What was a comically porous line in 2006 has worked its way towards respectability in 2007. One of the reasons for improvement has been that the coaching staff has shuffled Jeremy Newberry from his natural guard position to center, Barry Sims from his guard position to left tackle, and Robert Gallery, once thought to be the franchise left tackle of the future when Oakland took him second overall in the 2004 draft, from tackle to guard. This takes advantage of Gallery's two biggest assets, size and feet; Newberry's best assets, intelligence and quickness;and Sims' best assets, size and hands.
With the changes in the moving parts along the front five, the running game has improved significantly, though Lane Kiffin's utter commitment to it has helped a great deal as well. This is still a unit that has Paul McQuistan and Cooper Carlisle on the right side of the formation. Not surprisingly, the Raiders are most successful when they run to their left.
One of the keys to this game will be the availability of Raheem Brock. He has the quick first step to penetrate into the backfield and drop the ball carrier for a loss. Though Ed Johnson has shown flashes of this ability, he is more of a plugger and the three-man rotation of Dan Klecko and fellow rookie Quinn Pitcock and third-year man Darrell Reid in Brock's stead is far from a suitable replacement. The Colts need to force the Raiders into negative plays or no gain on first and second down in order to take advantage of Josh McCown and an aerially challenged offense that does not match up well against the Indianapolis secondary.
They must run blitz in the early going if they feel that Oakland is starting to control the line of scrimmage and bring Bob Sanders into the box. They were able to handle Baltimore's bigger, more physical line in the early going in Week 14, so such tactics may not prove necessary. This does not discount the fact that it is absolutely critical that Indianapolis disrupt the Raiders' running game in the first half at all costs.
In the passing game, Kiffin has been able to keep pressure off his quarterbacks and limit sacks by moving the pocket and calling a number of bootlegs. McCown is deceptively mobile and has been successful throwing on the run.
It is important for the ends, especially Josh Thomas on the left side, since McCown usually sprints out to the right side of the offensive formation because he is right-handed, to stretch the play out, continue to pursue the quarterback to the sideline, and not get sucked into the middle on play action at the snap. Additionally, Robert Mathis cannot take the play off simply because it is headed away from him. McCown has shown a tendency to come back to the formation, even improvising to the left side of the offensive formation, in order to keep a play alive.
The other important part of this battle would be in the Indianapolis secondary.
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Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry — in typical Raider fashion — are both fast receivers that can challenge a defense vertically. With Sanders crowding the line of scrimmage, Antoine Bethea not expected to play, and the vulnerability of his replacement, Matt Giordano, this is the one part of the Oakland offense that should strike fear into the hearts of the Colts defenders.
In passing situations, the Raiders typically send one receiver, usually on the right side of the offensive formation, deep, one receiver trailing the play from the left side to the intermediate area, tight end Zack Miller up the seam, reserve tight end John Madsen stays in to block, and the tailback either acts as a safety valve or an additional blocker. If Giordano lets the deep receiver behind him, McCown and the Raiders will strike for a big play.
If he is able to stay deep in the Cover 1, assuming that the Raiders throw on first or second down when Sanders is in the box, then Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden will be able to cover the intermediate area and the linebackers should be able to keep tabs on Miller and the running back. But, this is really only if Oakland goes against its normal game plan and decides to throw off play action on first or second down.
When third down comes, Indianapolis simply needs to keep everything in front of them and tackle well. The Raiders do not possess the mental fortitude on offense to convert multiple third downs and wear the opposition down in the passing game. Their receivers are too inconsistent, their quarterback is too inexperienced, and they are not accustomed to facing a secondary as physical as Indianapolis.
Once again, this boils down to success on first and second down, particularly in the first half. And success on first and second down boils down to stopping Oakland's running backs.
Justin Fargas, who has rushed for nearly a thousand yards since he began seeing regular carries in Week 8 — though he did rush for 179 yards in Week 4 against the Dolphins — said Wednesday that he intends to play against the Colts on Sunday. He is approaching 1,000 yards for the season and has been one of the few bright spots for the Raiders. He is nursing a rib injury that he sustained in the third quarter against the Packers in Week 14. LaMont Jordan was ineffective as his replacement, rushing for 21 yards on 11 carries against a Green Bay defense that was playing conservatively up front with a big lead.
Obviously, Indianapolis should hope that Fargas, who runs with what scouts have termed "violence and aggression," does not play. But, given the nature of his injury and the tenacious hitting combination of Gary Brackett, Rocky Boiman, Freddy Keiaho, and Bob Sanders, Fargas himself may wish he didn't suit up about midway through the second quarter.
Kiffin and Oakland have shown nearly fanatical resolve when it comes to running the ball. They will run on first down and second down in most series. They will stick with the running game deep into the second half facing a huge deficit, as they did against the Packers. Since the Raiders will not give up on running the ball, it is the responsibility of the Indianapolis defense to make Fargas give up.
Once Jordan is in the game, the offense will falter on early downs, forcing Josh McCown into a situation where he will be vastly uncomfortable — third and long.
It is entirely possible that the Colts will also see rookie JaMarcus Russell in this game. Russell is long on talent, but perilously short on experience and, if the Indianapolis does see him, it will be because the game is already out of reach.
They must therefore focus on McCown. The greatest favor that Kiffin has given this offense is simplicity. Since he frequently rolls out, McCown only needs to read half of the field. His first read is deep, his second intermediate, possibly a third to Miller, then check down to the running back. When the Raiders roll McCown, their offensive personnel, and the pocket, the Indianapolis defenders must roll with him and stay focused.
The biggest mistake that Oakland's opponents have made this season has been to underestimate the often beleaguered Raiders passing attack. Porter and Curry are tremendously talented athletes with deep speed and capable, if inconsistent hands. Oakland thought enough of Miller to invest a high second round pick in him. Jordan and Fargas are solid receivers and have the strength and determination to gain yards in bunches after the catch — and after contact. But this is a unit that can be beaten down, both mentally and physically.
By keeping everything in front of them, playing a physical game on all fronts, punishing the man with the ball, and not allowing a lot of garbage yards, Indianapolis can wear the Raiders down in the passing game. The Colts have proven time and again that they are a disciplined, focused, and mentally tough team. Oakland has not.
Kiffin has done an exceptional job thus far this season with the hand he was dealt. He has gone back to the basics, kept the game plan simple, and given the Bay Area a competitive football team in 2007. He will not set his quarterback up to fail. Therefore, it the Colts defense is tasked with the responsibility of making sure that he does not succeed.