Run-first Raiders still need Russell

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

The Oakland Raiders probably will try to win on the ground in JaMarcus Russell's first game as the no-doubt starting quarterback.

The Raiders love the three-headed monster running attack that consists of Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas and Michael Bush. All three running backs give the Raiders something different and the team can't wait to unleash McFadden, whom the Raiders took with the fourth pick of the 2008 draft. Oakland's Monday night season opener on ESPN against AFC West rival Denver will be a good time to introduce the former Arkansas star.

Denver's defense was ranked 30th against the run last year. Watch for the Raiders to try to push the ball right at Denver with a steady diet of McFadden, Fargas and Bush. Oakland will try to wear down Denver as it tries to reverse a horrendous past five years featuring a 19-61 record.

In fact, the Raiders think they can take the road to respectability by being a running team in 2008. Still, the Raiders know they can't do it without Russell.

While the Raiders' offensive game plan probably will call for more runs than passes against Denver, Russell will have a vital role. He has to deliver and keep the Denver defense honest to make the Oakland run attack effective throughout the game. If Russell struggles and is ineffective, Denver will keep eight men in the box and attempt to slow down the ground attack.

Oakland coach Lane Kiffin made it very clear Russell will play a crucial role against the Broncos. Kiffin is always honest, and he told reporters point-blank during a conference call with Denver media this week that Russell has to perform well for Oakland to have a chance to win Monday and beyond in 2008.

"I think that's the natural thing to think because we do feel very good about all three of our tailbacks and our run game," Kiffin said. "But we can't be one dimensional. With the development of JaMarcus, we do need to be able to attack and throw the ball. As you look back as well as we ran the ball last year, we're still not scoring very many points and even in preseason when our ones are playing, we were running the ball extremely well, you have to have some explosion in your passing games to be able to score points."

Russell's counterpart Monday night, Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, told reporters he expects Russell to get a chance to turn the attention away from the Oakland running game.

"Probably the coaches are gonna keep things basic, try to run the ball and get eight in the box so he gets some one-on-ones outside," Cutler said. "And he's going to see some blitzes that he's not accustomed to seeing, because teams are gonna test him, see if he's on his stuff protection-wise. It's a learning process. There's a learning curve, and you've got to go through it to be successful."

Russell's short NFL career has been a learning process. After a long contract holdout last year, Russell didn't start playing until late in the season. Oakland didn't give Russell the keys to the offense until this offseason. Kiffin still refers to Russell as a rookie, but the coach is excited about his potential. A devout student of the game, Russell had an up-and-down preseason, but there is no doubt that the enormous quarterback does have potential and a cannon arm.

It won't be easy for Russell immediately. Not only is he expected to go through the typical up-and-down process every young quarterback does, he could be hampered by the fact that Oakland doesn't have a great offensive line and has serious question marks at receiver. Still, he will be counted on to come through, and that begins Monday night against Denver when he will need to take some pressure off Oakland's running game.

Kiffin hopes Russell can do that by displaying his huge arm a few times. During the preseason, Russell, who developed a nice chemistry with tight end Zach Miller, didn't throw deep much. That could change very soon.

Listen to Kiffin: "The last thing I want to do is become one-dimensional, especially with JaMarcus' ability to throw the deep ball."

If Oakland beats Denver on Monday night, its young quarterback will play a major role even if he is overshadowed by a three-headed monster.