NFL Nation: Greg Knapp

Double Coverage: Raiders at Broncos

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
12:00
PM ET
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.

Broncos-Raiders matchup of the day

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
7:00
AM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Few players in the last decade have vexed the Denver Broncos' defense quite like Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden, and it is McFadden who will be the first real on-the-ground test of the season for the Broncos’ base defense and, especially, middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard.

McFadden
It’s not that McFadden crushes the Broncos spirits every time he faces them -- the Broncos have held McFadden to fewer than 50 yards rushing in four career meetings -- it’s when McFadden does get it going, it is a spirit-crushing event. There was ’08, when McFadden carried the ball just 10 times in a November meeting that year, for just 38 yards, yet still scored twice.

There was 2010, when McFadden rushed for 165 yards and three TDs with Denver well on the way to a deserved 4-12 finish.

Or 2011, when current Raiders coach Dennis Allen was the Broncos' defensive coordinator, when McFadden pounded out 150 yards rushing against Denver.

In his nine career games against Denver, McFadden has rushed for 723 yards, at 5.8 yards per carry, to go with five touchdowns. The Raiders wanted to see those impact plays once again, and essentially re-tooled their offense in the offseason with McFadden in mind. Allen fired former offensive coordinator (and current Broncos quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp) to move from a zone-run game to a more man-on-man look.

Knapp is a respected coach in the league, but McFadden never found a comfort level in the scheme. Asked about McFadden’s resurgence over this season’s first two weeks, 177 yards rushing on 4.9 yards per carry, Allen said:

“I think the biggest thing is, from his mindset, that he’s comfortable in the things we’re asking him to do, comfortable in the scheme. And he’s had some success in doing that.’’

Woodyard must consistently be the first to the ball and cannot allowed yards after contact. When McFadden, who still has top-shelf speed in space despite plenty of lower-body injuries in his career, has gotten it going against the Broncos the missed-tackle totals have been exceedingly high -- perhaps none higher than the 165-yard day in ’10. Defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson, Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams have to do their parts as well and keep the Broncos' linebackers clean so the linebackers can fill the run lanes and keep McFadden out of the open field.

If they don't, McFadden will simply add another problem day to the list.

New OC, new success in Oakland?

February, 13, 2013
2/13/13
8:55
PM ET
New Oakland offensive coordinator Greg Olson is going to be a popular man in Raider Nation for several reasons, including the following:

  1. He is not Greg Knapp, the man who was fired after one season because his system didn’t fit the Raiders’ talent on offense.
  2. Olson counts former Oakland coach -- and lifetime Raider Nation key-holder --- Jon Gruden as a major influence on his NFL career.
  3. He plans to go back to the attacking offense with which Oakland had solid success under with Hue Jackson.

The Raiders’ new assistants met with media members Wednesday to discuss their plans and philosophies. Olson told reporters that he plans to run an attacking offense with a heavy emphasis on play-action, designed to get running back Darren McFadden back on track. He also wants to utilize Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece. That is a smart call because getting the ball in Reece’s hands often produces results for Oakland. He had 276 rushing yards and 52 catches, both career highs, in 2012.

Meanwhile, new Oakland offensive-line coach Tony Sparano is excited about working with McFadden as well. McFadden struggled last season, but Sparano plans to run a blocking scheme better-suited to McFadden’s strengths in his final season under contract in Oakland.

Olson also addressed the thought of Terrelle Pryor competing for the starting quarterback job with Carson Palmer. Raiders leadership has made general comments about competition, and Olson kept to that stance. I think we will learn more about Pryor’s chances in the coming weeks.

If the Raiders keep Palmer, he will very likely be given the first chance to start. If not, the Pryor era could start in Week 1.

Broncos tab Knapp as QB coach

January, 19, 2013
1/19/13
1:30
AM ET
The Denver Broncos have hired a familiar name as Peyton Manning's position coach.

Less than three weeks after he was jettisoned as Oakland’s offensive coordinator, Greg Knapp is now Denver's quarterbacks coach. Knapp takes over for Adam Gase, whom the Broncos promoted to offensive coordinator after Mike McCoy left to become San Diego Chargers head coach.

Knapp’s hiring is a bit surprising because he didn’t have any major connections to Denver. But Knapp has worked with several successful quarterbacks and now will work closely with Manning.

Knapp had a rough 2012 in Oakland; he was fired a day after the season ended. However, Knapp was successful as QB coach for the Houston Texans and Matt Schaub prior to his Oakland stint.

Knapp is known for being a good quarterback tutor. Well-versed in the West Coast offense, Knapp won't be in charge of calling plays or in charge of schemes -- only of working with Manning.

Raiders talk to Mike Martz

January, 13, 2013
1/13/13
1:30
AM ET
After a quiet couple of weeks, there is some movement on the Oakland Raiders coaching front.

