AFC West: Jason Tarver

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The gut feeling is Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen survives Tuesday’s meeting with owner Mark Davis, a self-described patient man who, nonetheless, wants to see progress in the wake of back-to-back 4-12 seasons in which the Raiders lost eight of their last nine games both years.

As a league source told last week, “Dennis Allen is the coach until he’s no longer the coach. The only people firing Dennis Allen right now are the media.”

But could Allen walk out of the sit-down unemployed? Yes, especially if he essentially fires himself by falling on the sword on behalf of his staff.

Only two of Allen’s assistants from this past season -- offensive coordinator Greg Olson and linebackers coach Bob Sanders -- have contracts for 2014. Though Allen wants to re-up the assistants he wants to retain for two years, Davis is only willing to go one year, a different league source said.

Who seems most worthy of such job security and would be essential to the continuity Oakland so desperately needs?

Let’s start with defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who has shown flashes, defensive line coach Terrell Williams, special teams coordinator Bobby April, assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tony Sparano, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and running backs coach Kelly Skipper.

If Davis is unwilling to bend, it would seemingly corner Allen. Plus, with the Raiders about to have some $60-plus million to spend in free agency, what kind of message would that send to free agents? It would be hard to tell quality players to commit to Oakland long-term if the coaching staff and its philosophy are relative short-timers.

Or, imagine courting and signing a prototypical 4-3, hand-in-the-dirt speed-rushing defensive end for 2014, and then firing the staff and a new coach switches to a 3-4 defense. Same thing with a press-cornerback who then has to learn how to play soft zone. It just won’t work.

Thinking out loud here, but if that is indeed the case, Davis should go ahead and part with Allen now to bring in a new coach with a new staff and new schemes to impress upon free agents going forward. And that's not considering the feelings of general manager Reggie McKenzie.

No, I’m not advocating one position over the other. There are seemingly as many pros as cons to each scenario.
ALAMEDA, Calif. – When the Oakland Raiders' defense was a top-10 unit near the midpoint of the season, second-year defensive coordinator Jason Tarver was a mad scientist, of sorts. He was mixing and matching and blitzing with aplomb, and it was working.

Now? Not so much. And that’s no secret, nor is it even a rip of Tarver. Which is why I asked him if he was pleased with the progress of his defense from Week 1 through the eve of the season’s end.

“I would say this on the progress – I like the question – I would say this: There are going to be ups and downs as you go through the year,” he said Thursday. “I think certain players have been able to handle it and be consistent. I think some of the other ones have learned and shown the ability to work through pain and things like that, that maybe they haven’t experienced before.

“I think that there are definitely some things that have shown who you want to keep and who you don’t going forward.”

Tarver also made what sounded like a call for continuity on the coaching staff.

“And I think the biggest thing that it shows is if you don’t stick with a process in this league – the teams that win have a process from building up personnel and working forward,” Tarver said. “The hand that the Oakland Raiders were handed when we stepped into this building was one where we couldn’t make a lot of [roster] moves. And the moves that were made by this organization had to be made. And as you look at the progress and process, you knew through this little window that there were going to be some dramatic ups and downs – not an established quarterback … on defense, 10 new starters – whatever the case may be.

“If you don’t have a process and you don’t stick with something, you maybe get one little year blip, and then we’ll go right back down …[you knew] there were going to be ups and downs … because there were too many unknowns. But a lot of those unknowns have become knowns. And that’s a good thing.”

Got it? Good.

Then with so many purported unknowns when it comes to this coaching staff’s future in Oakland – owner Mark Davis is taking a wait-and-see approach – does Tarver’s defense need a signature moment against the Denver Broncos this weekend to solidify its stance to ensure continuity?

“I would say this: What we’ve been able to do and what a good staff does is put players in a position to make a play,” Tarver said. “That’s our job, to put players in a position to make a play to the best of our ability. For the most part we’ve gotten that done. Is there a signature moment? I mean, this is an exceptional football team [in Denver]. You hear me talk about the challenges and all those things. I mean … let’s roll the ball out and see who wants to step up and who wants to play.

“Is there going to be a signature? I don’t know. I’m excited to play the game. I’m excited to watch these guys play. I know they’ll play better than the first time they played because now they know the pace. So I don’t know. That’s the answer. 'I don’t know' is an answer, especially early in the week. By the time you get to game day it’s not an answer.”
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Pat Sims started a combined nine games in his previous three NFL seasons. So you would imagine being a starter for an entire season for the Oakland Raiders would tax the defensive tackle down the stretch.

Except ...

Sims, who was dinged up in training camp, is playing his best football of the season of late. He had a career-high 15 tackles in the Raiders' 26-13 loss at the San Diego Chargers last weekend and has a sack in each of his past two games.
"As far as the D-tackle, we don't always have the major stats here and there, but at the same time I go out there and do my job every week," Sims said Thursday. "The stats have picked up but I'm still playing with the same effort."

Well ...

"I think he's done a good job of focusing in, and I hope he does it this week and continues," said defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. "He's becoming a little bit more of the wrecking ball that we thought he could be and really rolling off and using his hands and being consistent with his hands and knocking people back.

"He's so big and strong that when he just sets his mind and does that call right, he can be really good. So again, I'm expecting that out of him this week, and I think he'll play well. And that's good for him in the future."

Surely, Tarver has to wonder why Sims was not as dominant throughout the course of the entire season, right?

"Sure, but that's why you coach and you play," Tarver said. "That's why players need coaches and coaches need players. We've just got to keep working our process and getting better at all times. He's gotten better, so that's good."

The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Sims is one of seven starters on defense who are entering their final game under contract with the Raiders. And with continuity being a point of emphasis for this coaching staff, it wants to retain players it sees as keepers.

Sims, who spent his first five seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals and never had more than five tackles in any of his previous 74 games, was not sure what the future might hold for him, though.

Then would the prospect of returning to Oakland intrigue him?

"I wouldn't mind," he said, "but at the same time it's not left up to me. I can't do anything about that."

Then what about ending this season on a good note by upsetting the Denver Broncos on Sunday?

"It can set a tone for the offseason but at the same time we're losing a lot of players after this year," he said. "If you had more players coming back it would probably mean something, but for the players who are coming back it could mean a lot to them.

"Whoever they bring in, they're just going to have to step up to the plate."

Kind of like how Sims has brought it the past few weeks.
ALAMEDA, Calif. – The improvement of the Oakland Raiders' defense has been as stunning as it has been rebuilt.

