Know Your Enemy
The Denver Broncos will travel to the Black Hole to take on the Oakland Raiders this Sunday. This was once a storied rivalry in the AFC West, but not any more. Since Peyton Manning came to Denver in 2012, the Broncos have swept the Raiders each year.
In the 4 games vs the Raiders in the Manning era, the Broncos have outscored them 134-54. In week 17 of last season, the Broncos dropped 31 points on the Raiders in the first half. After halftime, Manning held a clipboard and Brock Osweiler got some real reps against a NFL first-team defense.
Many members of Broncos Country can't even find it in their hearts to hate the Raiders anymore. It's been that lopsided of a matchup, over the last two seasons. Don't expect that to change in 2014.
Although the Raiders are 0-8, they've had several opportunities to win games this year, but have been unable to close the deal. 4 of their 8 losses have been decided by a single score. They've had a lot of tough breaks.
General manager, Reggie McKenzie, has been under fire of late, for his perceived failures in free agency and the draft. It doesn't help that his hand-picked choice for head coach, Dennis Allen, who was the defensive coordinator for the 2011 Broncos, was fired following week 4 and two ineffectual seasons at the helm.
McKenzie didn't have a 1st round pick in his first year with the Raiders (2012), because the previous Raiders regime had traded it away, along with a conditional pick, which ended up as a 2nd rounder in 2013, in exchange for Carson Palmer.
Palmer was eventually traded to the Arizona Cardinals in 2013, in return for a pittance. McKenzie's first draft class of 2012 was severely crippled, as a result of the Palmer debacle. But he did find one starter. Middle linebacker, Miles Burris.
McKenzie's 2013 draft class was highly controversial. The Raiders were primed to get a blue-chip talent with the #3 overall pick. However, they ended up trading it to the Miami Dolphins, in exchange for their 12th overall pick and 42nd overall pick. The Dolphins nabbed their guy, Dion Jordan. The Raiders selected cornerback D.J. Hayden from the University of Houston at #12.
Hayden was highly touted, but his injury jacket was extensive. Since draft day 2013, Hayden has played in a grand total of 10 games. Ouch. The jury is still out on Hayden, but his battles with the injury bug have handicapped his NFL potential.
With the 42nd pick, McKenzie selected tackle, Menelik Watson. He is currently a backup with the team. The Raiders did find two impact players from their 2013 draft class in linebacker, Sio Moore, and tight end, Mychal Rivera.
2014 offered yet another opportunity for McKenzie to score a top-level talent, as the Raiders held the 5th overall pick. They selected Khalil Mack, out of Buffalo, a player who has already impacted the team in a big way. McKenzie was fortunate that quarterback, Derek Carr, dropped out of the 1st round and into the Raiders lap in the 2nd.
McKenzie also nabbed offensive lineman, Gabe Jackson, in the 3rd round, along with Utah cornerback, Keith McGill and defensive tackle, Justin Ellis (now a starter), in the 4th. As a GM, McKenzie has been hit and miss in the draft, but he's also been handcuffed to the poor decisions of the previous regime.
In free agency last year, he managed to sign Charles Woodson out from under John Elway, who had targeted the seven-time All-Pro early on. More recently, he picked up Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Carlos Rogers and James Jones, among others, who have added some stability to a very young roster, although it's yet to translate into wins.
McKenzie has had his work cut out for him in trying to right the wayward ship left behind by the late Al Davis. Arguably McKenzie's worst decision was the hiring of Allen as head coach in 2012. No matter what talent McKenzie assembled, Allen failed to maximize it on the field. And now Tony Sporano is trying to make hay while the sun is shining, so far, to no avail.
As an offense, the Raiders are ranked dead last in the NFL in total yards, with only 2,309. However, they're averaging 219.9 passing yards per game (23rd). What's killing them is their lack of an effective running game. They're only averaging 66.1 rushing yards per game, good for worst in the league.