The Contra Costa Times is reporting that the Raiders have interviewed former St. Louis head coach Mike Martz for their open offensive-coordinator position. The paper also reported that Eagles assistant Juan Castillo interviewed for the open offensive-line job.

The Raiders fired four coaches, including offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, a day after their 4-12 season ended.

Martz believes in a wide-open offense that could fit the Raiders’ fast receivers. Yet, he has not coached in the NFL since he was the Bears’ offensive coordinator in 2011. There will likely be more candidates.

Wrap-up: Panthers 17, Raiders 6

December, 23, 2012
12/23/12
5:59
PM ET
A look another lackluster Oakland showing:

What it means: It’s another loss in a lost season. The Raiders, who ended a six-game losing streak last week with a 15-0 shutout win over the Chiefs, are now 4-11. They are on pace for the No. 3 pick in the draft. Oakland is 1-6 on the road and it went 0-4 against the NFC South.

Palmer hurt, Pryor still sits: Carson Palmer was lost for the game in the first quarter with a rib injury and we found out the answer to the Terrelle Pryor question: The Raiders will only use him spot duty. Matt Leinart took over for Palmer and Pryor played three plays in a wrinkle offense. After the game, Oakland coach Dennis Allen said the obvious: The team doesn’t think he is ready. So, it seems if Palmer can’t play in the season finale, Leinart will play at San Diego. I think Pryor should play. So, he’s not ready. Who cares? The season is lost and we know Leinart is not the answer. Give Pryor some experience. Does it matter if it costs the Raiders a game at this point?

Allen safe? Prior to the game, CBS Sports reported that owner Mark Davis will keep Allen. Several weeks ago, Davis said he wants to see progress. A touchdown-less win over the Chiefs and six losses really isn’t progress. Still, I’d be surprised if Allen is shown the door. His coordinators, especially offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, may suffer a different fate, though.

Touchdown drought: The Raiders haven’t scored a touchdown since Week 14 against Denver. The Raiders have seven field goals in the past two games. It is tied for the longest touchdown drought in the NFL.

East Coast blues continue: The Raiders lost their 10th straight game in the Eastern Time Zone.

Chippy game: There were a lot of pushing and shoving between these non-rivals. In all, there were 16 penalties for 167 yards. Several players, including Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who got away with a kick at Oakland defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, could be fined.

McFadden a non-factor: Darren McFadden’s lousy season continues. He had 33 yards on 17 carries. He had nothing going Sunday.

What’s next: Oakland wraps up its season at San Diego. The Chargers beat Oakland in Week 1.

The Carson Palmer dilemma

October, 19, 2012
10/19/12
12:00
PM ET
Carson PalmerAP Photo/Jeff ChiuQuarterback Carson Palmer hasn't lived up to expectations since coming to Oakland last season.
The Hue Jackson era lasted 16 games in Oakland.

However, the ramifications of the inexperienced-coach-gone-wild could affect the Raiders’ organization for years.

Sunday marks a pivotal game in the current state of the franchise when the Raiders host Jacksonville. It will be the 16th game with quarterback Carson Palmer in Oakland, thus marking his first full season with the club. The Raiders are 5-10 since acquiring Palmer.

That is the problem when evaluating Jackson’s knee-jerk trade for Palmer and for figuring out what the Raiders should do with Palmer -- who turns 33 in December and who hasn’t had a great NFL season since 2007 -- moving forward.

The Palmer situation is a true dilemma for the new Oakland regime, which inherited him. First of all, Palmer is not a bad quarterback. He is serviceable. The Raiders could do a lot worse than Palmer. New Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie and new coach Dennis Allen have supported Palmer. Palmer is a true professional. He works hard. He is liked by his teammates and he has a strong approach to the game.

But the truth, and the problem, is Palmer hasn’t made the Raiders a winner and there is doubt he’ll ever become a difference-maker as he continues to get older. Will the Palmer trade ever pay off big like Jackson (now, incidentally, an assistant in Cincinnati) thought it would when he called it the “best trade in football”?

And make no mistake, Jackson (fired when the Raiders went in a new direction in January) traded for Palmer with the intent of winning immediately and winning big.

In Week 6 of last season, the Raiders lost starting quarterback Jason Campbell to a broken collarbone. Instead of going with backup Kyle Boller, Jackson went big and traded for Palmer, thinking he was the answer to his Super Bowl dreams. The price was steep. Jackson gave up a first-round draft pick in 2012 (which turned out to be the No. 17 overall pick) and a second-round pick next year. If the Raiders don’t turn around their season, that choice could end up being a top-35 pick.

