Raiders running room; Denver offense ugly

Oakland Raiders running back Justin Fargas can only hope it's all downhill the rest of the way for the Oakland Raiders.

Fargas, in his fourth year out of Southern California, has finally begun to emerge as the change-of-pace running threat the Raiders have sought since drafting him with the second of two third-round draft picks in 2003.

Through four games, Fargas has 153 yards on 17 attempts. His average of 9 yards per carry is the most of any back in the NFL with 15 or more attempts, outdistancing even Michael Vick, the mercurial Atlanta quarterback averaging 8.8 per attempt.

There were more than a few raised eyebrows when the Raiders did not draft a running back in April or sign a free agent to help share the load with LaMont Jordan, with coach Art Shell proclaiming Fargas would get a legitimate chance.

His first three seasons with the Raiders, Fargas had declining numbers. He gained 203 yards on 40 carries as a rookie, dropped to 35 carries and 126 yards in 2004 and gained just 28 yards on five carries last season.

Injuries, frequent but never serious, stunted his development, as did his penchant for the occasional fumble. Norv Turner paid lip service to Fargas' availability each week in 2005 but rarely used him as a running back.

It looked like more of the same in Weeks 1 and 2, with Fargas getting five carries for 35 yards in the opener against San Diego with the game out of reach and one carry for a single yard against Baltimore.

Things changed in October. Fargas had a 48-yard run to help set up a touchdown in a 24-21 loss to Cleveland, finishing with 54 yards on three carries. Against San Francisco, Fargas got extended play in the third quarter and gained a career-high 63 yards on nine carries.

"It always feels good when coaches call your number and you're able to make some things happen," Fargas said. "The O-line was doing a good job up front blocking. We showed some signs of some of the things we can do. We just need to do more of it."

Shell said he hopes to increase Fargas' workload.

"Coming into the 49ers game we wanted to make sure he got more snaps than he did last week, and it was a good combination between the two guys," Shell said.

Jordan, who parlayed his role as a complementary back to Curtis Martin into a multi-million dollar free agent contract with the Raiders, said he has no problem sharing the load.

"He reminded me of myself in New York," Jordan said. "It's important that Justin continues to go out there and play that way. As we get in late in the season, as the coaching staff gets more confidence in him, he'll get more playing time and more confidence in himself.

The important thing is for him to maintain a level head, continue to come out and work hard and take advantage of every opportunity he gets."

If scores don't get out of hand, but backs figure to get plenty of work. The Raiders have run for 348 yards in their last two games, their best back-to-back effort since 2003. They're averaging 5.1 yards per carry, the second-best figure in the NFL.

While Fargas had a breakaway run against Cleveland, his eight carries against the 49ersh ad no gain longer than 19 yards. He showed good burst and the ability to deliver a blow and finish the run.

At 6-foot, 220 pounds, Fargas is 10 pounds heavier than he was as a rookie, much stronger, and doesn't appear to have lost any of his speed.

He has a quicker first step and more explosion than Jordan, who is more of bowling ball between the tackles.

Last season, Jordan had more than 80 percent of Oakland's carries in the 14 games he played before missing the last two games with turf toe. He realizes that is excessive.

"With the exception of Shawn Alexander in Seattle, teams have to have two running backs," Jordan said.

It used to be the case in Oakland as well. When the Raiders led the league in rushing in 2001, they utilized Tyrone Wheatley and Napoleon Kaufman. When Kaufman retired, Charlie Garner came aboard to team with Wheatley.

Shell's offensive coordinator, Tom Walsh, said in training camp he is a firm believer in getting a second back involved.

"You give one guy the ball 40 times a game, it's Wednesday, and he's still in the tub, and he's got nothing left in his legs for Sunday," Walsh said. "You can't put a load on a guy and expect him to be a hammer. You've got to rotate your people, keep them fresh."

Broncos notes:

The refrain from the Denver Broncos is starting to get tiresome. They know the offense has to play better, and they figure it will start to at some point.

But four games into the season, the Broncos' offense is struggling, a rarity in the Mike Shanahan era. The Broncos, whose offense usually finishes near the top of the NFL, is 18th in total offense. They have played two home games, one of which went to overtime, and have only one touchdown in those games. Denver is averaging 12.2 points per game, tied for 28th in the NFL.

Denver hopes that things will start to turn around against the Oakland Raiders this week.

"Our defense is playing great, but we know offensively the time will come when we need to make those plays and step up whatever week that's going to be," quarterback Jake Plummer said. "If it's this week, we're hoping so because we want to put points on the board. That's what we take pride in."

The performance against Baltimore last week was ugly at times. Denver turned the ball over twice in the first quarter. The Broncos had six passing yards in the first half. "Obviously we have some work to do on that side of the ball," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said.

A surprise has been Denver's problems in the first quarter. Denver, which scripts its first 15 plays, has usually been effective at the start of games. This season the Broncos are scoreless in four first quarters.

One bright spot in the offense has been running back Tatum Bell. Bell was given the chance to get all the carries, not just be part of a rotation, and he turned in very strong games against New England and Baltimore.

Bell showed his maturity after a first quarter mistake. On his second touch of the game, Bell fumbled and Baltimore recovered. The Broncos stuck with him and he ran hard after that.

"The fumble kind of ruined my day at first," Bell said. "I had to bounce back mentally, and I was able to do that."

Bell ran hard, gaining 92 yards on 19 carries against the top ranked rushing defense in the NFL.

"He's proven he's ready to take the load," Plummer said.

His highlight play came late in the game. He was given the ball on a third and 10 and was met by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis after five yards. Bell kept churning and ran through Lewis for seven more yards.

"I knew who it was," Bell said. "I mean, I was excited after the play about it, but during the play I was just trying to get the first down."


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