With 10 new starters, the Raiders just a few weeks ago had the 10th-ranked defense in the NFL (the anomaly that was the blowout loss to Philadelphia has them at No. 17 overall now), and they currently have the No. 6 rushing defense. Last year, Oakland was 18th against the run.

At the center of this Raiders revival is their new middle linebacker, Nick Roach. A year after Oakland finally gave up on a failed first-round draft pick in Rolando McClain, Roach has been a model of consistency. And calm.

"Nick is amazing in how fast he can go to the next play," Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said. "He's just onto the next play. He will align guys and use his rules.

"The guys that can focus in the moment like that are special, and he's special that way. He can just flush whatever has happened [and] go onto the next play, which allows you to do those things. It really does."

Roach spent his first six seasons with the Chicago Bears, where he was primarily a strongside linebacker. He signed a free-agent deal with the Raiders in March and moved to the middle, and he now leads the team with 68 tackles (48 solo) and has two sacks.

Perhaps more impressive is the fact that he has yet to come off the field, having played all 688 snaps this season, per Pro Football Focus.

Roach shrugged.

"I feel like that's just part of the job description," he said. "I wouldn't like to come off the field at any point. I realize that it's a blessing to be able to play all the snaps because things happen that are out of your control all the time. So hopefully I've been able to take advantage of it to the fullest so far."

There have been no complaints.

“Beyond being a good player, Nick's a good person," said rookie linebacker Sio Moore. "I think that's what correlates to his field play and, really, how he prepares, how he goes about his business on the field. I sit next to him every day, so I try and take something from him every day.

"He doesn't say much. He just goes out there and is effective."

Indeed. In last week's win over the Houston Texans, Roach got his first career interception when he picked off Case Keenum with about four minutes to go in the first quarter. The takeaway set the Raiders up at the Texans’ 16-yard line, and one play later, Matt McGloin hit Rod Streater for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

"Every dog has his day," Roach said. "I'll put it that way."

Especially if said dog plays every snap.

How will Raiders defense respond?

November, 8, 2013
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver insists he's "excited" to see his defense take the field again.

The embarrassing showing against the Philadelphia Eagles, in which the Raiders were torched for an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes by Nick Foles, was more aberration than the norm, Tarver said.

"Nobody wants that taste in their mouth," Tarver said Thursday. "We've had two good days of practice.

"There are some basic things that we've done pretty well for six for sure, and part of seven weeks, and then one week we just didn't do it and that's what it comes down to. It's not what you do; it's how you do it … when you're supposed to set the edge, set the edge. When you're supposed to tackle the quarterback or the running back when they do their read scheme, tackle whichever one you're supposed to tackle. And those are the biggest things. That's it. We talk about top-down coverage every day. We had done a great job of top-down coverage for seven games, and we will come right back and do a good job of top-down coverage because we learned our lesson."

The Raiders entered that Eagles game with the No. 10-ranked total team defense in the NFL. After falling 49-20, giving up 542 yards and 21 first downs in 57 plays, they are now No. 18 heading east to play the New York Giants.

But even Giants coach Tom Coughlin said he would glean next-to-nothing from the Raiders' most recent game film.

"It makes you scratch your head, there's no doubt," Coughlin said in a conference call with Bay Area reporters. "There's a lot of evidence prior to that – let's face it, the undefeated [Kansas City] Chiefs had 216 yards of total offense against the Raiders. So yeah, you've had two teams, the [Denver] Broncos and the Eagles, who've both scored a lot of points against them and the way we look at it is that the Eagles just had one of those days -- guys falling down in coverage … DeSean Jackson runs the post route, he's well covered, the ball falls in his hands.

"So those things just happen and were prevalent on that particular day … it really was a kind of shake-your-head kind of a deal."

Tarver and his defense, meanwhile, will be facing a quarterback in Eli Manning who leads the league in interceptions with 15, but who is coming off a bye week and did not throw a pick in his previous two games.

"I just kind of have eliminated that game from my preparation," Manning said of the Raiders' loss to the Eagles. "Philadelphia caught every break and for Oakland, everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong.

"If you look at the other games this season, their defense plays at a high level. They do a good job getting pressure on quarterbacks and making plays defensively and doing a lot of good things, and not many teams have scored a lot of points on them. You have to understand that they have really good players and a good scheme and we have to play really well."

The Giants also have only the NFL's No. 30-ranked rushing attack, averaging 69.9 yards per game.

"The best part about football is you've always got that next week," Tarver said. "There are 16 weeks that you get, so you look at it, you learn, and you put it to bed and you say, ‘We've got another opportunity.'

"These guys, they're professionals … they learn from their mistakes. They want to be great, and that's how they've practiced for two days."

But will it translate on Sunday?
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- We already know that Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver is not afraid to let referees know how he feels in the heat of a game. But really, how does he feel about what his defense has accomplished through seven games of his second season in Oakland?

Despite 10 new starters on defense, and the lone returner, defensive end Lamarr Houston, having switched from the left side to the right, Oakland has the No. 10-ranked defense at the midway point of the season.

[+] EnlargeJason Tarver
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsDespite a good deal of turnover, Jason Tarver has the Raiders' defense playing well.
But as the Raiders prepare to host the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Tarver, with his college degrees in chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology, refuses to take credit for his formula, so to speak.

“There are no perfect calls; there’s only perfect execution,” Tarver said Thursday. “That’s how we approach it. ‘Hey, look, do your job. Do your job and do it with that kind of passion and if you’re not doing it with passion, you’re going to hear about it.’

“But there’s very few of our guys that are that way, and that’s where we’re very thankful for Reggie and Dennis for who they’ve brought into our room, and they keep bringing in our room. Because these guys want to be great.”

Indeed, it’s a team effort, from general manager Reggie McKenzie to coach Dennis Allen on down through the defensive coordinator, the position coaches and the players.

Fourteen different players are responsible for the Raiders’ 21 sacks – they had 25 sacks all of last season – with Houston leading the way with four. And five players have combined for five interceptions, from safeties Charles Woodson and Usama Young to cornerbacks Mike Jenkins, Tracy Porter and first-round pick D.J. Hayden.

“Charles Woodson is a cat that’s been around for a long time and can still make plays,” said Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s leading rusher. “And Houston, he’s a guy who can make plays and who stands out. And also, the way they structure their blitzes, they look good. They’re a fast group and a lot of credit to that defense.