Jackson made the trade because he thought Palmer, who was essentially retired from the Bengals because he no longer wanted to play for the team, would keep the Raiders on their playoff pace. Yet, Oakland went 4-6 after the trade. This season has been no better as Palmer has been unable to make a difference on a team that has big holes throughout the roster and is just 1-4.

Palmer has thrown 19 interceptions in 15 games as a Raider. Last week, he soiled an otherwise strong performance by throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown late in an eventual 23-20 loss at Atlanta.

Palmer has been far from a disaster on the field. He is on pace for career highs in attempts, completions and yards passing. But there have been few explosive plays and Oakland is 31st in the NFL in touchdowns scored, and its 17.4 scoring average is the fifth lowest in the NFL. Palmer, known as a premier deep-pass thrower, has struggled in that area this season. His Total QBR is 51.1, which is 20th in the NFL.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Raiders averaged nine more points and committed a half turnover less in the 16 games prior to Palmer’s arrival. The Raiders’ passing yardage is up 59 yards with Palmer, but is that worth the increase in interceptions and the decrease in victories?

Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. thinks Palmer is a poor fit for the West Coast offense used by new Oakland coordinator Greg Knapp.

“I just don’t see the fit,” Horton said. “Plus, he makes a lot of bad decisions. It just seems like it was a bad trade from the start.”

Will Oakland decide to cut bait on the Palmer trade next year? If the losing continues, the Raiders could get a top-five pick. That could put them in position to draft a top quarterback such as USC’s Matt Barkley or West Virginia’s Geno Smith. But it isn’t that easy.

The Raiders have big needs at all levels of the defense. Oakland may be best served to bypass a top quarterback for now and address more pressing needs. Then, there’s the presence of 2011 supplemental pick Terrelle Pryor. The Raiders could choose to continue to groom him under Palmer.

But if Palmer stays in Oakland for the next few years, will he give the Raiders a chance to win big? If he can’t win now, who is to say he will improve? Is he anything more than a pricey stop-gap option?

“I tend to doubt it,” ESPN.com's Matt Williamson said. “This franchise just needs so much to really be a contender. By the time all those other needs are filled, Palmer will be declining even worse.”

That was not Jackson’s plan when he made the trade he is no longer involved with, but forever connected to.

Greg Knapp's offense, now and then

October, 17, 2012
10/17/12
11:00
AM ET
The most-discussed aspect of the 2012 Oakland Raiders is the impact of new/old offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.

Oakland’s offense is not as potent as it was in recent seasons and many fans and observers point to Knapp, who had a previous stint Oakland’s offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008. Knapp runs a West Coast offense and a zone-blocking scheme. The Raiders succeeded in the past couple of years with a power rushing attack.

A terrific study by Jason McCallum of ESPN Stats & Information shows that Knapp’s emphasis in his second tour with the Raiders is vastly different than in his first. McCallum’s study shows that Knapp is relying on the pass much more now than he did in 2007.

This season, the Raiders are averaging the eighth-most pass attempts in the NFL and the 30th-most rush attempts. In 2007, the Raiders averaged the fourth-most rush attempts per game and the 29th-most passes.

Knapp’s quarterback, Carson Palmer, is much better than the collection of Daunte Culpepper, JaMarcus Russell and Josh McCown Knapp had to work with in 2007. But what upsets many Oakland fans is that the Raiders aren’t running this season despite having Darren McFadden, one of the best running backs in the league.

The results of the different paths are the same. The 2012 Raiders, 1-4, are averaging 17.4 points per game; they averaged 17.7 points in 2007 when they finished 4-12. The Raiders’ scoring average this season puts them 29th among 32 NFL teams. The Raiders must find a way get their running game going. The top three scoring teams in NFL this year are all in the top seven of rush attempts per game.

The 2012 Raiders are averaging 349.8 yards a game, while the 2007 Knapp version averaged 294.8 yards per game. But the problem is the pass-run yardage ratio. Oakland is averaging 271.4 passing yards now compared to 164.4 five years ago. But the Raiders are averaging 78.4 on the ground, compared to 130.4 yards a game under Knapp in 2007. Because of the lack of a running game, the Raiders' time of possession is nearly four minutes lower than in 2007.

The truth is, both offenses under Knapp struggled. But the only way Knapp’s 2012 version will work is if the Raiders find a way to run again.

AFC West first-quarter checkpoint

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
12:00
PM ET
The first quarter of the AFC West season is complete. Let’s look at some key developments:

Story of the quarter: Peyton Manning's health. It has been a story for more than a year, and the AFC West has revolved around Manning’s surgically repaired neck since he signed with the Broncos in March. Through four games, Manning has looked good and he is getting better. He had one bad quarter -- Week 2 at Atlanta, when he threw three interceptions in the first 15 minutes. But the picks were not arm- or injury-related; Manning just made some rare bad decisions. Manning, 36, might not be playing like he did when he was 30, but he is still good enough to win.

