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Scouting the enemy: Oakland Raiders

A familiar foe comes to town, but this time under the leadership of Jon Gruden. The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders rekindle their rivalry in the second week of the NFL season. Here is what you can look forward to.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret, the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders have hated each other for a very long time. Over the course of nearly six decades, two franchises have embarked on over one hundred gridiron battles. In the beginning, it was the Silver and Black dominating our beloved franchise for through the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s — and I’m certainly glad I wasn’t around to witnesses it.

Thankfully, things changed in the 1990’s when a former head coach of theirs was hired by Pat Bowlen to secure what had eluded the franchise for so long — a Lombardi Trophy. That man? Mike Shanahan, who brought with him the bitterness of being fired by Al Davis, and was the fuel that inspired the current streak of Broncos’ dominance over the Raiders over the past two decades. Not only that, he was the offensive mastermind that helped earn back-to-back Super Bowl victories. If you are a young fan reading and aren’t privy to those bits of history, this video will clue you in and is an absolute must watch before tomorrow’s game.

Even though it has been a long time since Shanahan has coached on the sidelines in the Mile High City, the team still carries on his tradition of Raiders ass-kicking. Since he was hired in 1995, the Broncos have turned the tide against their most bitter rival, losing only 14 games to the Raiders in the span of 22 years. At the height of the Broncos’ routine bashing of the Raiders, a young up and coming coach was tasked to turn the tide of a failing franchise. That man? Jon Gruden, who will return Denver to lead the Silver and Black from the sidelines, just like he did for the first time twenty years ago.

The league has changed a bit since then, but one of the constants that has remained is the inherently dysfunctional nature of the Raiders — and that’s especially true in respect to the start of Gruden’s second stint with the franchise. Let me elaborate on that.

For the past four years, the Broncos’ offensive line has been terrorized by Khalil Mack, but they don’t have to worry about him anymore. Most certainly, Broncos Country sends their sincerest thanks to Gruden and Reggie McKenzie for jettisoning the All-Pro pass rusher for draft picks they will undoubtedly use to draft a player nowhere near his caliber. Dollars to doughnuts, whomever they choose to don the silver and black will likely fall in line with their woeful, decade long trend of first-round prospects that have amounted to absolutely nothing in the National Football League.

Why the Hell else would anyone expect otherwise?

The dysfunction doesn’t end there. For whatever reason, Gruden decided to get rid of Marquette King, one of the best punters in the league without even meeting him. Now his All-Pro talent is safely secured with the Broncos organization, and I’m sure King is most eager to drop a few bombs against his former team tomorrow afternooon.

Alas, there will be no Chain Gate III, with both Aqib Talib and Michael Crabtree on new teams this season — but that doesn’t mean tomorrow’s game will be any less exciting. Here are a few of my keys to the game, as well as my prediction for how it will all play out.

Keys to the Game

The Broncos must limit the impact of Jared Cook

For the past several seasons, the Broncos’ defense has struggled mightily against opposing tight ends. That trend continued into this year’s season opener, when Seattle Seahawks fourth-round pick Will Dissly had himself quite the professional debut amassing over 100 yards. This week Denver has a much tougher task ahead of them in Jared Cook, who torched the Los Angeles Rams’ defense for 9 catches and 180 yards.

The big question is, who will be the person to shut him down? It’s not likely that any one defender will be keyed in on Cook all game long because of the variety of defensive packages the team uses, so expect a handful of players such as Brandon Marshall, Justin Simmons or Will Parks to be candidates to do so. Nevertheless, somehow, someway the defense needs to limit his impact in order to come out with a win on Sunday.

Case Keenum has to protect the ball much better than Week 1

This is a captain obvious key courtesy of Football 101. It’s not often that a team wins a game when they are on the losing side of the turnover battle, so the Broncos should consider themselves lucky to escape week one with a victory. The offense moved the ball with ease against the Seahawks, but a trio of interceptions by Case Keenum undoubtedly left points on the field and made the game a lot closer than it should have been.

Those issues can’t be repeated if Denver wants to start off the season 2-0. There is little doubt that this year’s offense has the potential to be extremely dangerous if they can limit turnovers and avoid the pitfalls of self-inflicted woes. The team has a plethora of new weapons, one of the best veteran wide receiver tandems in the league and a much improved offensive line. Not only that, they have a creative play-caller in Bill Musgrave who has the ability to maximize the potential of his skill position players. If Keenum can demonstrate better decision making and not turn the ball over, Denver’s offense should carve up Oakland’s defense like cheese.

Control the pace of the game by using a healthy dose of Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay

One of the most interesting and inspiring aspects of this year’s Broncos is the ascension of rookies Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay. One was a third-round pick, the other was a draft afterthought that was signed in college free agency. Nevertheless, both have shined early on under the tutelage of running backs coach Curtis Modkins and appear to be poised to make an impact in their rookie campaigns after a bright showing against the Seahawks in week one.

Their continued involvement and development will be crucial for the efficacy of the Broncos’ offense all season long. A healthy dose of their thunder and lightning against the Raiders should help set the pace of the game and in turn, open up the play-action passing game that Keenum thrives on. Head Coach Vance Joseph is on record stating he will go with the hot hand at the position, but I would expect them to see a similar amount of snaps like they did last week.

Hart’s Prediction

Last week the Broncos’ offense and defense showed a lot of promise and gutted out a well-fought victory in the season opener. The only significant worries were Keenum’s interceptions and their inability to stop the tight ends. I’m eager to see if progress is made in that regard and believe it will be. Look for the Broncos’ front seven to win the battle in the trenches against the Raiders’ offensive line, and for Von Miller and company to continue their impressive pass rushing assault against Derek Carr. My gut tells me that Keenum will have an efficient game, but I believe Royce Freeman will have a tremendous impact against a Raiders’ defense who gave up 140 yards and 5.4 yards per carry against the Rams and be the spark that ignites Denver to their second consecutive victory.

Broncos 30, Raiders 17.