Denver is a team that struggled last year with injuries, an unusual system on defense, and (for Denver) uncharacteristic character problems. They were coming off of a season that featured the murder of one up and coming star, the untimely death of another player (at a charity event, of all places), and a dramatic mid-season change in quarterbacks.
Denver tried the new defensive system, and went on a spending spree by bringing in big name talents. The system was a failure, and fans were caught off guard by "me first" players. The Mastermind, Head Coach Shanahan, learned from his mistakes quickly. The new defensive coordinator become the former defensive coordinator, as did the general manager. Many players were also shown the door.
Free agency and the draft focused on returning to what the Broncos had before the disaster of '07. Character, character, character. Free agents were signed at reasonable costs, and Denver went after players with a lot of potential who just didn't seem to fit where they were at. Hungry players. The draft didn't focus on critical positions and star names. Instead, it focused on team depth and long term potential.
Did it work? No one will know until the season gets going, but early signs look good. Ryan Clady (1st round) will start at left tackle on Denver's historically elite offensive line. Eddie Royal (2nd round), drafted as a punt returner and long term slot receiver prospect, looks to be the team's number 2 receiver behind star Brandon Marshall. Rookie Ryan Torain (5th round) is out for six weeks with an injury, but looks to be the team's starting RB in the near future. CB Jack Williams (4th round) looked good enough for the team to feel they could part ways with Dominique Foxworth.
Free agent pick ups include McCree and Manuel at safety, both of whom look like starters for Denver. WRs Darell Jackson and Keary Colbert may have been a little upstaged by a rookie (Royal), but both bring credible depth. All eyes will be on Boss Bailey (Strong LB) and DeWayne Robertson (DT) to gauge their value, and the battle at middle linebacker (between current 1st string Webster and challenger Niko K.) may last well into the season.
But the biggest key for Denver is QB Jay Cutler. While outshining some historically great QBs in his first several games, Jay went on in his first full season to lose 33 pounds. At the end of games he was weak and tired, but you wouldn't know it from his play. After being diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes, Jay has been able to adjust with diet, constant monitoring, and insulin injections. Imagine an already solid young QB playing well with a disease, now being unleashed to play to his full potential.
Comes now the Raiders. While only a 4-12 team in 2007, Oakland went on a spending spree (some would say beyond what their salary cap can endure in a couple of years) to prop up the team. Ignoring woes on the defensive and offensive lines, the team went for flash with their highest pick, adding yet another RB to their stable. In a strange twist of fate, they spent wildly to obtain former Bronco WR Walker (of the field with injuries the last two out of three years) who left his former two teams on bad terms and ten tried to retire during Oakland's training camp. He now looks likely to sit out game one with an injury (hamstring). As if that isn't enough of a delicious story, Oakland then went out and obtained the services of Ashley Lelie, who angrily demanded to be traded after finding he would have to play number two behind (you guessed it) Javon Walker in Denver. Ah the Fates! After Lelie failed terribly for two other teams, Lelie ends up, again, behind Walker, but now for a team that is far from the playoff picture.
There is little doubt however that oakland has talent across the team. But team work remains problematic. A big question mark will be the Raiders' own QB. Jamarcus Russell's qualities should be a big arm and mobility. But question marks were raised when he showed up to camp big in the gut. Oakland also features a coach struggling to do what coaches do, namely, running a football team. But in Oakland, head coaches don't get to run the team the way it should be run. The team is micro-managed by owner Al Davis, who has seen his team dwelling in the basement more often than not in recent years. SInce their last playoff appearance (2002), the Raiders are 19-61.
Denver's Offense versus Oakland's Defense
Denver will run the Zone Block running system (with the one cut runner variation), coupled with a West Coast Offense overall system for passing and philosophical approach.
Denver's offensive line runs the zone block scheme to perfection, and the runners are required to run single cuts to maximize the system. Young and Hall are both speedy backs, but there are questions about how much punishment they can take (based on last year). Pittman has power (and catching ability), but isn't the primary RB. As mentioned earlier, rookie Ryan Torain (The Train) was projected to be the starter, but his power running style will have to wait until at least week six. Rookie FB sensation Hillis will be the FB.
Denver will be missing #1 receiver Brandon Marshall due to a one game suspension, but will have solid depth to fall back on (perhaps the best WR depth in the team's history). Add in TEs Graham, Sheffler, and Jackson, and there will be plenty of targets.
Oakland will counter with a Press and Force (man) system, which is made all the more entertaining because of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's tweaks (varying players on the line, throwing in a rover, etc). The press and force means that pressure is continuous, both on the line and against the receivers. The line interchanges one and two gap approaches, and the cornerbacks almost always jam the receivers. With the LBs and CBs in man coverage, there is little room for error, but a lot of pressure on the offense to make mistakes. This doesn't mean a lot of blitzing though. Ryan has blitzed in the past quite a bit, but last year played more conservatively.
Oakland features it's own elite talents at CB (Asomugha and D. Hall), and solid play at safety.
How does this play out?
Expect Denver to establish the run, but to throw a (very few) long passes early to keep Oakland honest. One or even two deep (throw away) passes in the first drive should do it. Denver will hit the gut early to attempt to wear down the offense, saving the outside runs for when the OLBs start cheating to the inside. Cutler (who can run the bootleg and option plays well) may stay in the pocket more than usual, dropping back even five steps if Denver plays 3 receiver sets. Most of Denver's passes will be mid to short range, with the receivers being set up for yards after the catch. Denver will continue to use misdirection to allow runners to break for big plays or to allow Cutler the time to roll out to an uncovered WR.
