As the Raiders pursue their slim chances for an AFC West title and first playoff berth since the 2002 season, the organization will be pushing the story of a winning tradition. True enough, but should the Raiders succeed, it would be hard to overlook the fact that some of the players most responsible for getting the club back in the spotlight weren't even old enough to drive the last time Oakland was in the postseason.
As much as Oakland has been vilified for some of its recent draft picks, most notably quarterback JaMarcus Russell in 2007 and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey in 2009, it's impossible to overlook the fact that if not for what appears to be a stunningly effective draft in 2010, the Raiders would be where they usually are at this time of the year. Entering Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts at the Coliseum, the Raiders at 7-7 can do no worse than nine losses after having lost 11 or more in each of the last seven years.
A recent CNN-Sports Illustrated story by Don Banks did a speculative re-draft of the 2010 player selection, and ended up giving the Raiders high marks. With the No. 8 pick, the piece had Oakland taking Oklahoma wide receiver Dez Bryant (who went to Dallas) instead of middle linebacker Rolando McClain, which CNN-SI had going No. 20 to Houston. However, three other Raiders drafted after the first round, based on their performances in Oakland, had moved up considerably.
Lamarr Houston, Oakland's starting left defensive end out of Texas, jumped from a second-round pick (No. 44) to No. 22 and the Denver Broncos. Jacoby Ford, a wide receiver picked in the fourth round out of Clemson, went from a fourth-round pick and No. 108 to No. 25, also to Denver. Jared Veldheer, the starting left tackle out of Division II Hillsdale, jumped from the third round and No. 69 overall to No. 30 in the first round for Detroit.
Given that McClain was still a first-round pick and would have been under any circumstances, by at least one count that gives the Raiders four first-round caliber draft picks. It's also given that it's hard to dispute all four players have performed to that standard.
?"There's a bunch of rookies playing across the league, but if you look at our class, all the way from Rolando, to Houston and then to Veldheer and Jacoby ... I think the whole group has really put a lot together," Cable said.
McClain, Houston, Veldheer and Ford are only the four biggest contributors. All of Oakland's draft picks are on the roster, and the only one who hasn't had meaningful playing time is Bruce Campbell, a fourth-round pick out of Maryland taken two picks before Ford.
Walter McFadden, taken in the fifth round (No. 138 overall) out of Auburn, battled a hamstring issue early, struggled when given a chance and has been inactive of late. Linebacker Travis Goethel, according to Cable, won the starting job at weak-side linebacker only to undergo back surgery in September. He's now splitting time with veteran Quentin Groves. Jeremy Ware, taken in the seventh round (No. 215) out of Michigan State, has been inactive for the last two games but saw time as a nickel back and on special teams. Even Stevie Brown, a supplemental pick in the seventh round (No. 251) has contributed, of late being on the field in some nickel and dime packages as a single deep safety as well as contributing on special teams.
"They all came in wanting to learn, and I think for the most part it hasn't been too big for any of them," Cable said. "Coming to a new team, living in a new place, playing football full time, is a big adjustment. None of them seemed really fazed by it."
McClain had the biggest spotlight coming in, given his status as a Butkus Award winner and as a premium draft pick. He's been everything the Raiders hoped for in terms of preparation, perhaps a little less in terms of making plays. McClain missed a 38-31 loss to Jacksonville with a foot injury after playing well against San Diego in a 28-13 win, and returning to start against Denver. He has 71 tackles unofficially, behind only Indianapolis outside linebacker Pat Angerer (78) among rookies.
"My goal is 100 tackles each year so I'm not there yet," McClain said. "I've still got a long way to go but I've still got two games and I can make up some room. My main goal was to try and improve this defense any way possible. If we can continue to grow, continue to build, that's what they need from me at this point."
Ford came in with an open mind and incredible speed. "I came in with the mind-set that I didn't know how the season was going to go, I didn't know what my role was going to be," Ford said. "I was prepared to take on any role, whether it was just going to play special teams, play just a little bit or not at all. "I'm just happy I'm getting the opportunity to go out and make plays. The more I do, the more the staff and my teammates have confidence in me."
SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series, 7-4. Colts won the last game in Oakland on Dec. 16, 2007, 21-14 to clinch fifth consecutive AFC South title and become the first team to have five straight 12-win seasons.
The last Raiders win over Indianapolis was Oct. 14, 2001, as Rich Gannon completed 18 of 32 passes for 243 yards and Tim Brown had seven receptions for 145 yards. Oakland intercepted Peyton Manning twice, once by Anthony Dorsett for a 39-yard touchdown return, and again by Tory James.
NOTES & QUOTES
--Being in the playoff race is a relatively new phenomenon to many of the Raiders, but elimination could come before they begin their game against Indianapolis if Kansas City beats Tennessee. Quarterback Jason Campbell is thinking about pre-game ear plugs.
"I wouldn't want to know," Campbell said. "It's not going to make us play any harder or with any less intensity. This is the game, what we get paid to do. You give 100 percent regardless and play hard. If we don't go out and win our game, it doesn't matter what Kansas City did."
Cornerback Stanford Routt was ambivalent. "If somebody walked up to me before the game and said, 'Hey, Stan, Kansas City did this or did that,' I wouldn't necessarily shun the information away, but I know it's not going to have any effect on how we play on Sunday," Routt said.