MVP of the quarter: Really, no player has stood head-and-shoulders above anyone else. I am tempted to go with Manning, but I think I will give it to San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. His team is alone in first place in the division at 3-1 and he is the Chargers’ best player. Rivers' numbers aren’t as gaudy as Manning's, and the San Diego offense is still finding itself. But Rivers has been very good -- and he has been efficient. He is making way better decisions than he did a year ago. The Chargers are winning and their quarterback is guiding them.

[+] EnlargeNorv Turner, Philip Rivers
Kelley L Cox/US PresswireNorv Turner was successful in developing QB Philip Rivers in San Diego. Can Turner do the same with Brandon Weeden in Cleveland?
Defensive player of the quarter: I’m going to give it to San Diego safety Eric Weddle. Watch the Chargers play and talk to scouts, and Weddle’s name comes up often. He has been all over the field in the season's first quarter. He is truly becoming an elite safety. San Diego’s defense is much improved (linebacker Donald Butler has been unreal as well) and the ball-hawking Weddle is a big reason why.

Rookie of the quarter: There are solid options here and I'm sure some of them will develop nicely through the season. For the first quarter, I’m giving the nod to Denver defensive end Derek Wolfe. The second-round pick has been a stalwart on an improved line. He is making an impact and the game does not appear to be too big for the Cincinnati product. I can see San Diego pass-rusher Melvin Ingram coming on strong, but Wolfe has been outstanding to start the season.

Coach of the quarter: Norv Turner. His team is in first place. The Chargers look improved in areas they needed to improve, and the team looks very well organized, united and focused. This is a big year for Turner. He will likely be fired if the Chargers don’t make the playoffs. He is showing he wants to fight for his job.

Disappointment of the quarter (team): Kansas City. The Chiefs added several impressive pieces in the offseason and looked primed to make strides on the field. They were a popular choice to win the division, including by me, who chose them to win the AFC West, However, Kansas City is 1-3 and has looked awful in all three of its defeats. This team is talented enough to turn around its season, but its start is alarming.

Disappointment of the quarter (player): Oakland running back Darren McFadden. The Raiders have not responded well to moving from a power rushing attack to a zone-blocking scheme under new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. McFadden was in Knapp’s system as a rookie and was better the past two years in a power attack. I’m sure McFadden’s issues are not all his fault, but his statistics are not pretty for a back who many thought would vie for 2,000 yards rushing this season. McFadden has 201 yards on 57 carries. Take away a 64-yard run and McFadden’s production has been terrible. Again, it’s not all on him, but something needs to change. McFadden is too talented for this lack of production to linger.

Biggest unanswered question of the quarter: Matt Cassel's future. After a 1-3 start and a three-interception performance against San Diego in Week 4, Chiefs fans are calling for Cassel to be replaced. I think the main reason why the team is reluctant to make a change is there is not a reasonable in-house alternative. If the Chiefs don’t make the playoffs, Cassel very likely will be replaced in the offseason, very likely by a first-round pick. But will he make it through the season without Brady Quinn or Ricky Stanzi taking his job?

Fearless prediction for the second quarter: Manning will continue to get better in a Denver uniform. He has long said he is still a work in progress physically and with the Denver offense. He has made strides and I think we will see an improved comfort level between Manning and his teammates by the end of the first half of the season.
Darren McFaddenEd Szczepanski/US PresswireThe Raiders are confident Darren McFadden will thrive in their new zone-blocking scheme.
The zone-blocking scheme is under scrutiny in the Raider Nation.

The running attack made famous by the late 1990s Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos teams has been the cause of angst for many Oakland Raiders fans this season, and has put Oakland offensive coordinator Greg Knapp on the hot seat in fans’ minds.

However, after a disastrous first two games, the Raiders showed some signs that they are getting used to the scheme during a 34-31 upset win against Pittsburgh in Week 3. The centerpiece of the scheme, Darren McFadden, finally broke loose with a 64-yard touchdown run, and he finished with 113 yards rushing.

However, besides that one run, McFadden had 49 yards on 17 carries in the game. He has 103 yards on 43 carries on the season other than his big run.

McFadden excelled in the power attack Oakland used the past two seasons. He was in the zone-blocking system of Knapp (who was Oakland's offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008) in his rookie season and had his issues.

Can McFadden succeed in this scheme or are the Raiders going to just hope the speedster pops the occasional long run like he did against Pittsburgh? The Raiders are convinced McFadden and the rest of the offense will thrive in Knapp's system.

"It's fun to watch Darren run. We weren't as worried about the running game as everybody else was,” Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer said after the win against Pittsburgh.

Added Oakland coach Dennis Allen: "We have the right personnel to get it done."