“I’ll tell you what -- it seems like they all have a big motor. They know who they are. They all work hard for the ball. They’re a big athletic group, they play well together. It’s going to be a tough game. They play extremely well against the run. I’m curious to see what happens.”

The Eagles have the fifth-best total offense, and are second in rushing, averaging 150.4 yards on the ground despite being a spread-attack offense. The Raiders have the sixth-best defense against the run, allowing just 89.9 yards per game.

“You have to be able to get lined up and you have to be able to attack the line of scrimmage,” Allen said. “You have to get 11 hats around the ball. That’ll be critical again because this guy [McCoy] is a good back and he can make a guy miss in space. So we have to try to limit the space that we have to make tackles in, and then we have to get multiple guys to the ball to make sure we get this guy down.”

And that assignment comes down to the Raiders’ mad scientist of a defensive coordinator. Tarver is relishing the challenge.

“We’re turning bad [defense] into good,” he said. “Now, if you slow down this running game, you’re turning good into great. When we go in there, we’re looking for ways to do it, but most of it is the execution of whatever calls you put them in quickly against this team to do what we need to do.

“Greatness is not one thing. It sure as heck doesn’t have to do with me. I don’t cross that white line. I don’t play, but our job is just to put them in position to make plays. The more that you do it together, the more plays you make.”

Upon Further Review: Raiders Week 8

October, 28, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Oakland Raiders' 21-18 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers:

No staying power: For the fourth straight home game the Raiders had a quick start, only for the offense to play the second half as if stuck in neutral. Against Washington, it was a 14-0 lead before losing 24-14. Against San Diego, the Raiders led 17-0 before hanging on for a 27-17 victory. Two weeks ago, it was a 7-0 lead at Kansas City that would have been 10-0 were it not for a missed field goal. And Sunday, the Raiders led 21-3 before beating Pittsburgh 21-18. Without saying it outright, quarterback Terrelle Pryor hinted the play calling got conservative in the second half against the Steelers, and the Raiders were trying to salt away an 18-point lead. Oakland, though, lost its momentum and had but one first down and 35 yards of offense after halftime. Coach Dennis Allen admitted the Raiders need to find a killer instinct.

[+] EnlargeOakland's Darren McFadden
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsDid the Raiders get too conservative with their play calling in the second half?
FedEx for Tarver? So incensed was defensive coordinator Jason Tarver at a personal foul call on cornerback Mike Jenkins with 8:48 left in the third quarter that Tarver was caught by TV cameras giving a one-finger salute to the officials. And no, he was not telling them they were No. 1. Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira wrote an online column saying he took it upon himself to alert the NFL about Tarver giving the refs the bird, er, business, and Tarver should expect a fine from the league. Three years ago, Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil was slapped with a $40,000 fine for flipping off the refs when he disagreed with a penalty. Oh, and the flags thrown at Jenkins were picked up, resulting in no penalty.

Ford stalls: Three years ago Jacoby Ford was a playmaking game-changer for the Raiders. Sunday, he could not get out of his own way. Ford badly misplayed two punts, allowing one to be downed at the 1-yard line, the other to nearly glance off him for a turnover. He fumbled another punt return out of bounds and lost a fumble on a short pass catch in the flat. The Steelers turned that turnover into their first touchdown. “You put the ball on the ground in a game like that, you’re giving them an opportunity to get back in the game,” Allen said. “Good teams don’t do that.”

Of explosive plays VII: And now for our weekly tracking of “explosive” plays. As deemed by Allen, such a play is one that gains at least 16 yards through the air or 12 yards on the ground. The Raiders had four such plays against Pittsburgh: two runs, including Pryor’s 93-yard scamper on the first play of the game, and two passes, while the Steelers had five explosive plays, all passes. In seven games, the Raiders have 49 explosive plays (17 runs, 32 passes), with two TD runs and four passing scores. Oakland’s opponents, meanwhile, have 46 explosive plays, nine runs and 37 passes with a touchdown each way.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver has a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Santa Clara and a master’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from UCLA.

So go ahead, call him a mad professor, of sorts, as you imagine the second-year coordinator in a lab within the walls of 1220 Harbor Bay Parkway with a beaker in each hand and electricity flashing about as he concocts a scheme to confuse the next quarterback.

“Yeah, a lab coat, glasses, pens in his pocket,” laughed veteran free safety Charles Woodson. “I can see the whole thing.

“It’s been fun for me playing under him, and I know we can get better with him.”

[+] EnlargeJason Tarver
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsJason Tarver's defense has kept opponents off-balance, not through complexity but simplicity.
Tarver has remade the Raiders’ defense -- after the broken leg suffered by strong safety Tyvon Branch in Week 2, Oakland has just one returning starter on defense in defensive end Lamarr Houston, and he switched from the left to the right side -- in his own image.

The defense is as quick and excitable as it is unpredictable and successful. Indeed, it is the strength of the team as it enters the bye week with a 2-4 record that could just as easily be 4-2 … or better with a break here or there.

“You turn bad into good, good into great,” Tarver said this week. “You guys have heard that from me before and that’s what we’re trying to do. The last three weeks it’s turned closer to good, but we’ve got to turn it into great.”

Two weeks ago, the Raiders flummoxed San Diego’s Philip Rivers in a game the Raiders led 17-0 at halftime and won 27-17.

Last week, Alex Smith, considered one of the smartest signal-callers in the league, admitted the Raiders confused him at times in Kansas City’s eventual 24-7 victory.

“They did a great job mixing it up,” said Smith, who was sacked three times in the first quarter.

“I felt like we never could get a read on it, on what they were doing … they just kept rolling through the calls and mixing it. They did a great job. They caught us off guard a few times. They caught me off guard.”

Yet Raiders players say the defense has not been overhauled to the liking of a biochemist. Rather, it’s been simplified.

“He’s able to take something that might seem complicated, break it down and make it as simple as you can for the players,” Raiders coach Dennis Allen said of Tarver. “I think us as coaches, sometimes we over-coach. When you over-coach, you tend to slow your players down. You want to try to make it as simple as possible so that your players can play fast.”

Six games in, the Raiders have the No. 13-ranked defense in the NFL, No. 10 against the run. They are also on pace for 43 sacks this season after having 25 in 2012.