--Linebacker Quentin Groves looks at Colts quarterback Peyton Manning as something not altogether from this world. "I call him the human robot. He's the human robot," Groves said. "You try anything and everything to get him off his game, and it doesn't work. So you just have to try and do what you do best."
What the Raiders do best is get after quarterbacks, as their 40 sacks rank tied for third in the NFL with Pittsburgh and Chicago. "The Cowboys and everybody who has had some success against Manning has rattled him a little bit," Groves said. "He doesn't like to get hit because he's 6-6 and it's kind of hard to pick up that 6-6 frame off the ground so many times a day."
--Jared Veldheer, who became the starting left tackle after playing at Division II Hillsdale, had a goal in mind from the start. "It was obviously a goal of mine, to be a starting tackle, and to achieve that goal I knew I needed to work hard and put in the time and really pick apart my game and try to work on it, and keep improving it, constantly keep improving it to not only stay in that spot but to make the team better," Veldheer said.
Veldheer thought dealing with the leap in competition was simply a state of mind. "Most of it's just a mindset," Veldheer said. "It's you versus another person. No one is super man with a cape out there. Everyone is wearing a helmet and shoulder pads and you've got to go out there and execute and do your job better than the guy across from you."
It just so happens that this week, the man in front of him is Dwight Freeney, who may be the most formidable pass rusher in the NFL. Freeney in a conference call with Bay Area media, expects that Veldheer won't be doing a lot of one-on-one blocking.
"What normally happens when I go against a rookie is there's two other guys with him," Freeney said. "I'm sure they're going to scheme and not leave him by himself. That wouldn't be very smart."
Freeney's review of Veldheer's work: "He's done a decent job. He hasn't done an overly great job. He's hung in there."
--Kicker Sebastian Janikowski has just four touchbacks in his last 36 kickoffs, a 12.9 percent rate, after getting 24 touchbacks in his first 49 kickoffs, just under 50 percent.
Cable said Janikowski's leg is fine, and that it has more to do with weather conditions and the decision to kick directionally if a touchback seems unlikely. "He's fine," Cable said.
During those six games, Janikowski's field-goal kicking is fine. He's hit 10 of 11 attempts.
BY THE NUMBERS: 17-- Rushing touchdown by the Raiders, tied for the NFL lead through 14 games. The last time Oakland finished in the top 10 in rushing touchdowns was 2002, when they had 21 and tied for fifth in the NFL.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We understand we're facing a great quarterback, a guy that's been in the league for a long time and has been a great quarterback for many years. But we can't get so much into that where we keep ourselves from doing what we do best." -- Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell stressing the need to attack on offense and not get caught up in being conservative to keep the ball away from Peyton Manning.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Khalif Barnes, originally signed before the 2008 season to challenge at left tackle, played behind Mario Henderson last year and was leapfrogged by Jared Veldheer this year. The Raiders have found him a role as an extra tight end however, and Barnes figures to get his most extensive work Sunday combating the outside pass rush skills of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
--P Shane Lechler did not practice with a right hamstring strain and said he expects to play against Indianapolis.
--RT Langston Walker did not practice, is recovering from a concussion and has not passed the league mandated tests.
--DT Richard Seymour did not practice with a hamstring strain and is questionable to face Indianapolis.
--CB Nnamdi Asomugha was limited with an ankle injury but is expected to face Indianapolis.
--WR Johnnie Lee Higgins is limited with an ankle injury, didn't face Denver and is questionable to face Indianapolis.
GAME PLAN: One of the more straightforward missions the Raiders have had this season. Run the ball early and often against the NFL's No. 28-ranked defense, hoping to control the ball, the clock and keep QB Peyton Manning and the Colts off rhythm.
Defensively, the Raiders have historically had some success against Manning because they don't blitz heavily and simply hope to disrupt his timing by jamming wide receivers and playing aggressively in the secondary. Special teams, especially if P Shane Lechler is unavailable, will include more directional kicking than usual.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Raiders OTs Jared Veldheer and Mario Henderson or Langston Walker vs. Colts DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis: There's a bull's eye on both sides for the Raiders, with a rookie third-round pick out of Division II Hillsdale going against Freeney and Mathis operating against either Henderson or Walker. Walker's status is up in the air after a concussion against Denver, with Henderson playing his first half of football on the right side.
The Raiders will no doubt offer every max protection scheme in their book as well as help from tight ends and running backs. Their best bet is to put both ends on their heels with a running game ranked second in the NFL.
Colts WR Reggie Wayne vs. Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha: The Raiders haven't been shy about adjusting their defense for Asomugha to shadow the opponent's best receiver, and since the Colts have been decimated on the outside, he could get the call against Wayne, who has 99 catches for 1,247 yards and five touchdowns. The problem is Asomugha has been hobbled by a sprained ankle and hasn't been 100 percent for a month.
When the two last met in 2007, Wayne made an acrobatic one-handed catch on Asomugha for a 19-yard gain on third-and-3 during the Colts' game-winning drive in a 21-14 win.
INJURY IMPACT: The ability of punter Shane Lechler and defensive tackle Richard Seymour to play and be at peak performance will be crucial to Oakland's chance to take down the Colts. If Lechler doesn't play or is subpar, it gives Peyton Manning fewer yards to navigate for touchdowns. Seymour is crucial to working with Tommy Kelly to collapse the pocket on Manning from the interior.