Many people think McFadden is not the typical one-cut-and-go runner that best fits the zone-blocking scheme, and not all of the Raiders' offensive linemen are best suited for the zone-blocking scheme. But the Raiders did bring in guard Mike Brisiel from Houston, which is one of the best zone-blocking teams in the NFL and is where Knapp last coached. Guard Cooper Carlisle and tackle Willie Smith also have experience in the system.

Traditionally, zone-blocking offensive linemen are smaller and more athletic than more power-blocking lineman. Mike Shanahan's Broncos were probably the most famous zone-blocking running team, and Shanahan preferred smaller offensive linemen.

However, one of those former Denver offensive lineman, Mark Schreleth (now an ESPN analyst), doesn’t buy that certain players are not good fits for the zone-blocking schemes.

“I think the Raiders have the pieces for it,” Schreleth said. “People think you need a certain type of a guy for the zone-blocking scheme, but it’s not true. It can work as long as everyone in the offense, that’s all 11 guys, are tied together. That's the key, and it takes time.”

After the second game, Knapp preached patience. He said the team needed to grow into the system. Schreleth is behind Knapp.

“You have to have patience,” Schreleth said. “Every guy on the offense is part of it. It is complicated and it’s not something that just comes overnight. It takes great teamwork, but when it comes it is very effective, and I think Oakland can get there.”

The essence of the zone-blocking schemes is the running back quickly finding the hole and the rest of the offense working in concert to continue to develop the play. Most teams have the zone-blocking scheme as part of their running attack, and many use it as their primary attack.

When it runs correctly, it can wear down defenses. The Denver defense is preparing to face a zone-blocking team for the second straight week. The Broncos played Houston last week. The Texans had 152 yards on 34 carries. Denver linebacker Keith Brooking said defending the zone-blocking scheme is not for the antsy.

“You have to be patient,” Brooking said. “The gaps move quickly, so you have to be sound in your gap responsibility. You have to know where your leverage is, as far as where your help is in the run game, as far as if you’re bringing a safety down, if you’re not. So you really have to be in tune with that. I think more than anything it is just attacking. They want to kind of get you running sideways and then cut downhill, so you have to take the attack to them. First of all, setting the edge of the defense is key, because they’re really good at stretching the perimeter of your defense. You have to set the edge of your defense and then your inside guys have to stay in their gaps and come downhill and attack and get off blocks, because they do a great job of trying to sustain those blocks. The key is once you attack them, you get off of them and make the play.”

Schreleth believes Houston runs the scheme the best in the league right now. He calls the Texans’ running attack a “well-oiled machine.” Knapp was part of it last season, and the Raiders are fully committed to seeing it work now.

After the first two games, there was speculation about whether the Raiders would scrap the attack during the season. The Raiders have scoffed at that. Even though there might be continued growing pains, the Raiders are going to try to make this work. Matt Williamson of ESPN.com believes Oakland’s patience could pay off, partly because McFadden is so special.

“I have no worries that McFadden can and will adapt to the scheme,” Williamson said. “I do think their offensive line is still a work in progress, but overall, the linemen move well enough to pull it off. It just might take some time.”

Wrap-up: Dolphins 35, Raiders 13

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
4:59
PM ET
Thoughts after the Miami Dolphins' 35-13 victory over Oakland at Sun Life Stadium:

What it means: The new regime in Oakland is off to a rocky start. The Raiders are 0-2 and have not looked good. This is not an overly talented Miami team that just throttled Oakland, but Oakland’s start is predictable, though. The Raiders are not that deep and it shows.

Early wakeup call: The Raiders have to figure out a way to play in games that start at 10 a.m. PT. They have four more this season, which happens to be the most early starts in team history. Playing early games on the East Coast has been a problem for the Raiders.

There’s goes the defense: The Raiders’ defense was strong when it needed to be last week. But, Sunday, it wilted against a Miami offense that struggled last week in Houston. The Dolphins racked up 452 yards of offense, 263 coming on the ground. Oakland was stout against the run last week. But it was a major problem Sunday.

Rap on Knapp: The Oakland offense -- which was just 1-of-12 on third down Sunday -- wasn’t good for the second straight week. I know heat is going to be on new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, who is in his second go-around in this role. Knapp has brought a West Coast offense and a zone-blocking scheme, and it has not been impressive so far. The big worry is about running back Darren McFadden. He was better in a power-blocking scheme after Knapp was fired following McFadden’s rookie season in 2008. So far this season, McFadden has been a non-factor in the run game. He has 54 yards on 26 carries.

What’s next: It doesn’t get easier. The Raiders host Pittsburgh next week.
Darrius Heyward-BeyKirby Lee/US Presswire Darrius Heyward-Bey has been steadily improving after two disappointing seasons.

