|Sunday, December 15
Raiders' makeshift secondary struggles
By Len Pasquarelli
MIAMI -- With their cornerback corps reduced to a M*A*S*H unit, and their most recent reinforcement renowned more for his punt return skills, the Oakland Raiders went into Sunday's key AFC matchup against Miami with a secondary in which the term "makeshift" would be a dignified description.
And as if the unit wasn't scarred enough, the Dolphins inflicted even more injury, particularly in the person of wide receiver Chris Chambers.
The second-year veteran caught seven passes for a career-best 138 yards and, every time it seemed the Dolphins needed a big play through the air, he was able to shake free from an Oakland cornerback. Talk about irony: While the Miami cornerback corps was arguably the difference in determining the outcome of a 23-17 victory, the Raiders simply couldn't match up.
Then again, they barely knew one another, as Oakland was forced to play a foursome that had not started together all season.
"It's tough when you come to the stadium and aren't sure who's even ready to play," said Raiders free safety Rod Woodson. "We pretty much found out Charles (Woodson) couldn't play just an hour or two before (kickoff). And then the shuffling started."
Once blessed with one of the deepest cornerback contingents in the league, the Raiders now are groping for ambulatory bodies, and it won't be much of a surprise if notable punt return ace Darrien Gordon, signed Thursday, gets a crash course in coverage packages this week.
The venerable Eric Allen retired this summer. Charles Woodson missed time with a shoulder injury early in the year and is now out with an ankle sprain. First-round draft choice Phillip Buchanon, an instant hit in coverage and on punt returns, is on injured reserve with a broken wrist. Veteran nickel defensive back Tory James, who moved into a starting job when Buchanon was lost for the season, has a leg injury that will keep him out another week or two.
The result: One starting cornerback was Terrance Shaw who, for most of his career, has been a nickel defender. The other was Clarence Love, a third-year spare part and special teams contributor who had never before started in a regular-season contest.
Even the safety lineup was affected, with Anthony Dorsett Jr. replacing the hard-hitting Derrick Gibson, in a coach's decision based on the poor play of the latter. Essentially, Rod Woodson was the only regular starter who began the game for the Raiders.
"I'm not going to feel sorry for myself," Love said. "It was an opportunity for me to contribute big-time. I could have played better."
In fact, Miami offensive coordinator Norv Turner widely drew a figurative bull's-eye on both Shaw and Love, tested them early, and went at them most times the Dolphins needed to convert a third down. The primary beneficiary was Chambers, the second-year player and 2001 second-year draft choice, who continues to emerge as a playmaker.
On the Dolphins' second offensive snap, Chambers beat Shaw deep up the right sideline for a 40-yard gain, and the reception set up a 25-yard Olindo Mare field goal that opened the scoring. He also added receptions of 5, 6, 7, 14, 29 and 29 yards. All seven catches produced first downs.
About two weeks ago, Miami coach Dave Wannstedt noted to a friend that he hoped he didn't get to the end of the season, and regretted not having gotten the ball to Chambers enough times. Wannstedt needn't fret over that any longer, not if Sunday was any indication, given that Chambers was the primary receiver most of the day.
Wannstedt allowed Chambers was a big part of the game plan, and that taking full advantage of the crippled Oakland secondary was even a bigger element, and that was certainly the case. Miami threw on 10 of its first 14 offensive snaps, with the Raiders crowding the line of scrimmage, trying to slow tailback Ricky Williams.
The "Dreadlocked One" rushed for 101 yards, his fifth consecutive 100-yard game and his ninth of the year, but averaged just 3.7 yards a carry. Williams was hounded much of the day by Oakland weakside linebacker Eric Barton but, while the Raiders held the hard-running tailback in check, they just could not overcome their lack of healthy cover defenders.
"I've been around the league long enough," said Rod Woodson, "to know the importance of continuity. It's hard to get that with the revolving door we've been forced into (at cornerback)."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.