1. A lot has been made in the offseason documenting
quarterback Andy Dalton's struggles while the Raiders
secondary has also struggled. What are Dalton's biggest
deficiencies? Do you think the Raiders can find a way to
force some turnovers?
Marc Hardin: Dalton has become a polarizing figure even in Cincinnati.
He's popular enough to be hailed as a locker room leader
and an off-the-field gem with a generous philanthropic
spirit in the community through charity and his own
foundation. He's unpopular enough to be booed at Major
League Baseball's All-Star Sunday Celebrity Softball
Game at Great America Ballpark, home of the Reds. What this
comes down to is Dalton's penchant for playing poorly in
big games. That's his biggest knock. He has one
touchdown and six interceptions in four postseason games
with a career rating of 57.8.
Dalton is 0-4 in the playoffs, which to some totally negates
the fact he's the only QB in franchise history to lead
the Bengals to four straight playoff berths, and one of five
in NFL history to take his team to the playoffs his first
four seasons. His toughest critics overlook his durability
and solid second and third seasons in the league and all the
bad quarterback play that came on all those bad non-playoff
Bengals teams before Marvin Lewis arrived in 2003, and say
he's not a finisher -- especially on a big stage. They
say he's not an elite passer, he's mistake-prone and
his arm isn't strong enough to stretch the field. He was
interception-prone last season while throwing to a decimated
receiver corps, totaling 17 with a handful of pick-sixes.
Dalton is not as bad as he showed last season, but I think
the Raiders have a decent chance to come up with some
turnovers, via at least one Dalton pick and possibly a
Jeremy Hill fumble (he fumbled five times last season, tied
for most among 1,000-yard rushers.)
2. Second-year linebacker Khalil Mack has been an absolute
beast in the preseason and has looked unstoppable at times.
Do you think the Raiders will be able to apply some pressure
on Dalton? How has their offensive line looked?
MH: Coach Lewis had some praise for Mack this week during his
weekly news conference, calling him "impressive"
and saying he showed up well on film. That being said, among
league quarterbacks who threw for at least 2,200 yards in
2014, Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco were the only ones who
were sacked fewer than Dalton's 21 times. While I think
that the Raiders will be able to get some pressure on
Dalton, it will be tough to get him on the ground because of
the Bengals' offensive line, regarded as one of the
AFC's biggest and best. The first-team line generally
looked good in preseason, with a sub-par performance against
Tampa Bay (three Dalton sacks).
3. Running back Giovani Bernard was all the craze heading
into last season before Jeremy Hill came in and outperformed
him. Now Hill is slated to have a big season. What is the
best way to slow down the big back?
MH: Once Hill is, ahem, running downhill, he is tough to stop.
The best way to slow him is to hit him early in his carries,
wrap up and gang-tackle. Hill, at 6 feet 1 and 235 pounds,
is simply too big and powerful, especially in the legs, and
shifty enough for his size to be stopped one-on-one by a
player who doesn't have sound technique. He bounces off
tackles well and he can drag a foot-tackler 10 yards. On top
of it, when he turns the corner, he has a late finishing
burst with the ability to outrun defenders. Causing Hill to
fumble makes him somewhat tentative, but a tackler going for
a ball-strip is more than likely going to be embarrassed by
a long gainer.
4. The firing of Hue Jackson in Oakland was a polarizing
move to Raider Nation as many still believe he was the right
man for the job. What have you seen from him since he got
the OC job in Cincy?
MH: Jackson is a talented, imaginative offensive coordinator
with a riverboat gambler's moxie and a trick bag full of
gadget plays who may yet receive another chance as a head
coach. While he learned some tough lessons in his first
season as Bengals OC and showed inconsistency in
play-calling while sometimes going away from the run too
early, he did put together some solid game plans. It was his
decision last season to make Jeremy Hill the primary ball
carrier in the middle of the schedule. Jackson wasn't
playing with a full deck last season as injuries ravaged the
receiver and tight end groups and claimed Giovani Bernard
for three games, limiting Andy Dalton's effectiveness.
During training camp, Jackson said he's going to
'open Pandora's box.' This could mean anything
from receiver Mohamed Sanu throwing passes, Dalton catching
passes, running back Rex Burkhead lining up in the slot, and
tackle-eligible linemen who get thrown to.
5. Wide receiver A.J. Green has quickly emerged as one of
the most talented wide receivers in the league. What must
the Raiders do to try and stop him?
MH: They need to get their best cover corner on him like a
plastic wrap, and maybe someone else too, bump him at the
line, hit his hands and give him the business so they can
get in his head. Green is gifted and a catch machine capable
of churning out yards. But he doesn't have a mean
streak, he can be frustrated, and sometimes he loses his
focus. He also can be his own worst enemy by cutting routes
short, free-lancing routes to a degree but not all the time,
and failing to contest certain 50-50 balls. He drives people
mad by not doing enough to "defend" interceptions
and would-be interceptions. Green is expected to be more
focused this season as he plays for a new contract.