Know Your Enemy
When last the (11-4) Denver Broncos played the (3-12) Oakland Raiders, it was in O.co Coliseum and the Broncos came out on top 41-17. That was back in week 10 and at the time, the Raiders were win-less.
But just two weeks later, the Raiders secured their first victory of the season, defeating the Kansas City Chiefs at home. Since week 12, they are 3-2, having knocked off the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills, as well.
They've managed to find their footing, despite being on unstable ground for much of the season. So after starting 0-11, what changed for the Raiders? Terrance Knighton has some insight.
“The quarterback’s playing with a lot more confidence," Knighton said Wednesday via the team. "He’s getting real comfortable. They have a lot of veterans on defense that are playing at a high level. Around this time of the year a lot of teams let down against teams that aren’t as good as you, record-wise. So we won’t take the Raiders for granted, and ultimately it’s about what we want to do as a team and where we want to go. They are on the schedule and we’re going to focus on our opponent whether their record is what it is, or if they’re undefeated.”
Pot Roast is right on the money. Rookie quarterback, Derek Carr, has settled into his starting role and seems to have begun to acclimate to the speed of the NFL game. One of the biggest factors in helping Carr to navigate his rookie learning curve has been the recent uptick in production from the running game.
Although they are ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing, averaging just 78.2 yards per game, they have begun to turn that ship around. In their three victories, they've averaged 134 yards rushing. The best friend of a rookie QB is an effective ground game and it's been no different for Carr.
Carr has started every game this season, going 330-of-563 for 3,112 yards and 20 touchdowns, to just 11 interceptions. The TDs, in particular, are impressive from the rookie, when you consider the dearth of talent at the skill positions for the Raiders. His TD-to-INT ratio is healthy, too, and showcases that he has been very careful with the ball, while at the same time, making plays down-field.
The Raiders may have finally solved their decade-long problem at the QB position. Carr is a phenomenal arm talent. If the rumors hold true and Jim Harbaugh ends up going to Oakland, he and Carr could become a formidable coach/QB duo.
The Raiders offensive fortunes have turned around some, due in large part to the contributions of one Latavius Murray. He broke out in a big way vs the Chiefs in week 12, carrying the ball only 4 times, but netting 112 yards and 2 TDs, including a 90-yard scamper.
In their win over the Bills last week, Murray carried the ball 23 times, rushing for 86 yards. He's an explosive one-cut runner, who can gouge the opposition if given even the slightest crease.
However, after giving up more than 200 yards rushing last week to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Broncos defense will look to get back on track vs Murray and the Raiders. If Carr can play smart and make a few plays down-field and find a way to keep up with Peyton Manning, Murray could have a big impact on the game.
If the Raiders get behind, they'll have to abandon the run and throw, throw, throw, which is precisely what the Broncos want to force them into. But the Raiders have improved and they're starting to hone their collective will to win, which is one of the most elusive attributes for a young NFL team to grasp.
The Broncos have one of the NFL's best cornerback groups. Both starters, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, Jr, were elected to the Pro Bowl this year. Harris, in particular, has had the more impressive season, although Talib has come on strong down the stretch.
Going against the Raiders wide receivers, they have a great matchup. Green Bay transplant, James Jones, leads the team with 71 receptions, for just 649 yards and 6 TDs. He's only averaging 9.1 yards per catch, however. He's not much of a threat down-field.
The big play guy has been Andre Holmes, who has 45 receptions and is averaging 15.2 YPC. Tight end, Mychal Rivera, has 56 receptions for 508 yards and is tied with Jones for the team high in TDs. He's arguably the biggest threat to the Broncos defense.
The last time these teams met, Rivera had a great day, finishing with 6 catches for 64 yards and a TD. With the Broncos lack of experience at linebacker, Oakland will likely try to exploit them in coverage, just as Andy Dalton did last week. Todd Davis and Steven Johnson had a hard time covering the crossing routes and with T.J. Ward's status for Sunday currently a question mark, this is a big area of concern for Jack Del Rio.
On the offensive line, the guy who protects Carr's blindside is still Donald Penn, who has earned a +15.9 cumulative grade via ProFootballFocus. DeMarcus Ware, who has been quiet over the last three games, will have his hands full, trying to get to Carr.
Von Miller, on the other hand, has a very tasty matchup, going against right tackle, Khalif Barnes (-13.8). Miller hasn't notched a sack since week 14, but he'll look to get back on track this week.
Overall, the improved performance of the Raiders O-line has been a key factor in the team's recent successes. They've done a solid job protecting Carr and they've drastically improved in run blocking. Murray may have been the catalyst, but these big boys deserve some credit too.
At the end of the day, Carr and company will have to hope their defense can limit Manning and the Broncos offense and keep this game to a single score margin. If Manning has another off day, or if the Broncos defense continues to struggle without Brandon Marshall, this game could go down to the wire.
Von Miller (+51.8) used to be PFF's highest rated linebacker. But that honor now belongs to the rookie phenom, Khalil Mack. With a +58.2 cumulative grade, Mack has surpassed Miller. As mentioned above, Miller's performances have slipped of late, while Mack has continued strong.
He is the biggest key in exploiting the Raiders defense. On the season, Mack has 73 combined tackles, 13 for a loss, a forced fumble and 4 sacks. He hasn't gotten to the QB as much as he'd like, but he has been disruptive, with 50 combined QB hits and hurries. He's a force and one the Broncos must be ready for.
Although he was elected to the Pro Bowl, left tackle, Ryan Clady, has struggled recently. The reason could be because of a thigh injury he's been nursing, but whatever the case, he needs to get back to form. Mack and Justin Tuck (+4.4) have 8 sacks combined, which may not seem like much, but as we saw last week vs the Bengals, the Broncos have issues defending the edge.
Right tackle, Louis Vasquez, isn't exempt from this issue. He's under-performed of late too. But these two book-end tackles have to get it together, because the Raiders would love nothing more than to spoil their divisional foes' hopes of securing the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye.
Back in week 10, Peyton Manning threw two interceptions. Tuck managed to disrupt a screen play, popping the ball up into the air, which he deftly secured for the INT. The other came at the hands of the much maligned D.J. Hayden (+0.5). Last week, Manning tossed 4 INT, but he'll look to get back on track vs. the Raiders.
Charles Woodson (-1.8) leads the Raiders secondary at strong safety. Manning will check to see where he is before every snap. Last week, the Bengals did a great job disguising their intentions, confounding Manning pre-snap. He managed to figure them out in the third quarter, but eventually, he did not come through in the clutch, atypically throwing 3 of his 4 INT in the fourth quarter.
The Raiders might not actually get to the QB a lot, but they do a great job of manufacturing pressure and being disruptive. The Broncos are still striving to figure out how to not only be balanced, but to be effective, whether they run the ball, or throw it.
When they've focused on one individual aspect, whether it's run or pass, they've excelled. But they've struggled to do both well and bring their offense into harmony. It's likely that the recent uptick in rushing attempts was motivated by the coaches' concern over a porous offensive line.
But the Broncos are best when the offense is opened up and Manning can be himself. The key, will be figuring out how to run the ball with authority out of 11 personnel sets (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB). If they can't figure out how to do that, their trip to the post-season could be short lived.
This week, I expect to see Adam Gase let Manning do his thing and try to get the Broncos up big early. From there, they can pound the rock and milk the clock. But the Broncos need this win. With how banged up they are, getting a bye could be just what the doctor ordered. Literally.
Broncos 34 Raiders 20
As always, Brandon Perna has his own take on how this game will shake out.