from top ten to 25th in the league.  In Washington alone they notched 14 penalties for 118 yards, including a backbreaking personal foul that essentially ended the 10-10 lock they were in.  Oakland may be the only place I know of where a completely-collapsed structure can implode.

94-22

The score in Denver's wins against sub-.500 teams this year.  My grandma called this "Making hay while the sun shines."

6 for 1000

Moreno is on pace for a 1,000-yd rookie season, and I for one couldn't be happier for him or the Broncos.  He is the epitome of what I want the Broncos to look for in a football player - the kind of person who was described thusly by his coach at Georgia, and he meant every word of it:  "Knowshon Moreno, I know when you get to watch the kid practice every day and see what he does, it gets you excited. He is a very vibrant guy. He could be a gymnast. You can't hide his enthusiasm for life. He will light up his team with his energy level. He will jump over a guy standing on his feet and score. He has got speed, power and agility. People have to respect his power. If (the defense) sends a guy full-speed to try and get him, Knowshon will make them miss."

If Moreno does acheive 1,000 yds, he will join some good company:  2002 Clinton Portis (1,508), 2000 Mike Anderson (1,487), 1999 Olandis Gary (1,159), 1989 Bobby Humphrey (1,151), 1995 Terrell Davis (1,117).

8,871

Number of consecutive snaps played by Casey Weigmann.  An incredible strength and perseverance is required, and he may need that trait in spades as this line attempts to go from having a so-so season, to a terrific postseason.

 

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