“I’m not surprised at how well we’ve played defensively,” Woodson said. “I thought, seeing this team in minicamp and then in training camp, the way that we prepared, I thought we’d be a good defense, I really did. And I think we’re playing well but again, there’s those moments in games where we can get out of situations, and help our team out.

“That’s the difference between being a good defense and being a great defense.”

The mad scientist in Tarver is not afraid to dial up an exotic blitz in any situation, so long as it’s, well, smart.

Then how is Oakland able to confuse a scholarly quarterback like Smith when there’s so much subterfuge that is just that? Window dressing?

“It’s categories,” Tarver said. “We can make the look look totally different by only switching two or three guys and what they do. ‘Hey guys, you all know this call, right? Well, you two guys are going to switch.’ So now, to an offense, it looks totally different because somebody is blitzing and somebody is dropping when it’s the same call to everybody else.

“That’s how we function -- we put things in categories and that’s how we can learn them. That’s where we want to go. We’re scratching the surface of where this thing can go, and that’s being multiple but still simple for us, but it looks like a lot more than it is to them.”

Of course, there is still the rogue quarterback who cares little for what smoke and mirrors the Raiders bring. Guy by the name of Peyton Manning, who torched the Raiders for 374 yards on 32-of-37 passing with three touchdowns in Denver’s 37-21 victory on Sept. 23.

No surprise then that that was the only game the Raiders were not in position to win.

Going forward, though, the Raiders’ next seven opponents have a combined record of 15-26, and none of them has a winning record.

Until the offense finds consistency and special teams brings explosive results, the Raiders’ lot will fall on the defense, and the guy who could be working in a lab will keep working on his concoctions.

Beakers -- not to be confused with former linebacker Greg Biekert -- or no beakers, it’s about that fine line between teaching and over-coaching.

“You don’t want to take the feel away from a football player,” Tarver said. “It’s different for every player. It’s different at every level and we really try to go in the room and figure out what the guys need to help them make plays because that’s why we’re here -- to help these guys make plays.”

Rapid Reaction: Oakland Raiders

October, 13, 2013

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A few thoughts on the Oakland Raiders' 24-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs:

What it means: The Raiders outplayed the Chiefs in virtually every aspect of the game in the first half, and the game was tied 7-7 at the half. A missed 51-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski and a pass interference inside the 10-yard line opened the door for Kansas City and injuries to the Raiders' offensive line sealed Oakland’s fate. Depth, on the offensive line, especially, was tested. While Darren McFadden did play, he was not near the home run threat he was in rushing for at least 100 yards in both meetings against the Chiefs last year. And, yes, the noise at Arrowhead, as the crowd tried to set a record, had an effect on the Raiders' offense. Oh, and the Raiders’ seven-game winning streak at Arrowhead came to an end.

Stock watch: Rising -- Jason Tarver. The Raiders’ mad scientist of a defensive coordinator was blitzing with aplomb early and often. Oakland had three sacks of Alex Smith in the first quarter -- by Sio Moore, Nick Roach and Vance Walker -- and it was the first time the Raiders had three sacks since moving back to Oakland in 1995. Tarver drew up enough plays to keep the Raiders in the game, which might have been enough had the offense been able to sustain any drives after taking a 7-0 lead.

More duct tape, please: Let’s see: LT Khalif Barnes, LG Lucas Nix, C Mike Brisiel, RG Lamar Mady, RT Matt McCants. Yes, that was the Raiders’ offensive line in the second half after RT Tony Pashos was lost to a groin injury and C Andre Gurode hurt a knee. And Gurode was replacing Stefen Wisniewski. And Barnes moved over to replace Menelik Watson. And Watson was replacing Jared Veldheer and, you get the picture. This offensive line was not what anyone dressed in silver and black had in mind in training camp, let alone this week.

A learning lesson: Terrelle Pryor, like the Raiders' defense, put on a clinic in the first half. In the second half, behind that makeshift line, and with deafening noise crashing down, Pryor was taken to school. Three ill-advised passes were picked off, resulting in 17 points for the Chiefs, including a pick-six.

What's next: The Raiders (2-4) are off as they try to heal on their bye week.

Did Pryor prep Raiders' D for RG III?

September, 27, 2013
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- While it is not known yet if Terrelle Pryor will set foot on the field Sunday, the concussed Raiders quarterback’s skill set will have already left an impression.

A training camp and early season's worth of practices against Pryor should have Oakland’s defense in some semblance of readiness for Washington’s Robert Griffin III.

“Yeah, it helps,” Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said. “Our defenses go in from day one with the responsibilities of what people are calling this 'read-option,' which is option mechanics. It’s option football. So from day one this defense is, How do we take care of this? What are your rules? Well, apply your rules.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
AP Photo/Jack DempseyPracticing against their own quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, should have the Raiders prepared to face Robert Griffin III on Sunday.
“So whatever call we’re in, our players need to apply their rules that they’ve done since day one. And it’s always good to see it in camp from a quarterback like T.P., and he did a great job running it and the formations that we used in camp were very hard ones. So that was good for us. It helped.”

Of course, there’s no substitute for the real thing, even if enough shine has come off RG III in these first three games that he’s known derisively in some corners now as RG 0-3.

In his last game, though, Griffin looked closer to the electric rookie he was a year ago. Meanwhile, the Raiders were shredded by Denver’s Peyton Manning.

“It’s a tough defense, they fly to the ball,” Griffin said of Oakland on a conference call with Bay Area reporters this week. “People say that they’re not that good because of what happened with them Monday night against the Broncos, but watching the tape you can see how aggressive they are and how they fly to the football. I am definitely impressed, and I know it’s going to be a challenge for us.”

As will containing Griffin, bad knee or not, be for the Raiders.

“I think once he gets out, he can run,” Tarver said. “He scrambled last week. People are making a big deal out of his sliding, which that one slide he did fumble the ball and he wants [Washington Nationals outfielder] Bryce Harper to help him or whatever, but he can still run straight ahead. Once he gets going, he’s going pretty fast. We need to be correct in our lanes.”

According to Pro Football Focus, the Raiders missed 19 tackles Monday night. Griffin would seemingly make Oakland pay a significantly steeper price if the Raiders are unable to wrap him up.

“Again, it’s the same thing -- it starts with ourselves,” Tarver said. “This starts with ourselves. We played two pretty good games where we took care of what we could control. And we played one where we can obviously tackle better and take care of our own stuff better.

“And that’s what we’re going to do.”

