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.