Beating the hapless Chiefs has apparently saved head coach Lane Kiffin’s job for at least one more week, but if I were him, I wouldn’t be signing any long-term leases. In recent years, Al Davis has proven more adept at firing coaches than at building a roster capable of winning more than five games a season.
OFFENSE (#13 total yardage, #2 rushing, #31 passing, #19 scoring):
Daunte Culpepper and Josh McCown, who split starting duties in 2007 with mediocre results, are both long gone, and the keys to the offense have been handed to last year’s No. 1 overall pick, JaMarcus Russell. Looks like they’re willing to work through the 6-6, 260-pound Russell’s learning curve, because Andrew Walter and Marques Tuiasosopo are the only other quarterbacks on the roster. Although it’s hard to tell with Walter, who was thrown to the wolves during the Raiders’ horrid 2006 season, neither he nor Tuiasosopo would seem to be a long-term alternative.
To protect his young signalcaller, offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp will need to rely heavily on a talented stable of running backs led by No. 4 overall pick Darren McFadden (Arkansas). The former Razorback gouged a bad Chiefs defense for 164 yards on 21 carries last week, breaking several long runs to pump up his 7.0 yards-per-carry average, and the team piled up 300 rushing yards in a game for the first time in over 20 seasons. McFadden’s got all the talent to be a superstar, but a turf-toe injury could slow him down this week. (For the record, it’s not the same toe that required surgery while he was in college.) And with Justin Fargas – the team’s leading rusher last season (222 carries-1,009 yards, 4 TDs) – expected to miss the game with a groin pull, expect second-year back Michael Bush to be much more involved in the offense. Fullback Justin Griffith doesn’t get many carries, but is a decent lead blocker and receiver.
In fact, the running backs contributed a significant share of the passing game last season – accounting for 89 of the team’s 260 total receptions – and it looks like they’ll do the same in 2008. Of course, if the Raiders had better wideouts, this might not be necessary ... but the same team that lined up Jerry Rice and Tim Brown not so long ago is now relying on Ronald Curry, Ashley Lelie, and Javon Walker (if he ever comes back from his nagging hamstring injury). Tight end Zach Miller is Oakland’s most reliable passcatching target, but he’s likely to spend as much time blocking as in running routes.
The front five is better suited to run the ball than pass-protect. Former 49er Kwame Harris was brought in to play left tackle, but he’s still sitting out practice following a Week 1 knee injury, so backup Mario Henderson will likely get another start instead. If he does, he’ll line up next to Robert Gallery, a certified bust at tackle who has looked a little better since moving inside to left guard. Journeyman John Wade was brought in to play center, but has been unable to push Jake Grove out of the starting lineup. On the right side, guard Cooper Carlisle is a veteran of the Broncos-style blocking scheme employed by line coach Tom Cable; tackle Cornell Green is little more than a stopgap measure.
DEFENSE (#18 total yardage, #13 rushing, #21 passing, #23 scoring):
After finishing 2007 as the second-worst run defense in the league, the Raiders made an interesting move to shore up their front four, giving Tommy Kelly a seven-year, $50.5-million deal and moving him to tackle to replace the retired Warren Sapp. So far, the results are mixed: Denver trampled them for 142 yards and three touchdowns on the ground in the season opener, but the Chiefs could manage only 55 yards on 19 carries last week. (Then again, Kansas City also finished the game with someone named Tyler Thigpen at quarterback.) Derrick Burgess and Chris Clemons tied for the team lead with eight sacks apiece last year, racking up more than half of the 27 takedowns Oakland managed. Burgess is back at right end for another season, but Clemons is now with the Eagles, moving Jay Richardson into the starting lineup. Gerard Warren is the other tackle, with Terdell Sands also in the rotation.
WLB Thomas Howard and MLB Kirk Morrison are among the best in the league at dropping into coverage; they combined for 10 interceptions last season, including two returned for touchdowns by Howard. Former undrafted free agent Ricky Brown mans the strong side, pushing onetime starter Robert Thomas out of the lineup (and off the roster after a preseason knee injury).
Nnamdi Asomugha has quietly become a shutdown corner. Trouble was, with Fabian Washington on the other side, nobody bothered throwing in Asomugha’s direction. The Raiders think they’ve solved that problem by sending two draft picks to Atlanta for DeAngelo Hall, forcing opposing quarterbacks to choose between two Pro Bowl-worthy cover men. Stanford Routt comes in as the nickel back.
Michael Huff, the No. 7 overall pick in 2006 – one slot ahead of Donte Whitner – compared himself to Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed coming out of college, but he hasn’t had anywhere near their impact. The Raiders brought in free agent Gibril Wilson (Giants) during the offseason to play strong safety, switching Huff to free.
Sebastian Janikowski has never been known for accuracy, but he can crush a 50-yard field goal with the best of them. Against Kansas City, he hit one from 56, a new career best. He’s annually near the top of the rankings in touchbacks, which might force Bobby April to adjust his return schemes accordingly.
Likewise, three-time All-Pro Shane Lechler holds the NFL record for career punting average. He’s off to a great start again this season, averaging an unthinkable 48.2 yards per kick, but the coverage team isn’t giving him much help with his net average. They allowed two touchdowns in 2007, and they’re giving up over 11 yards per runback again this year.
With the departure of Chris Carr, speedy wide receiver Johnny Lee Higgins takes over as the Raiders’ return man. So far, he’s had better luck on kickoffs (28.6-yard average, with a long of 58) than punts (6.1-yard average).
First and foremost, Buffalo’s defense needs to worry about stopping the run. If they can accomplish that with any degree of success, they should be able to put pressure on Russell, a young quarterback making just his fourth career start. On the other side of the ball, hopefully another full week of practice for the starting offensive line plus a few shots down the field by Trent Edwards will help Marshawn Lynch find some holes against his hometown team.
The Bills are trying to start the season 3-0 for the first time since 1992. If they don’t keep the Raiders in the game with turnovers or other mistakes, they’ll succeed, and the Fire Lane Kiffin Watch will resume.
See you in Lot 1.
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