What to watch for: Broncos-Raiders

September, 23, 2013
McFaddenKirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Preseason predictions are often a dicey affair, both for those who make them and, sometimes, for those who believe them.

The prevailing wisdom, as it were, throughout the summer was the AFC West schedule would provide little challenge to the Broncos’ course of business this season. And while the tale has certainly not been told either way in the early going, Andy Reid’s Chiefs have launched themselves from the gate with a 3-0 start, having surrendered just 34 points in those three games.

The Raiders and Chargers are each 1-1, having shown far more grit than some expected as they continue through their re-building projects. So, that is how the table is set for the Broncos as they open their division schedule Monday night against the Raiders in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

“Our guys understand the magnitude of division games,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox. “I think our goal every year -- I’m sure, like the rest of the teams in our division -- is to win the division. Obviously, your division record is conducive to getting in the playoffs -- winning your division. It’s a huge game and it’s our first of the year.’’

So in that light, here are some things to consider about tonight’s affair:

  • McFadden has it McGoing. The Raiders essentially re-tooled their run game -- and fired former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp (now happily the Broncos quarterbacks coach) -- because Darren McFadden couldn’t find a fit in Knapp’s playbook. So, the playbook was sent packing. The Raiders are more man-on-man blocking in the run game in what is now a read-option offense much of the time. Some defensive coordinators would call it a “downhill’’ attack, meaning they like to often pull linemen inside, run between the guards and pound away. They’ve done it well enough in two games to have averaged 198.5 yards rushing per game and McFadden has 177 rushing yards. The Raiders repeatedly pounded the ball, often pulling left tackle Khalif Barnes into the hole, at Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny. They run out of a two-back set plenty and the Broncos figure to spend more time in their base defense than they did in the first two games. During the preseason, both the 49ers and Seahawks had some success pounding away at the Broncos' base defense, which is some of the reason Wesley Woodyard was moved into the middle linebacker spot. Woodyard will need a no-nonsense, get-it-done night in this one. McFadden has always been feast or famine against the Broncos. The Broncos have held McFadden to fewer than 50 yards rushing in four career meetings, but overall in his nine career games against Denver, McFadden has rushed for 723 yards, at 5.8 yards per carry, to go with five touchdowns.
  • Be disciplined on D. When the Broncos dropped the read-option on the league in 2011 with Tim Tebow at quarterback, at least part of the success was the NFL mindset overall on defense. That getting up the field was Job 1, that disruptive edge rushers both get paid and pay the bills. And those running the read-option love edge players who want to only get up the field, gap control be damned. And when the Broncos ran the read-option down the stretch that year, it took several weeks for defenses to adjust and the point totals started to go down for the Broncos. It all means defensive ends Robert Ayers, Derek Wolfe and Shaun Phillips (he’s questionable after missing Saturday’s practice with back spasms), have to follow a John Wooden maxim -- play fast, but don’t be in a hurry. The Broncos have seen what it looks like -- all the way to a division title and a playoff win in ’11 -- when defenses don’t handle their business against the read-option. They also know what it looks like when defenses do.
  • Tricks and treats. When McFadden was at the University of Arkansas, the Razorbacks coaching staff often let him line up as the quarterback in the shotgun -- the Wildcat look -- to take the direct snap and do his thing. The Raiders, in their new offensive scheme, have flashed that as well. It’s another test of assignment discipline because McFadden threw seven touchdown passes in his career at Arkansas and has the ability to put the ball on target.
  • Twenty-somethings. The Raiders have nine sacks this season with five of them coming from defensive backs. Coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver add players from the secondary liberally to the rush. There were several defensive snaps against the Jaguars when the Raiders had four- and five-man rush schemes and two of the players headed to the quarterback were defensive backs. Certainly there is a risk-reward in all of that. The reward, for a defense, is it’s often hard to track rushers coming from that far off the ball and offensive linemen will make mistakes at times. So, often a defensive back with some up-field skill will get a clean run at a quarterback. The risk is a defense suddenly has players in the passing lane who are not really pass defenders. They are more deterrents, told to get into a specific spot to force a quarterback trained to move through progression to look elsewhere when he sees the wrong color jerseys in front of him. But for an accurate quarterback who can fit the ball into coverage, it can open up big-play possibilities. The Broncos certainly have that kind of quarterback in Peyton Manning, who routinely digests blitz packages like breath mints, especially pressure off the edge which opposing defensive coordinators say he sees better than most in his pre-snap reads. It will be intriguing to see how aggressive the Raiders are, but they may have no choice. If Allen and Tarver feel it’s going to be difficult for the team's re-made secondary to hold up in coverage against Manning they may feel they have no choice other than to go after the future Hall of Famer.
  • Perhaps bigger? The Broncos have sported a three-wide receiver, two-tight end set at times in Fox’s tenure with the team. And while that essentially tells the defense a pass is coming, the Broncos have been effective using it in the past to widen the formation a bit and push the edge rushers out, forcing them to cover a little more ground to get to the quarterback. With Joel Dreessen close to coming back -- he is the Broncos' best combination of receiver/blocker at the position and is listed as questionable for this game -- the Broncos could be inclined to break it out again against the aggressive Raiders. It would be a departure of the plan so far, given the Broncos have lined up in three-wide, with one tight end and one running back, on 72.3 percent of their offensive snaps in their two games. However, in both the season opener and last Sunday against the Giants, the Broncos snapped their offense back on track by going to a traditional two-tight end look for a selection of snaps.

Double Coverage: Raiders at Broncos

September, 20, 2013
Peyton Manning, Terrelle PryorGetty Images, AP PhotoPeyton Manning and the Broncos look to improve to 3-0 as they face Terrelle Pryor and the division-rival Raiders.
The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders open up AFC West play with a Monday night affair at Sports Authority Field at Mile High -- an 8:40 p.m. ET kickoff with the ESPN crew on hand.

The Raiders have played hard for coach Dennis Allen and sit at 1-1 after a win over the low-octane Jacksonville Jaguars last weekend. The Broncos intercepted Eli Manning four times on the way to a win over the New York Giants that moved them to 2-0.

Raiders team reporter Paul Gutierrez and Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold break down this week’s edition of a long-simmering rivalry between the longtime division foes.

Legwold: After seeing Peyton Manning twice last season, Dennis Allen certainly knows the kind of problems the Broncos create for defenses. He also knows Denver's first-year offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, very well. What does Allen think of the Broncos running their high-speed attack at altitude and the challenge it will be for a defense that got a big makeover in the offseason?