When Carson Palmer suddenly became an Oakland Raider in October, the first teammate he met was receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Heyward-Bey eagerly offered to play catch with his new quarterback. Although he was known in his first two NFL seasons for not living up to his lofty draft status, he made a terrific first impression on Palmer.

"I didn’t know much about him, being in Cincinnati," Palmer recently said of Heyward-Bey. "I knew he was fast, and I knew he didn't catch a lot of balls in Maryland, and I knew he didn't catch a lot of balls in his first couple of years in the NFL. But I didn't think badly of him. Right away, I felt like he was a guy who could make a lot of plays. He's made a lot of plays for me, so I like him."

There is no doubt Heyward-Bey had changed. He was one of the most improved in the NFL in 2011 as he made sudden and dramatic strides, catching 64 passes for 975 yards in 2011. In the first 26 games of his career, Heyward-Bey caught 35 passes.

There were major concerns that Heyward-Bey would never develop into a reliable NFL player, let alone somebody worth the No. 7 overall pick. The same trouble Heyward-Bey had holding onto the ball in college followed him into the NFL. Most teams had Heyward-Bey, who is lightning fast, rated as a low first-round pick. Many people questioned the late Al Davis for making Heyward-Bey a top-10 pick.

Although Heyward-Bey may never live up to his draft status, he has showed he belongs in the NFL. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. doesn't think the 2011 season was a fluke and expects more of the same.

"I do think he is a legitimate NFL starter," Williamson said. "He has obviously put time and effort into his routes and hands to improve at his weak areas."

Can Heyward-Bey continue to make strides in his fourth NFL season? He will surely be one of Palmer's top targets Monday night when the Raiders open the season on ESPN against visiting San Diego. Fellow starter Denarius Moore (hamstring) and No. 3 receiver Jacoby Ford (foot) have been dealing with injuries and could be limited, if they play at all. Expect Heyward-Bey to be Palmer's go-to receiver, especially with untested tight ends.

The wideout also appears to be a strong fit for the West Coast offense of new coordinator Greg Knapp. Heyward-Bey has proved to be most effective in shorter routes, which allow him to use his speed for yards-after-the catch.

Palmer said the receiver will excel in the new scheme because of his work ethic. According to Palmer, every time he turns around, he sees Heyward-Bey working on the ball machine, catching ball after ball.

"A lot of times, high picks who struggle early can go in the tank and never come out of it," Palmer said, "especially at receiver, which can be a high-bust position. But Darrius just kept working, and he keeps getting better. That's a credit to him."

Heyward-Bey acknowledges his breakout season was a relief. He said he never lost any confidence, but to see his hard work pay off with consistent success was important.

"I showed I can be dominant and I can make some plays," he said. "My thinking is to improve every day and do whatever I can to get better, but it did feel good to go out and do it last year. Now I have to do it again."

New Oakland coach Dennis Allen knows firsthand about the improvement Heyward-Bey made in 2011. Allen was the defensive coordinator of AFC West rival Denver. Allen said creating a game plan for Heyward-Bey changed between the time the Broncos faced him in Week 1 and when they faced Oakland later in the season.

"We could see the change," Allen said. "In that first game, he was kind of known as a speed guy who didn't have a lot of catches in his first two seasons, but when we faced him later, he was really improved. He can hurt you in several areas, and we think he can do a lot of things in this offense."
NAPA, Calif. -- One of the biggest curiosities in the NFL this summer is what is occurring in Wine Country. Graced with the prettiest training camp setting in the league, the Oakland Raiders are changing in front of our very eyes.

On the same practice field where the late Al Davis used to famously stalk practice from a nearby golf cart, the Raiders are a drastically different franchise as they enter their first full season since Davis died last October at the age of 82.

The team is now run by first-time general manager Reggie McKenzie, a respected former Green Bay executive and former Raiders linebacker. He was handpicked by several of Davis’ closest confidantes. McKenzie chose Dennis Allen, who at 39 is the NFL’s youngest coach, to take over the team.

For a franchise that was closely ruled by Davis until his death, the Raiders are hoping a dose of NFL modern structure will pay dividends. Even though it has been 8-8 in the past two seasons, Oakland hasn’t had a winning record in 10 years and it is tied for the second-longest playoff drought in the league.

Perhaps McKenzie and Allen are the winning combination for Oakland.

“I think everybody is interested to see what happens,” said Oakland safety Michael Huff, who has been with the Raiders since 2006. “I’ve only known one way. To have this new structure is new to me.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Keep McFadden healthy: The Raiders’ best player is running back Darren McFadden. He has to stay healthy, but that hasn’t been easy for the fifth-year player. He has missed at last three games in each of his four NFL seasons. He missed the final nine games of last season with a serious foot injury. If McFadden can stay healthy, the Oakland offense will be dangerous and it will help quarterback Carson Palmer make a difference in his first full season in Oakland. If McFadden can’t stay healthy, the Raiders could be in trouble. They are not deep behind him and lose a major dimension with McFadden sidelined. McFadden has looked good so far, but the key is that he looks healthy.

