Well, here it is. The classic clash of good versus evil, and one of the best rivalries in football. Join MHR's Chalk Talk for the pregame breakdown as we look at both teams' systems and players to determine the match-up issues and strategies that each team may look to.
First, these are two teams that should know each other well, given the division rivalry. Nevertheless, both teams have undergone some serious change in the offseason, so the preparation may not be a smooth as in the past.
Second, both teams are trying to answer major questions from the masses. Is Kyle Orton too careful for Denver fans (no glitz, but no INTs)? Has the Denver pass protection on the OL lost some luster? Is the new-look defense really that good? For the Raiders, will the QB ever click? Did the team deserve to beat KC, or to lose to SD? Which Oakland team will show up for the Denver game?
(All player photos courtesy of the National Football League)
Denver's Defense vs. Oakland's Offense
Elvis Dumervil (Codename DOOM) - Sackmaster
Right now, Denver's strength is the defense. Denver has a terrific pass rush (featuring DE/OLB Elvis Dumervil), and an elite secondary (featuring future HOFers CB Champ Bailey and FS Brian Dawkins). Denver's 5-2 look is plugging gaps against the run and protecting the LBs, allowing Andra Davis and D.J. Williams to look great at LB.
On the other side of the ball, Oakland's offensive line has injury concerns and looks suspect. QB JaMarcus Russell hasn't looked good (with the exception of a terrific game-saving drive at the end of Week 2's game). The strength of the Raiders' offense seems to be more geared towards the run, but Oakland hasn't been consistent in this role. They gained 366 yards against the Chargers in Week 1, but couldn't put together much of an effort against KC. Despite depth at RB, Oakland has stuck to inside runs, when perhaps they could vary their running plays more. Are they lying in wait for Denver?
Oakland is a vertical passing team, relying on speed to get the receivers down the field. Because of questionable play on the OL, Oakland is keeping the TEs and RBs in to protect the QB. This limits options for the QB, and in the case of playing against Denver, allows the elite Denver secondary to be the prime match-up on Oakland's offensive plays. Russell would probaly perform better throwing quick screens and short hooks (I wouldn't go for quick outs against Denver's ball hawks), but so far the playcalling hasn't shown this approach.
For their part, Denver can rely on the 5-man rush from their 5-2 look, and hold back the LBs to zone. The gap plugging should allow the LBs to stay unmolested, giving them opportunities for tackles in the middle, or to get to the edges in the event of runs there. Denver features 3 solid CBs (legendary Champ Bailey, solid Andre' Goodman, and rookie sensation Alphonso Smith), so Denver can afford to play man to man, while holding their SAFs back for deep coverage over the top.
Denver doesn't need to make many adjustments for this game. They can play their own style, and do well.
Oakland needs to spread the field, both in terms of runs and passes. If the 5-2 has a weakness against the run, it should be the edges. Oakland has good RBs, and should vary their runs to keep Denver guessing. A continuous assault up the middle isn't likely to faze a defense built to stuff the middle run (nor to faze a defense that hasn't gotten tired in the first two games), but misdirection and sweeps could force the Broncos to make adjustments. Not only that, but concern in the ground game would make Russell's job easier.
For Russell's part, he would do much better with shorter, higher-percentage passes. Denver has interception threats all over the field and is built to create turnovers. Going deep (the typical Oakland practice) shouldn't work here. Screens can take advantage of the two (somewhat) centralized Denver LBs. Instead of protecting the QB (allowing Denver to focus on ball targets), Oakland should probably try to get their TEs involved. A TE that breaks out to the seam is a bigger threat against Denver than any pass to a WR elsewhere.
Denver's Offense versus Oakland's Defense
Denver's offense has a lot of the same personnel as last year, but plays a completely different kind of football. Gone is Jay Cutler and the laser throws downfield, but also gone is the high-risk passing that led to many heartbreaking INTs. Instead, Kyle Orton plays a very careful, boring style of football that doesn't "entertain", but does keep Denver in games.
Kyle throws the ball away here and there, leading many booing fans to think his passes are off. But Orton picks his targets, and despite what the media will tell you, has shown that he can make the deep pass along with the dinks and dumps. With Brandon Marshall catching up on the playbook on the sidelines for much of the game, other receivers have stepped up and looked good. In fact, receiving star Eddie Royal hasn't gotten as much attention as in the past because the glory has been spread amongst fan favorite Brandon Stokley, Jabar Gaffney, and Brandon Lloyd.
Denver also has receiving options from a trio of TE threats, but Denver has no problem showing off the TEs in the dangerous 3-TE set, featuring Daniel Graham (an amazing blocker with good hands), Tony Scheffler (a great mismatch against most defenses in the air) and rookie star Richard Quinn (who has silenced critics).