Gutierrez: There is no doubt that this will be a huge test for the rebuilding Raiders in general and Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver in particular. This is especially true with strong safety Tyvon Branch out for an indefinite amount of time with a broken leg. Not only is Branch the highest-paid Raider this season at $9.5 million, but he also started 63 of the Raiders’ past 66 games and was one of just two returning starters on defense.

While Oakland is tied for the league lead with nine sacks, five of them have come from defensive backs, and we all know how adept Manning is at picking up blitzes. So the Raiders, who will be mostly in nickel packages, will have to pick their spots wisely against Manning and that pass-happy offense while trying to get their first turnover of the season. They will need to continue to build an identity of a defense that flies to the ball, mile-high air be damned. Manning looks to be better than ever, yet there’s still the question of how his body is going to react to a brutal blind-side hit. Have the Broncos taken any extra measures to ensure that does not happen, or is that not even a concern for him anymore?

Legwold: They are concerned any time Manning takes a hit. During the preseason loss in Seattle, rookie running back Montee Ball missed a blitz pick-up and Manning took what was one of the biggest hits of his tenure in Denver. When the Broncos go to its three-wide set, the team places on emphasis on pass-protectors in the backfield. That’s a big reason why running back Knowshon Moreno has played most of the snaps when they have been in their three-wide look. But overall Manning is stronger this season. The receivers say his arm is stronger as well. Throw in his increased comfort level with the city, the team, the offense and his receivers, and you see why he has thrown for nine touchdowns in two games. Sticking with the quarterbacks, why do you think Allen went with Terrelle Pryor as the starter and what can folks in Denver expect from him?

Gutierrez: The decision to start Pryor was made for Allen. And no, I’m not talking about owner Mark Davis meddling in football affairs, although it is known throughout Silver-and-Blackdom that the Son of Al does like Pryor's potential. A brutal preseason showing by quarterback Matt Flynn forced the decision for the Raiders. I might argue that Flynn is actually a better, more polished NFL quarterback at this moment than Pryor. But with the injuries on the offensive line at the end of camp, no time for Flynn to set up in the pocket and the lack of a true No. 1 receiver, Pryor and his ability to extend plays give the Raiders the best chance at success.

He almost pulled off the upset in the opener at Indianapolis, passing for 217 yards and running for a franchise quarterback record 112 yards. Still, two red-zone interceptions were too much to overcome. He was not as electric in the Raiders’ home opener against Jacksonville but he did not have to be. Not with Darren McFadden breaking out for 129 yards on the ground. Pryor wants to be a prototypical pocket passer, and maybe that should be commended. But even his position coach, John DiFilippo, told me the Raiders want him to run. I think we’ll see more of that Monday night in Denver, especially if the Broncos bite hard on the zone read-option in trying to stuff McFadden at the line. Having said that, how adept are the Broncos at dealing with the zone read? Obviously they practiced against it a few years back with Tim Tebow there.

Legwold: You could argue it was the Broncos who really got the zone read-option rolling in 2011. It was a decision made in desperation, however, after watching Detroit devour Tebow in the pocket. So, against the Raiders, no less, they dropped the read option on the NFL world and rode it into the playoffs that year. The coaches have vast experience with it and have taken it apart on many levels when they were trying to predict how defenses would align themselves against it in 2011. Nobody else was using it, so they had to sort of predict how people would defend them because there was no real video to go on at that time.

They often played devil’s advocate when looking at the scheme and it has enabled them to be a little ahead of the curve when preparing for someone else’s version. The intriguing part will be if the Raiders keep the Broncos in base defense. Both the 49ers and Seahawks moved the ball well against the Broncos’ base defense during cameo appearances by the starters in August. But the Broncos' defense also benefits from Manning’s ability to put the points on the board, because offenses often end up in catch-up mode. In terms of the Raiders' offense overall, they lead the NFL in rushing, so how have they kick-started McFadden after a frustrating 2012 season for him?

Gutierrez: McFadden, when right, is one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL. The Broncos would be the first to attest to that fact. In nine career games against Denver, he has rushed for 723 yards, five touchdowns, and has also caught 15 passes for 120 yards and two more scores. His 5.8 yards-per-carry average against Denver is his best against any opponent in his six-year career. So what got him on track last week? Well, for one, he’s healthy (remember, he’ has never played in more than 13 games in a season). Two, and this would be my biggest criticism of Allen’s rookie season, McFadden is no longer running behind a zone-blocking scheme. He averaged a career-low 3.3 yards behind the scheme last year. The Raiders returned to a base power-blocking scheme this year.

Still, the game plan is similar in that it calls for McFadden to run into the line for negligible gains time and again in hopes of popping a big gainer. It worked to perfection against Jacksonville, when McFadden had runs of 30, 28, 26 and 24 yards. Still he had just 21 total yards on 15 other carries. McFadden has to be patient in this system. Speaking of patience, it does not look like Manning has had to have much time in developing a chemistry with Wes Welker. How well is Welker fitting into the Broncos’ scheme in his first year with Manning after six years with Tom Brady in New England?

Legwold: They have meshed quickly, as you would expect from two guys who have done so much already in their careers. The issue for the Broncos, really, is they have to be able to consistently stay in a three-wide set to use Welker to his fullest potential. When they have had some choppiness on offense to open both games, it’s because they have not consistently protected Manning while making room for the running game out of the three-wide formation. Against the Ravens and Giants, they have moved to a two-tight end look to get things going and it worked well both times. But when they move out of three-wide that takes Welker off the field. But when he’s in the game there is no situation when Manning doesn’t look for him. Welker did have three drops against the Giants. The Broncos, overall, will use him deeper down the field than the Patriots did at times. Looking at the passing game, with Ryan Clady out for the remainder of the season with a foot injury it’s a good time to ask how the Raiders' defense finds itself tied for the league lead in sacks after two games?

Gutierrez: It’s a ridiculously small sample size, but the Raiders are most definitely feeling pretty good about themselves not only being tied for the league lead with nine sacks, but being on pace for 72 for the season. Their team record since it became an official NFL stat in 1982 is the 65 they had in 1985. Remember, this unit had only 25 sacks in 16 games a year ago. So why the uptick? It’s not necessarily due to a better rush up front -- five of their nine sacks have come from defensive backs. So that means Tarver is dialing up a variety of blitzes, which the former Raiders owner despised. You might say Tarver and Allen have a class of player closer to the prototype they want in order to instill their brand of pass rush. Alas, the Raiders lost Branch on just that -- a blitz, when he was taken down by Jacksonville left guard Will Rackley while rushing Chad Henne. In fact, it looked as if the injury happened just after Branch crossed the lip of the baseball dirt infield into the grass. But I digress.

