Date: Monday, Sept. 8
Time: 7:15 p.m. PDT
Site: McAfee Coliseum
Series: Raiders lead 54-39-2
Streak: Raiders, one game
By CRAIG MASSEI
For just the second time during the Mike Shanahan era - the most successful in the 49-year history of the Denver Broncos - the team wearing the horse on its helmets is coming off a losing season.
The Broncos sagged to a 7-9 finish in 2007, and for a team that is used to contending for the playoffs and AFC West championship each season, that meant big changes in Denver after the Broncos missed the postseason for the second consecutive year.
Denver dumped general manager Ted Sundquist, fired defensive boss Jim Bates after only one season on the job, then saw top offensive assistant Mike Heimerdinger leave the team to return to his old stomping grounds with the Tennessee Titans.
It was one of the biggest offseason shakeups in the 14 years Shanahan has been running the show, and the Denver braintrust hopes the changes will help get the Broncos back to their winning ways after they lost nine of their final 14 games in 2007 following a promising 2-0 start.
One of those losses was a 34-20 defeat at Oakland in December, one of the high-water marks of the Raiders' season. That ended Denver's streak of five consecutive victories over its rival from Oakland.
Despite the offseason housecleaning, the Broncos still have several solid pieces in place as they build around talented young quarterback Jay Cutler. Whether they have enough in place to close the gap on San Diego in the AFC West remains to be seen.
WHEN THE RAIDERS RUN
Running the ball was the Raiders' strength last season for an Oakland team that finished 25th in the NFL rankings in total offense, but ranked a healthy sixth in the league in rushing yards per game.
That shouldn't change much this year for the Raiders, who have added rookie sensation Darren McFadden to a running back stable that also includes Justin Fargas and Michael Bush. To get their offense going this season behind second-year quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the Raiders will need to establish their rushing attack from the get-go, and that begins here.
This might be a good place for Oakland to start in that endeavor. The Broncos ranked 30th in the league in stopping the run last year despite the exploits of outside linebacker D.J. Williams, who led the AFC and ranked second in the NFL last season in tackles.
Williams is the mainstay of a revamped linebacker corps that includes newcomer starters Niko Koutouvides and Boss Bailey. There also have been some major changes up front, where the Broncos brought in tackle Dewayne Robertson in a trade with the New York Jets to fortify their 4-3 scheme. The Broncos also will rely on tackles Marcus Thomas and Alvin McKinley, because their ends aren't particularly strong stopping the run.
WHEN THE RAIDERS PASS
The Russell era begins in full force here as the Raiders go forward with the No. 1 overall selection of the 2007 draft, who was brought along slowly during his rookie season but showed promise with increased work at the end of the season.
The Raiders must settle their issues at receiver, where they lost free-agent newcomer Drew Carter - a potential starter - to a season-ending knee injury during their third exhibition game. Russell doesn't have any history with newcomer free-agent Javon Walker, so holdover Ronald Curry may have to step up as the top target in the early going.
This will be a tough start to get the passing game going because Denver is one of the NFL's best defending the pass. The Broncos are strong on the edges with veteran cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Dre Bly.
The Broncos have made some changes at safety after releasing long-time mainstay John Lynch, and Oakland may find some success testing to the middle. But the key for the Raiders will be protecting Russell and giving him time to throw. Denver does a good job getting after the quarterback, and the Raiders must be wary of rushing ends John Engelberger and Elvis Dumervil on all passing downs.
WHEN THE BRONCOS RUN
This will be a key matchup, because the Broncos are always one of the NFL's best at running the football, and this season should be no different even though Denver parted ways with Travis Henry, who rushed for 691 yards last season while sharing time at halfback with Selvin Young.
Young, who led the Broncos with 729 yards last year in his first NFL season, is the lead back now, but he'll share time with Michael Pittman and Andre Hall in what might become a rotating situation. Denver also will rely on fullbacks Cecil Sapp and Michael Bell as both blockers and ball-carriers.
Denver's veteran line is built for success in the run game. The Broncos have a new starter at left tackle in talented first-round draft pick Ryan Clady, and he'll team with right tackle Erik Pears as the starters on the edges. The emergence of Clady persuaded the Broncos to move tackle Chris Kuper to guard, where he's now competing with holdover starters Ben Hamilton and Montrae Holland.
Casey Wiegmann anchors the line at center, and the Raiders must strike quickly at the point of attack and hold up Denver linemen to make sure this quick and experienced unit doesn't get to the second level with their backs running behind them.
WHEN THE BRONCOS PASS
Cutler now keys the Denver attack after taking over as the regular starting quarterback late in his rookie season. He had a solid sophomore season last year, throwing for 3,497 yards and 20 touchdowns, and the Broncos would like to see him build on that this year while throwing to a new set of top targets.
The Broncos lost Javon Walker in free agency to the Raiders and prolific veteran Rod Smith finally retired. Young Brandon Marshall returns after a breakout season in 2007 that included 102 receptions for 1,325 yards, but he is coming back from an offseason accident that left him with a severed artery, vein, nerve, two tendons and three muscles in his arm. He will also miss the first few games while serving an NFL suspension.
The Broncos added veteran free-agent receivers Keary Colbert, Darrell Jackson and Samie Parker in the offseason, and they will figure prominently in the attack along with veteran Brandon Stokely and perhaps rookie speedster Eddie Royal, the team's second-round draft pick.
That's a lot of targets for Cutler that the Raiders must keep track of. A key will be getting good pressure on Cutler, who doesn't do as well when he's hurried. Oakland's defensive strength last year was pass defense, so the Raiders will be ready for whatever the Broncos throw at them.
Four of Denver's seven wins last year came on Jason Elam field goals. But the Broncos allowed their longtime star kicker, who made every field-goal attempt from within 40 yards over the past two years, to sign with the Atlanta Falcons during the offseason.
Inexperienced Matt Prater takes over for Elam, whose career in Denver marked him as one of the best kickers in NFL history. Prater has a big leg but still needs to prove he can be accurate in the clutch on field goals. The Broncos also are breaking in a new leg at punter, where youngsters Danny Baugher and Sam Paulescu were battling for the job this summer after veteran Todd Sauerbrun failed in the role last year.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler are back for another year in those roles with the Raiders, while Johnny Lee Higgins appears ready to take over in both return roles after a shaky rookie season.
The Broncos appear set to go with Royal as their top return man, with Hall also returning kickoffs. Both teams will be looking for improvement from 2007 on their coverage units, particularly their punt coverage teams, which ranked 26th (Denver) and 27th (Oakland) in the league last season.
PREDICTION: Raiders 24, Broncos 20
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