2. Improve on defense: Allen is the first defensive-minded head coach of the Raiders since John Madden, who was hired in 1969. There is a reason McKenzie went with a defensive coach: the Raiders need the most help on that side of the ball. Oakland has been sloppy and has allowed too many big plays on defense. Allen helped change the defensive culture in Denver last year during his one season as the defensive coordinator there. His quest to improve Oakland’s defense begins now.

[+] EnlargeDarren McFadden
AP Photo/Derek GeeA healthy Darren McFadden is crucial for Oakland's success.
3. Cut down on penalties: The Raiders set NFL records for penalties and penalty yardage last season. It has long been a problem in Oakland. Now, it is up to Allen to get it figured out. Playing disciplined, correct ball is a focus of every camp. It has to be drilled into this team on a daily basis. To his credit, former coach Hue Jackson tried to fix penalties on a weekly basis last year and it didn’t work. It's now one of Allen’s greatest challenges. Allen stresses the importance of discipline every day and he will need to change this self-destructive trend.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

This roster has a lot of talent on it. The Raiders were on the edge of the playoffs last year, and there are lot players who think they are capable of taking the next step. Palmer has talked playoffs, and McKenzie says he thinks his team is headed in that direction.

The offense has the capability to score a lot of points, and the defense is loaded up front. It’s not like this team is going to be horribly overmatched on a weekly basis. You can watch training camp and you see good players on the field.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

This team is pretty thin at a lot of places because of the loss of several players through free agency, salary dumps and small draft classes the past two years. Again, there is talent assembled in this camp, but there are holes on this team. Positions such as running back, tight end, offensive line, linebacker and the secondary cannot afford too many injuries.

This camp is about keeping the top players healthy and hoping it all comes together. If injuries occur, Oakland will have to get creative to stay competitive.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The offense looks crisp. The pace of practice has been fast as the team adjusts to playing in the West Coast offense under coordinator Greg Knapp. The unit does not look behind.
  • Carson Palmer
    Harry How/Getty ImagesCarson Palmer threw for 2,753 yards in 10 games with the Raiders last season.
    Palmer throws a pretty deep ball. With the Raiders’ speed at receiver, they should parlay that combination into a lot of fast scores this season.
  • There is a lot of talent at receiver. I can see this team using five receivers in a game. There will be a lot of options.
  • Defensive lineman Tommy Kelly looks to be in good shape. He is one of the more underrated defensive linemen in the league.
  • Defensive linemen Matt Shaughnessy is looking good after missing much of last season with a shoulder injury. He is known as a stronger pass-rusher, but he can also stop the run. He is aiming for a big year.
  • I don’t anticipate a big adjustment period for second-year player Stefen Wisniewski as he moves from guard to center. He has played center before and he originally projected as an NFL center. He is a smart player who seems comfortable at the position.
  • Don’t expect too much from quarterback Terrelle Pryor right away. He is a work in progress and he will be up and down in camp. I think Matt Leinart has a pretty strong hold on the No. 2 job as of now.
  • Second-year cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke has a chance to make a push for a starting job. He opened camp as a starter with Ronald Bartell out with a hamstring injury. I could see Van Dyke pushing Bartell or Shawntae Spencer at some point.
  • The team is impressed with rookie linebackers Miles Burris and Nathan Stupar. Both players are instinctive and professional. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burris earns major playing time.
  • The team is high on third-round guard Tony Bergstrom. The game doesn’t look too big for him, and he is a mature player.
  • New defensive coordinator Jason Tarver has a lot of energy. Watching him operate with his lively personality and blond hair invokes memories of a young Jon Gruden wearing the Silver and Black. Like Gruden, the intelligent Tarver is a young coach to watch.
  • I think we will see tight ends Brandon Myers, David Ausberry and Richard Gordon all get ample playing time in the preseason. I think that can continue into the regular season if each player carves their own niche.
  • Safety Mike Mitchell is the early leader in the clubhouse to replace Rock Cartwright, now in San Francisco, as the punt protector.
  • Receivers Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford will get most of the camp looks at punt returner for now.
  • Undrafted rookie receiver Rod Streater has taken off where he left off in the OTAs. He has been an early camp star.
  • I could see a scenario in which the Raiders keep fullback Owen Schmitt in addition to Marcel Reece. The tough Schmitt and the versatile Reece offer different things to the offense.
Terrelle PryorOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesTerrelle Pryor has his sights set on living up to Al Davis' expectations for him.


The Oakland Raiders are being run differently under new general manager Reggie McKenzie and new head coach Dennis Allen than they were during the legendary Al Davis era. For one player, though, living up to the expectations of Davis -- who died last October at age 82 -- is still an important commitment.