Pass rush is about technique, right defensive end Lamarr Houston told me, and it seems as though their technique is much improved … after two games. Keeping with the small sample size theme, Allen was in Denver only one year. While much was was made about Tebow, many observers say it was Allen’s defense that won the division for the Broncos in 2011. Raider Nation did not take kindly to Allen’s wide grin while shaking John Fox’s hand after the Broncos beat down the Raiders, 37-6, last year in Denver. How respected is Allen still in the Mile High City, and does he still cast a shadow?

Legwold: Anyone who was associated in the turnaround season that was 2011 carries a little more cache with fans. Things were so dismal in 2010, when they finished 4-12, had Spygate and fired John McDaniels. When John Fox arrived with his new staff, including Dennis, people treated it like the fresh start it turned out to be. Pitch in Von Miller winning defensive rookie of the year that season, Tebow’s popularity and the six-game win streak that year on the way to a division title at 8-8, no less, and folks generally think 2011 started what’s going on now.

In terms of Allen, people appreciated the improvement the team made, but given he was here just one season I don’t think fans, or even some folks in the media believe they got to know him very well. From a football standpoint, what the defense did that year often gets lost in all of the chatter about Tebow, when in fact the team continued to win games despite the offense being in the lower third in the league in scoring after going to the read-option. There were an awful lot of games when Tebow would have never had a chance to chase some late-game glory had the defense not hung in there for the first three quarters. How have people taken to Dennis there, and do people see the 1-1 start as progress?

Gutierrez: Allen has had a lukewarm reception. If the Raiders win, he’s cool, so to speak. If they lose? Then it’s all his fault for hiring Greg Knapp last year to destroy the offense. It’s like any fan base, I suppose, but as I mentioned earlier, they were really upset with Allen after that picture caught him with a big smile after last year’s game in Denver. I asked him about it at the time and Allen said he was simply caught off guard by a joke Fox told him during the postgame handshake. Fans were not having it. This year, though, there’s more of a wait-and-see approach. Even if some fans believe Allen did not want to give Pryor a fair shot at winning the quarterback gig. That’s all water under the bridge now, though, and many of the more level-headed denizens of Raider Nation believe Allen deserves at least three years to get his program up and running -- similar to a college hoops program. Unless, of course, the players quit on him this season, like they seemed to do last November before rallying late.

Legwold: Paul, great stuff. That about covers it. It should be great divisional match-up for a Monday night audience.

Will blitzing work against Manning?

September, 19, 2013
ALAMEDA, Calif. – The Oakland Raiders are tied with Kansas City, Miami and Tampa Bay for the NFL lead in sacks, with nine.

That’s good news for an outfit that had just 25 all of last season. And Oakland is sharing the wealth, as seven different players have combined for the nine sacks.

It should also be noted, then, that five of the sacks have come courtesy of defensive backs, meaning the Raiders are not necessarily getting a regular push from their front four and are having to blitz frequently. But is that a bad thing?

“You’ve got to find ways to affect the quarterback,” said Raiders coach Dennis Allen. “Sometimes that comes from secondary pressure. Sometimes that comes with linebacker pressure. Sometimes that comes from your up-front guys.

“We’ll mix some things up; we’ll change some things up. We’re going to continue to look for different ways to affect the quarterback. It doesn’t always have to come from bringing extra rushers.”

For now, though, that’s exactly what the Raiders are doing with defensive coordinator Jason Tarver making the calls.

“Coach is putting us in great position to make plays and guys are going out and doing it when our number’s called,” said safety Brandian Ross, author of one sack. “It’s just showed our versatility, I think.”

Then there’s this: There’s no NFL quarterback more adept at sniffing out blitzes and making defenses pay than Oakland’s next opponent in Denver’s Peyton Manning.

“That’s why we have to do a great job of disguising,” said cornerback Tracy Porter, who as 1.5 sacks. “He’s the quote-unquote master of figuring out defenses. But at the end of the day, he’s still human. He can be confused. He can be tricked.

“He can’t read every single defense that we throw out there. He can read most of them, but he can’t read all of them. And as long as he can’t, those are the ones that we need to execute.”

Besides, Porter got Manning in Super Bowl XLIV, when the two were with New Orleans and Indianapolis, respectively, with his 74-yard pick-six to seal the game for the Saints.

And yet, Porter, who was teammates with Manning last season in Denver, was at a loss for words when asked to describe how the quarterback is able to decipher defenses as he approaches the line of scrimmage.

“You’re just watching a work of art, basically,” Porter said.

Allen was Porter’s position coach in New Orleans when the Saints beat Manning’s Colts.

“It’s hard to fool that guy; he’s seen a lot,” Allen said of Manning. “He does a great job in preparation. It’ll be hard to fool him. It’s going to come down to execution. We’re going to have to execute our jobs, and the team that executes the best will win the football game.”

Broncos-Raiders matchup of the day

September, 19, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, two not-quite-40-something guys on the headsets, have some of the same issues as they move toward Monday night’s meeting between their teams.

Gase is missing his left tackle, Ryan Clady, who is now on injured reserve because of a left-foot injury he suffered late in the Week 2 victory over the New York Giants; Tarver is without safety Tyvon Branch, who suffered a fractured lower leg in Oakland’s victory Sunday over the Jacksonville Jaguars. While those injuries will force some adjustments here and there, both coaches figure to stick pretty close to the plans they’ve made so far.

For Tarver, that has been a pass rush that comes from anywhere -- an approach he's called "activating'' player at the snap. Half of Oakland's NFL-best nine sacks have come from defensive backs buzzing opposing quarterbacks.

But throwing the defensive kitchen sink at Chad Henne and the rebuilding Jaguars is one thing; cranking up the heat on Peyton Manning is quite another. Many defensive coordinators with experience facing Manning note that when you blitz a defensive back, Manning will often simply bypass the hot read and instead try to push the ball down the field because he knows there’s a hole in the intermediate or deep area.

