It is only appropriate that we first look at Oakland. Since Oakland and San Diego had the first two picks in the 2004 draft, it obvious both teams had many holes to fill. But who won the off-season battle between the two?
The number that jumps out when looking at Oakland's total offense was the amount of sacks they gave up last year (43). They were the second worst team in the AFC behind only Buffalo. They chose to address the problem via the draft by selecting Robert Gallery and Jake Grove in the first two rounds. While this will improve the amount of sacks given up, which will no doubt improve their passing game, the Oakland quarterback and receivers are still well beyond their prime.
This brings us to their rushing attack, which was good, but not great, last year. With the exodus of Charlie Garner, the rushing duties now rest on the shoulders of Justin Fargas, Tyrone Wheatley, and the newly acquired Troy Hambrick hardly names that strike fear into their opponents. The improved offensive line will help some, but the lack of a feature back will make the Raiders predictable in their offensive scheme. If Oakland were to make any more movements this year, do not be surprise if they pursue a veteran running back after the June 1st cuts, possibly someone like Eddie George.
Now, there is very little mystery when analyzing Oakland's problems on defense. The Raiders were one of the worst teams in the NFL in stopping the run. In vintage Raider fashion, Oakland brought in big named veterans to solve this problem (Warren Sapp, Dwayne Rudd, and Ted Washington). Also, in vintage Raider fashion, some of these players come with "reputations".
The term "team chemistry" is thrown around too often. Equating chemistry with winning is like asking, "What came first, the chicken or the egg?"
The two, however, definitely go hand in hand. The problem with big name veterans is there may be stubbornness when asked to do something they are not used to, especially with players that have been deemed "problem children" in the past. Will their egos get in each other's way? Very possibly. If the team is winning, chemistry will not be an issue. But if they get off to a bad start, finger pointing and internal strife will inevitably follow.
In addition, there are other potential problems with bringing in older players that are the size of Sapp and Washington. How will their aging bodies hold up? The key too Oakland's success on defense is whether these two players will show up to camp in shape. But as we all know, the older we get, the harder it is to shed off those bellies, especially when one is 365lbs and the other is 310lbs. It is very unhealthy for men beyond their prime to be that big. I am not saying either will suffer a heart attack on the field, but I would be willing to bet that knee, ankle, back, and joints problems will rear their ugly heads sooner rather than later.
The one area of defense Oakland will have no problem with is in the defensive backfield. The Raiders have excellent corners in Charles Woodson and Phillip Buchanan. This, if anything, makes the lack of a dominating sack specialist bearable. Sapp and Washington are expected to contribute in pressuring the quarterback as well by drawing double teams. This will allow the Raider rush ends to make names for themselves. Do not be surprised if one of Oakland's young defensive ends have a break out year.
So how does this all come back to the Chargers?
When analyzing how San Diego's defense matches up against Oakland's offensive a couple of glaring mismatches comes to light:
Two years ago, the Oakland offense wrote the book on how to circumvent a 3-4 defense. It is possible with the right personnel. Unfortunately for Oakland, Doug Jolley and Roland Williams are not enough to exploit the mismatch of being covered by Donnie Edwards or Ben Leber. Sure, Oakland might be able to move the ball and score some points, especially with whoever draws Jerry Porter as the third nickel, but it will not be nearly enough to dominate San Diego's defense. Instead, they will have to rely on their defense to stop the Chargers' offense in order to come away with victories.
Since San Diego has one of the best young running backs in football, all Oakland can do is hope to contain him. Also, with the return of Toniu Fonoti, 388 pounds pending, converting third and short should be fairly easy. Granted, Oakland will have no problems shutting down San Diego's receiving core, but the Raider linebackers will not be good enough to cover LaDainian Tomlinson out of the backfield, or Antonio Gates. The key to success for Oakland will be forcing the Chargers into third and long.
This, however, might prove to be a difficult task because Tomlinson is a great first down back. And, with the emergence of Gates, the Raiders will have a problem preventing him from catching his five to seven passes. Even though these completions will average out to be less than ten yards per catch, it will be more than sufficient to set up the offense with third and short.
Despite this, two glaring questions do remain about San Diego's offense. First, what if the Chargers start Rivers? And second, how can a rookie quarterback hold up with the major hole that still exists at left tackle?
Since Rivers is a rookie, the offensive game plan will be drawn in such a way that the outcome of the game will not be put on his shoulders. Even though the Chargers will face added difficulties against numerous teams throughout the season because of this, the Raiders should not be one of those teams, luckily, because various matchups fall in the Chargers' favor. Rivers will have to learn the "three-step drop", and will rely on dumping the ball off to Tomlinson as a third and fourth receiving option. Do not be surprised to see some shotgun on first and second down (despite Marty's hesitation to use it in the past), to buy Rivers those valuable seconds in completing 5 to 10 yard slants, or more importantly, just getting the ball into the hands of Gates and Tomlinson. Remember, the goal is to set up for third and short.
With the Chargers' ability to move the ball on third and short, the time of possession should also favor San Diego. Even with the Raiders' ability to complete twenty five (or so) short passes, the amount of offensive snaps still should favor the Chargers overall. This can only be bad for Oakland considering their aging tackles.
This is not to say San Diego will dominate Oakland outright. The Raiders are rich in experience and savvy, and as referenced earlier, they will be able to complete a significant amount of short passes to stay in the game. But ultimately with the lack of a running game, the Chargers are more likely to have the ball longer. If the games are close (which they will probably be), victories could rest on the foot of Nate Kaeding.
Establishing a "bend but do not break" defense, and drawing up a game plan that minimizes the Chargers' weakness, plays into the hands of their strengths in terms of matchups.
There is no reason why the Chargers will not be in the position to take both games against the Raiders. Then again, considering the heated rivalry, anything is possible. But in order for San Diego to break their national perception of being a franchise incapable of winning, the Chargers have to win the games in which the matchups fall in their favor.
I personally think they can, and will.
Byran Martin can be reached at email@example.com