Correll Buckhalter has demonstrated an ability to run and catch indifferently, and rookie Knowshon Moreno is showing improvement whenever he touches the ball. Peyton Hillis remains a threat up the middle.
But despite the abilities of these individuals, the overall offense hasn't seemed to click yet. Orton gets some pressure from opposing rushers, and Denver seems to rely on big plays on 3rd down to make up for inconsistencies. The offense is not "high powered" this year, and so far seems oriented towards intricate screens and yards after the catch (YAC).
Oakland's 4-3 defense has a lot of potential. On the line, the DTs are solid (featuring newcomer Richard Seymour). The LBs are fast, and the starting CBs are very good (Nnamdi Asomugha is one of the best in the game), and the safeties are legitimate threats (see Michael Huff's two INTs last week, to go with the one he had in the first week).
Denver should make some adjustments for this game. First, the weakness for Oakland may be lack of depth at CB. If Denver continues to use screens, they are using receivers as blockers instead of as potential mismatches against the Oakland CBs at nickel and beyond. On the other hand, Denver minimizes CB abilities with screens by using run blockers to clear them instead of challenging them in the air with the ball. It is a tough choice. I don't expect Denver to drop the screens, but I think this is one game where classic passing would hurt the opponent by targeting the nickelback. Denver can do this with the many 3-receiver sets they show opponents. Given the strength of Oakland's secondary, I wouldn't challenge them deep.
Andra Davis may hold the key to beating the Raiders
Denver also needs to decide how to attack the Oakland run defense. Oakland has a stout DL to protect the middle, and is experienced against the zone-block scheme. Oakland's DL also effectively protects their LBs, and those protected LBs have the speed to get to the edge of the field. So Denver will likely take one of two approaches here. One, they run at Oakland and try to wear them down. The other option (and the one they likely pursue) is to set up misdirection and disguises. Denver will show run, then send the RB into the slot to receive (or to block on a screen). Denver will use multiple-TE sets (both 2- and 3-) to further confuse the defense. Denver's TEs can run block, and they can jump out into routes, and this alone is enough to cause problems for most teams. (Note - Oakland prefers to use safety coverage on TEs, despite the speed they possess at OLB).
Sebastian Janikowski is a solid kicker, and the Oakland coverage units look reasonably good. Denver has had solid efforts from both the kicking and punting units, and coverage is much improved over previous years. Neither team fields breakaway return talent, though Denver has looked close on a few occassions.
The game is blacked out in Oakland, as the Raider Nation has failed to sell out their home game. Regardless, expect the passionate fan base to be involved unless Denver gets out to a domineering start.
Keys to the Game
- Stop the run. Oakland will not win this game with a one-dimensional offense, and their running game is their potential strength. Russell needs the running game to help his passing efforts.
- Continue to be conservative in the passing game. Both teams feature ball hawks, and a key INT would be a game changer.
- Leave the blitzes at home. Denver's pass rush doesn't need any help. The CB/WR match-ups favor Denver, and any players held back to protect the QB limits Russell's pass-receiving options. Instead, hold back the LBs for the expected runs, and to zone the field.
- Don't commit penalties. The bad boys of football will need to find a role model other than their head coach, who seems to enjoy assaulting his staff. Oakland is known for penalties, but they ought to play a penalty-free game if they want to get a win in Week Three.
- Mix up the runs (more runs to the edges). Oakland will need the run game to win this game. Denver has a lot of options with a 5-2 look to stop the interior runs, but the outside sweeps are tougher to deal with. Oakland didn't do well with the run against KC, and Denver's stout protection in the middle should be hard to crack.
- Get the TEs involved in the passing game. Denver's CBs should have a field day with the Oakland WRs, but Denver wants their LBs focused on the run and their SAFs stopping deep passes. If Denver is forced to decide between covering the run or covering TEs out in the seams, Oakland can exploit either the run, the passes to the TEs, or both.
I expect a conservative game plan from both teams. I also expect a close game. Denver is built to create turnovers, and if Oakland wins big I expect it will be because they net more turnovers or the Denver defense collapses against the run. If Denver wins big, I think it will be because Oakland's offense is shut down more than because Denver lights up the scoreboard. I think the key match-up to watch is Oakland's run against the Denver Defense, but I expect Denver to win that match-up.
I'll take Denver in a close game. The game is key for Denver, since the schedule ramps up over the next few weeks. Denver needs the early momentum to stay alone atop the AFC West. A loss for Oakland gives them a losing record, and would be a blow to morale. A win gives them a respectable 2-1 record, and a tie-break with what would then beat a 2-1 Denver team. Oakland really needs the game more than Denver, and will need to play like it.