Derek Carr, as an arm talent, was arguably the most talented quarterback in the 2014 draft class. Unfortunately, due to a mostly terrible offensive line and lack of offensive balance, Carr's abilities alone have not been enough to win games.
He's thrown 11 touchdowns, to just 7 interceptions, which is impressive for a rookie on a win-less team halfway through the season. He doesn't have the most fearsome weapons at the skill positions. When James Jones, and 8-year veteran, is your best wide receiver, you've got issues.
Lately, Carr has formed a mind-meld with Mychal Rivera. Over the last two weeks, Carr has targeted him 20 times, connecting on 15 of them, for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns. These two young players have been the only bright spots on offense.
Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden have been abject failures in 2014, as evidenced by the rushing stats above. Going against a Broncos rush defense, ranked 1st in the NFL, they don't have much hope of turning that ship around in week 10. But moving forward, if they hope to avoid the ignominious distinction of being the 2nd team in NFL history to go 0-16, the Raiders have to figure out a way to balance out their offense and run the ball effectively.
On the offensive line, there have been two bright spots thus far; left tackle, Donald Penn and center, Stefan Wisniewski. Penn has earned a +6.4 cumulative grade via ProFootballFocus, while Wisniewski has earned a +3.4. These two players also happen to be the Raiders two highest rated offensive players via PFF.
I see the Broncos defense, who struggled mightily last week vs the New England Patriots, particularly against the pass, having a bounce-back game on Sunday. The Raiders don't really do anything special on offense. Guys like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware should have productive days. The primary focus will be to shut down Rivera. But the Broncos have struggled to limit tight ends all season long.
On this side of the ball, the Raiders crown jewell is Khalil Mack. Although he's yet to record his first career sack, he has been disruptive rushing the passer and a real boon in stopping the run. The 6'3, 252lb linebacker has 50 total tackles, 10 for a loss. He's also been able to notch 7 QB hits and 23 hurries.
Mack's sacks will come. But he's getting no help from his teammates on the defenive line. On the season, he is PFF's 2nd highest rated 3-4 outside linebacker with a +24.3 cumulative grade, behind only Justin Houston.
Not long after he was drafted, Mack was asked which NFL quarterback he most wants to sack. His answer, via NFL.com.
"I think that has to be Peyton (Manning) right now. Just thinking about it gets you a little (excited), you know what I mean?"
Do you think that quote is up on the Broncos bulletin board this week? Justin Tuck has been solid, but unspectacular thus far. He has 2 sacks, 4 QB hits and 7 hurries. He is the defense's 2nd highest rated player via PFF, with a +10.2 cumulative grade.
Charles Woodson (+6.9) has played very well this year at safety. He has 50 total tackles and 2 interceptions. I shudder to think how much worse this defense would be without him. Peyton Manning will be sure to locate him pre-snap on each play.
The Raiders signed two former San Francisco 49ers in free agency; Carlos Rogers (-3.6) and Tarrell Brown (-1.2). Neither player has been effective in coverage thus far, as they've amassed a grand total of zero interceptions between them. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders could each have 100+ yard games on Sunday.
Broncos offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, made a point this week that the team will redouble their efforts to get tight end, Julius Thomas, involved in the game-plan moving forward. After a very hot start to the season, he has cooled over the last 3 weeks. Expect to see clear evidence of Thomas' resurrection vs the Raiders.
The Raiders patchwork defense has been their real difference maker thus far. From a total yardage allowed perspective, they are the NFL's 9th ranked defense. Miles Burris, their middle linebacker, has been a big reason why. With 55 total tackles, he leads the team. McKenzie found a young player in Burris, who has great potential, but is still inconsistent. And he's seeing a lot of snaps this season at Mike linebacker (577).
As the league's 27th ranked rush defense, allowing an average of 132.5 yards per game, I see Ronnie Hillman having a great day. It's possible that Broncos Country could see Montee Ball suited up on Sunday, but it's more likely that the team will sit him one more week, just to be on the safe side.
Broncos 38 Raiders 17