Because of the skill level of the Oakland CBs, and missing a #1 starter, it might be a good move for the Broncos to run several 2 TE sets, with any of Denver's three top TEs being solid match ups against the Raider LBs (this can be used to brush back strong safety Gibril Wilson if he is creeping up to hinder Denver's run game). If an Oakland LB can't handle the TEs, a safety (most likely Gibril) will have to take the job.
Also watch for some surprises from Hillis at FB, especially near the endzone. He can catch screen passes, or bull ahead like a power RB.
Expect the Raiders to counter the zone block by calling more two gap assignments for the DTs. Expect the CBs to press the WRs to throw off Cutler's timing. Without Marshall, Oakland won't feel the need to double team WRs. Oakland will hope to create pressure with the front four, but may have to send in a LB to blitz if Denver protects Cutler well enough. If that becomes the case, Denver will counter by calling a screen to the now uncovered player (a RB, FB, or TE). For that reason, it will be key for Cutler (or Nalen at center) to read the blitzes correctly to audible the play effectively.
Denver's Defense versus Oakland's Offense
Everything rides on Oakland QB Russell. He has solid receivers (Walker may be out with a hamstring), but not the best protection. Despite what may be too much weight coming into camp, Russell is quick on his feet, and can throw on the run. He'll need his arm for Oakland's Vertical Pass scheme, which is coupled with a Zone Block run game. Like Denver, the one cut variation is used, but not with the same frequency. (Oakland falls between teams like Denver and Houston who use one cut, and other zone block teams that use regular runners).
There is no doubt that Oakland has talent and depth at RB. They'll need it, because Russell faces Bailey and Bly at CB, and upgrades Manuel and McCree at safety. Denver will also be returning to the (man) Show Blitz scheme of the (defensive coordinator) Larry Coyer days, with LBs up on scrimmage and a "shown" blitz on every play (everyone or no one). Defensive Coordinator Slowik has a reputation for aggressive defense, and the players look forward to it.
This will play out with Denver using mostly one gap calls to plug running lanes or pressure the QB, with the LBs either joining for a blitz or backing off to play man coverage (Coyer used man for the "show", though it is usually a zone defense at the HS level where I coached defense). The players to watch are (potential pro-bowler) DE Dumervil, a pass rush machine, and D. Robertson at DT, a player new to Denver and a question mark. Denver's defense this season may be tied (in part) to DRob's play.
Oakland will (like Denver) fight to establish the run. If Denver hasn't fixed their run defense woes from last season, Oakland can win on runs alone (almost). If Denver is up to the task, Oakland has the choice between grinding the game out with occasional deep chances on passes, or allowing Russell to get away from game management and trying for multiple, intermediate passes. This might not be the best game for Oakland to try that route.
Because Russell can scramble well, Denver should focus on collapsing the pocket from outside (not the middle) to keep him stationary. Expect Bailey to play off coverage (his own personal quirk), while Bly sticks to his man. Also, watch SS Manuel to see if he plays in the box. If Denver can stop the run, he can play back a bit more (a good sign for Denver). If he plays in the box all night, it is likely because Denver is having problems stopping the run (also a sign that Oakland may have the lead).
Oakland should try to keep the game close, wear down the Denver defense, and keep the ball on the ground. Denver would love to engage the Raiders in a shoot out. For this reason Denver needs to score early in an attempt to force the Raiders out of the run game. Oakland needs to keep the Denver offense off the field so that they can weaken Denver's defense, and avoid taking chances with the pass.
Keys to the game -
Run the ball effectively
Win on time of possession
Limit penalties (a problem area for Oakland in the past)
- Effective Special Teams play (P, K, and coverage / field position)
- Limit turnovers
- Play with the lead
QB - Denver
FB - even
HB - even
WR - Denver
OL - Denver
TE - Denver
DE - Denver
DT - Oakland
LB - Oakland
CB - Denver
SAF - even
STs - Oakland
Coaching - Denver
Home Field This Game - Oakland
This game pits two teams against each other that had terrible years in '07. Denver went 7-9 (one of Denver's worst years in decades) while Oakland went 4-12. Both teams' fans expect better this year, and both teams' fans believe their team is far superior to the other. The rest of the League's fans don't have either team on their radars.
This game, for the fans as well as the players, goes very far in building confidence for the season. Expect the losing team's fans to crash with depression, thinking the season is over, while the winning fans expect a fantastic season. Both extremes may be foolish, but that happens when two historicaly powerful teams that are rivals come off of a bad season, and face each other on a MNF game to start the season.
Right now I (a Broncos fan) see Denver as the better team. However, I also believe that Oakland has the talent to beat Denver if Denver doesn't play at its best. I think both fan bases are undervaluing the opposing team, and the game is hard to predict. Denver has remade themselves with many new faces, but they've also gone back to their tried and true "original formula". Oakland has spent money like mad (the Snyder / Redskins approach) to bring in game busters in the hopes that big names equal wins.
I expect that this game will be a game for the ages, but only for one set of fans. : )