Tarver has so far mixed zone and man looks behind that pressure to try to keep quarterbacks from finding those holes. After showing little in the preseason, Tarver's group held the Colts' Andrew Luck to 178 yards passing and sacked him four times (though Luck did toss two touchdowns). The Raiders followed that with five sacks against the offensively challenged Jaguars.

However, Oakland has yet to force a turnover, and Tarver's challenge Monday will be to keep his defense aligned and well aware of each player's assignments when the Broncos put their foot on the gas in a no-huddle offense. A steady diet of pressure has not been a good recipe for defenses facing Manning through the years -- and Manning has plenty of options around him in Denver.

Gase may try to open up the Broncos' formation to get some of those defensive backs away from the ball at the snap. But Clady’s loss is significant. The Broncos certainly like his replacement, Chris Clark, but they gave Clady a $57.5 million deal because they believe he is a franchise player. And Clark will now have an awful lot of eyes on him, including those of the defensive coordinators still awaiting a date with Denver.
Terrelle Pryor and Andrew LuckUSA TODAY SportsTerrelle Pryor will lead a rebuilding team while Andrew Luck and the Colts will try to build on last season's success.
The Indianapolis Colts surprised the league by finishing with an 11-5 record and making the playoffs behind rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. The Oakland Raiders struggled with a 4-12 record. They're expected to have problems again this season as the rebuilding project continues for the Raiders. The teams open the season facing each other on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Mike Wells: So much was made about who the Raiders would start at quarterback earlier this week. It looks like it’ll be Terrelle Pryor. Does he give Oakland the best chance to win, and if so, what makes him so dangerous as a quarterback?

Paul Gutierrez: It appears as though it will be TP2 Time for the Raiders in the opener. And really, it should be. Now, that’s not necessarily an endorsement, but with this team, at this moment, Pryor does at least represent some semblance of hope, what with his skill set. His ability to run should keep the Colts' front seven honest and they won’t be able to simply pin their ears back and rush, like they could Matt Flynn. I believe Flynn is probably a better NFL quarterback at this stage, but with the deficiencies around Oakland’s pocket -- leaky line, inconsistent receivers, injury-prone running back -- Pryor gives the Raiders a better chance. And being that this is a quarterback-driven league, how has Luck dealt with stepping into those huge shoes left by Peyton Manning, and how can Luck avoid the sophomore jinx?

Wells: I’m sure you probably watched Luck one or two times out there in the Bay Area while he was at Stanford, so you know his work ethic should never be questioned, and his demeanor doesn’t allow him to get caught up with the hype. The offensive weapons the Colts put around Luck will make it difficult for him to struggle. Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Oakland’s favorite former receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey at receiver; Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen at tight end to go with the duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard at running back. So the words “sophomore slump” and “Andrew Luck” shouldn’t be on anybody’s mind. Of course that’s if the offensive line does its job and blocks. A lot is being made of Pryor’s ability to be creative with his feet, but what about Darren McFadden -- isn’t he the real threat with running the ball, especially with the Colts being near the bottom of the league in rush defense last season?

Gutierrez: No doubt, especially in a perfect world for the Raiders' offense. If all is working right, and opposing defenses have to at least respect the quarterback’s ability to take off, they can’t key on the quarterback. And that sets up the play-action pass. But for the Raiders to have any success offensively this season, it all starts and ends with a guy who has yet to play more than 13 games in a season.

Yeah, Run DMC had been more Limp DMC of late, but when he’s right, he’s nice. Two years ago, he was playing like a league MVP candidate. Then came the Lisfranc injury that ended his campaign after just six-plus games. And last year, in perhaps the greatest failing of the Raiders’ new regime’s plans, they changed the offense on McFadden from a power scheme to the zone-blocking philosophy. McFadden’s average yards per carry went from a career-high 5.4 yards to 3.3 yards. McFadden is also entering a contract year so yeah, he has something to prove as the Raiders return to the power running game. Speaking of something to prove, you mentioned him earlier: The artist formerly known as DHB around these parts left a lot to be desired after four nondescript seasons in Oakland. Hey, it wasn’t his fault he was drafted so high. How has he adapted to a change of scenery, and how strong is his desire to prove something to the Raiders after they cut him this spring?

Wells: I thought Heyward-Bey would come to Indy with a chip on his shoulder because, well, he did play for the Raiders, where more bad than good comes out of that organization. But Heyward-Bey has only good things to say about the Raiders. He blames himself for a lot of his struggles during his four years in Oakland. He also knows he needs to produce to get rid of that “bust” label. As you know, Heyward-Bey has an incredible work ethic.

The biggest difference here is that he now has a mentor. Wayne is the perfect veteran to guide him. The future Hall of Famer's professional demeanor is exactly what Heyward-Bey needs. The other thing is, Heyward-Bey doesn’t have the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver. Wayne isn’t slowing down any time soon, and the Colts have so many other offensive weapons, as I mentioned earlier, that Heyward-Bey can just let the game come to him. Fans will likely see a number of those weapons because the Raiders don’t have much of a defense. Will nine new starters help them from giving up almost 28 points a game again this season?

Gutierrez: That’s the plan. At least, that’s the hope for the Raiders. Yeah, they have nine new starters on defense, with the only two returning starters being defensive end Lamarr Houston, who is moving from the left side to the more pass rush-specific right side, and strong safety Tyvon Branch, who endured an injury-plagued season for the first time in his career. Of course, a million times of course, the Raiders kept their defense vanilla in the preseason ... and not just for what coach Dennis Allen would term "competitive reasons." In fact, Sunday will be only the first time the Raiders will field their entire starting defense at the same time. Injuries wreaked havoc in exhibition games.

There was a glimmer of hope, though, with the run-stuffing play of defensive tackle Pat Sims in the exhibition finale. And if Nick Roach, who will wear the green dot on his helmet, can rally the defense from his middle linebacker position, the Raiders' defense should be better this season. Emphasis on "could." Can the Raiders -- with virtually an entire new defense and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who schemed daily against Luck at Stanford -- be a detriment to the Colts? Or are they simply of the mindset that they have to worry only about themselves?

Wells: The only way the Raiders will be able to rattle Luck is if the offensive line doesn’t do its job and allows its quarterback to take a pounding all game long. And even then, that may not be enough to beat the Colts. Let’s not forget, Luck was sacked 41 times and hit more than 100 times last season. That didn’t stop him from setting a rookie record for passing yards, attempts and 300-yard games. So I don’t think the Raiders will be to do much against Luck & Co. on Sunday afternoon.



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