Terrelle Pryor wants to be so much more than an answer to a trivia question.

The Raiders’ selection of the embattled former Ohio State quarterback in the third round of the 2011 supplemental draft last August was classic Davis. It was all his decision, and it was the final draft pick of his life. In Pryor, the Raiders got an immensely talented athlete with great measurables. But they also got a project; it was a familiar boom-or-bust pick by Davis.

Once he joined the Raiders last summer, Pryor had some memorable conversations with Davis, in which the owner often told Pryor what he expected from him. Pryor said he talked to Davis on the phone a couple of times a week up until Davis’ death. Now that he is gone, Pryor uses his short time with Davis as motivation as he tries to make the climb from risky pick to starting NFL quarterback.

“That drives me,” Pryor said in a recent session with media members. “Because the last pick -- the last pick may not mean anything. I might not mean anything to anybody. But to me, you know, it kind of felt like -- last pick of a guy that made a legacy of football. He was just a well-known guy. Being the last pick ... I mean, that's special, just in that sense, just how his name is always brought up. He's on HBO shows now after his death. It's just an honor, how much I have to, I want to.”

Listening to and watching Pryor say those last words was telling. It was clear how much succeeding for Davis meant to him.

Still, Pryor is in a unique situation. There isn’t an emotional connection between him and the new regime. McKenzie and Allen inherited Pryor. They surely will give him an opportunity to develop, but his progress is far from being a focus for this team.

Pryor, who played one play last season and was called for a penalty on it, is not in the team’s immediate plans. That was made clear when the Raiders signed Matt Leinart this offseason to back up starter Carson Palmer. Leinart was with new Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Knapp in Houston the past two seasons. Knapp is clearly more confident in having the veteran Leinart back up Palmer than going with the raw Pryor.

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor, Carson Palmer
AP Photo/Ben MargotThough Terrelle Pryor, right, wants Carson Palmer's job as the Raiders' starting quarterback, he's also thankful for the veteran's advice.
That is the smart tack for Knapp to take. The Raiders have to coach Pryor and let him grow. He missed a lot of developmental time when he left Ohio State before his senior season under the cloud of an improper-benefits scandal.

It would not make much sense to rush him. If brought along correctly, Pryor has a chance to develop because of his athletic ability and plus arm strength. Prior to this year's draft, Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. said he thought Pryor would have been taken in the third round this year had he been part of this draft class.

Pryor understands that he has a learning curve. But to listen to him, Pryor is attacking each practice with the intention of impressing the coaching staff enough to make him the starter over Palmer, whether that goal is realistic or not. The staff is noticing. Both Allen and Knapp have complimented Pryor on his work ethic.

“I’m going to go about my business getting better and working hard and no one [will] out-work me. That’s how I live and that’s how I do things every day, and it won’t change,” Pryor said. “I learned a lot from Carson but I’m not going to worry about what he’s doing. I’m not going to worry about what Matt’s doing because I have to be on my ‘A’ game every day.

“Competing to play -- Carson is the starter and he's going to be the starter. But I don't put myself as I'm going to be a backup. I mean, I don't sit around saying, 'I want to be a backup, that's what I want to be.' That's not how I operate. That's not how I want to be. I'm going to work to play. And Carson's always played well and always will. Whenever the opportunity comes for me to play, I'll play. But I'm not planning to be a backup. Get that correct.”

While he considers Palmer a competitor, Pryor is taking advantage of working with the veteran. Pryor said he relishes the opportunity to learn from Palmer. He said Palmer often gives him tips during film reviews.

“As a person, he’s one of the best people I’ve ever met,” Pryor said of Palmer. “He’s great. I couldn’t ask for anyone better. … He's taking all his time to give a word for me to get better.”

It will be interesting to watch Pryor in training camp and in the preseason. Continued improvement in his footwork and accuracy is paramount in the next couple of years as Pryor tries to show the new Oakland regime that the final pick of the Al Davis Raiders will be much more than a trivia answer.

Raiders: Backup QB plan

June, 6, 2012
6/06/12
12:00
PM ET
Assessing the Oakland Raiders’ backup QB situation if Carson Palmer is injured and misses time.

Familiarity is a big deal for backup quarterbacks and that is a strong positive for Matt Leinart. He has a close bond with Palmer after backing him up at USC and Leinart played for new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp in Houston. However, he has never shown an aptitude as an NFL starter, so the Raiders could be in trouble if Palmer has to miss significant time. Leinart, who has struggled to stay healthy, is 8-10 as a starter in his career. The Raiders also have second-year quarterback Terrelle Pryor. He has an uphill battle to overtake Leinart as the backup this season.

Confidence rating (out of 100) if Palmer out for extended period: 35.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider