Training Camp. The time year when players have the chance to showcase their off-season hard work, coaches get the chance to put their visions into motion, and speculation begins flying around at an unprecedented rate. Some teams choose to stay the course from the previous season hoping to build on what they have accomplished while other teams turn to change and a fresh start to be their saving grace. Regardless of the route each team chooses to take, the target destination of Super Bowl XLVII remains the same.
The Raiders are no doubt introducing change across the board this season as they usher in the “New Era” of Raiders football under General Manager Reggie McKenzie. As part of this new era, much has been made of the obvious changes in philosophy on the field as the Raiders look to get away from their strict man to man base 4-3 defense of the past and look to be spontaneous and more “multiple” on defense in 2012. The change doesn’t stop there though as the Raiders also look to switch things up on the offensive side of the ball bringing back former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and his strong belief in the Zone Blocking scheme and West Coast Offense.
While many are excited to see the end result of all the changes, few people actually understand the difficulty in changing so much in such a short amount of time. To the fans, what seems like an eternity of waiting for the next NFL season to arrive, is all but a blur to the coaches and players trying to figure out how they will ever cover everything in the little time they have together before the season starts. 10 days of organized team activities, 26 training camp practices, and 4 preseason games. Under the new CBA, that is all the time an NFL team has to implement their strategy and prepare for the upcoming NFL season.
In what seems like an impossible task to change almost every part of a teams philosophy in one off-season, the Raiders actually have a big asset working in their favor. That asset happens to come in the form of player versatility. The Raiders are unmatched when it comes to the ability of their players to play multiple roles on the field. It’s a weapon that has arguably been under utilized by previous coaching staffs, and its a weapon that coach Dennis Allen and the rest of his staff must take full advantage of if they plan to maximize their level of success while implementing their new schemes.
While the Raiders have had a good amount of versatility on their defense in recent years, their scheme has restricted how far it could take them. This year the restraints are gone and the versatility of these players will be very important to the multiple looks the Raiders want to use this season.
Tyvon Branch will play a key role in how successful the Raiders defense will be in 2012, and the amount of things this guy can do on the football field are almost endless. Branch came out of the University of Connecticut where he focused mostly on playing corner back and returning kicks. After joining the Raiders he began his transition from corner back to strong safety, a transition not many guys can claim to have effectively made. Tyvon was not only effective in his new role, but he is now a top five player in the league at that position. With the Raiders short on corner back depth, Branch was also asked to fill in there at times last season. Being able to make that switch mid game is impressive on many levels but his ability doesn’t stop there. Branch also has the range and instincts to play the free safety position, meaning he can be effective at any one of the 4 main defensive back positions. Having a player with that ability adds a tremendous amount flexibility to a defensive game plan, and the fact that he has 4.3 speed means he is never far from the ball regardless of where he begins the play.
Philip Wheeler played his college ball at Georgia Tech where he thrived as an inside linebacker in an aggressive blitzing defense. As a matter of fact, Wheeler was considered by many as one of the nation’s best-blitzing linebackers. That is a skill Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver plan to take full advantage of as the transition to a more aggressive defense has been no secret to this point. Wheeler also possesses rare coverage abilities in the open field, not something a lot of linebackers can say. Having a linebacker who can both attack and cover is a tremendous asset.
Rolando McClain brings his versatility to the table in a different form. McClain was the center piece in Nick Saban’s famous 3-4 defense at Alabama. He excelled there and it’s a role that McClain began to really become comfortable in. However, when he was picked by the Raiders in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, they felt he had what it took to make a the transition to a 4-3 middle linebacker. While he has not had instant success there, he has improved as a 2-gap linebacker and seems to be looking a lot better in training camp this year. That is very important as the Raiders want to use both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts this season. They will need their leader in the middle to be able to call the plays in the huddle and play as both a one and two gap linebacker depending on the formation.
Lamarr Houston played defensive tackle at the University of Texas, but was brought to Oakland to fill a hole at defensive end. Houston is a physical specimen who has proven he can play either position in the NFL with his rare combination of quickness and power. Maybe one of the most intriguing things about him though is where he fits into the 3-4 packages. He certainly has the power to hold his own as a 3-4 end, and does a great job at getting leverage on offensive lineman to be able to drive them back. It has also been noticed that Houston is looking like he’s in good shape this season and might trimmed down some weight to be closer to 280-290 instead of 300-310. Could we see him play some elephant backer (a combination 4-3 DE and 3-4 OLB) this season?
Richard Seymour and Desmond Bryant have also both played inside and outside on the defensive line in the 4-3, and Seymour has experience as a 3-4 defensive end from his time in New England where he won two super bowls. Those two being able to move around on the defensive line will help out tremendously as well.
Of course there are others players on the defense capable of doing multiple things, but i believe the six guys listed above bring a lot of value to what Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver are trying to accomplish on defense. Switching gears to the other side of the ball, the offense is not short on dynamic players either and most seem very excited about the system Greg Knapp is using this season.
Darren McFadden is a one of a kind running back. He has the speed and agility to score every time he touches the ball, but unlike most backs with those attributes, he can also use his power to effectively run between the tackles as well. He is not limited to his running ability though. McFadden has shown many times that he can line up in the slot, run routes, and catch like a wide receiver too. There is not another running back in the NFL that can do all of those things at a high level, and he shares a back field with none other than Marcel Reece. A converted wide receiver from the University of Washington, Reece has played wide receiver, tight end, fullback, and has even carried the ball a few times. He is an X-Factor for the offense, and is incredibly hard to game plan for because he can do so many things from the fullback position. How many times does a defense have to game plan for the fullback? McFadden and Reece are without a doubt the most dynamic backfield duo in the NFL and it’s not even close.
The offensive line is not normally thought about as being versatile, but in the Raiders case they are. Jared Veldheer, a 6’8″ left tackle also spent time playing center his rookie season. Stefan Wisneiwski played center at Penn State, but spent almost his entire rookie season at left guard and played very well there for the Raiders last season. He has now moved back to center. Cooper Carlisle has spent the majority of his career at right guard, but when the team brought Mike Brisel aboard via free agency Carlisle was moved to left guard where he will play this season. Khalif Barnes has started at left tackle and right tackle at certain points in his NFL career. He was also used a lot as an extra lineman in jumbo packages that Hue Jackson liked to use, one of which had Barnes running a route into the end zone where he caught a touchdown pass. Aside from all of that though, they are also making the switch from the power blocking scheme to the zone blocking scheme while returning all starters from last season with the exception of one. In most cases, there are major personnel changes a long the offensive line when you make that kind of switch. At face value it might not seem like a tall task, but any lineman who has played in both will tell you it’s a very tough thing to grasp.
Darrius Heyward-Bey is really starting to develop into a solid wide receiver, who possesses great speed and a big frame capable of breaking tackles. He is getting much better as route running which creates separation from the defensive back and timing with the quarterback. He also excels at running blocking as well though which does not get near enough credit. It is the job of the offensive line to get the running back to the second level, but it is often times a block by a wide receiver that springs the running back for a long gain or a touchdown. DHB’s hard work has made him into a dynamic player in the Raiders offense, and he should only continue to get better.
If the Raiders are able to successfully change so many parts in one season, the one thing that will allow them to do it is the flexibility that have with their roster. As you can see there is not another team in the league that matches the Raiders versatility in all facets of the game, and it will be up to the coaches to use that to their advantage to gain a competitive edge.
Much like the understanding that the NFL has become a passing league, it has also has adopted the “running back by committee” model. In a day and age where running backs seem to be a dime a dozen, teams are less likely to commit to one guy and therefore take on the RBBC approach to the season. With the mindset of having multiple backs sharing the touches, many also assume that each team needs a “speed back” and a “power back”. The idea, of course, being that the power back gets the tough yards and wears down the defense while the speed back plays the finesse role and provides the home run threat to the offense.
The last few years the Raiders have had the luxury of a backfield that consisted of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. In some ways, it seemed to be the perfect combination power and speed that would be a nightmare for any defense. Except when you break down the games when both running backs were healthy last year, you saw more of McFadden wearing down the defense and Bush playing more of a backup/short yardage role. Bush only averaged 7 touches per game through the first 6 games last season while McFadden was averaging nearly 22. With that stat alone, it’s tough to make any kind of argument that Bush had a big impact on games while McFadden was playing.
Of course Bush was also used as the short yardage back which lead many to wonder how the Raiders would convert short yardage plays without him. There is no doubting that Bush was pretty effective in short yardage and he proved that over the last three years by converting a respectable 42% (15 for 36) of his carries inside the 5 yard line for touchdowns according to Chet Gresham of writing for thefakefootball.com. However, with Bush getting most of the short yardage carries, it was assumed that McFadden couldn’t handle those duties when that is far from the truth.
Per the same data, McFadden has converted 7 of his 9 attempts from inside the 5 yard line over the last three years (78%). That conversion percentage is tops in the league for that statistic, meaning McFadden is more than capable of converting short yardage plays as well. Cedric Benson, who many have been calling for to replace Michael Bush, had a 31% (12 for 39) conversion rate from inside the 5 over that same span.
While McFadden possesses the speed and agility to turn any play into a home run, he certainly is not your prototypical speed back by any means. McFadden brings with him a wicked stiff arm and is not afraid to lower his pads and seek contact. Take a look at a few examples:
However, even though Darren has the ability to do it all, Dennis Allen will have to find the right balance between his running backs and not overuse him throughout the season. Mike Goodson and Taiwan Jones are vying for the backup role and both have the ability to provide a spark off the bench to help keep McFadden rested, but neither bring much value to the short yardage game. Owen Schmitt and Marcel Reece will get a chance to show what they can bring to the backfield at times this year too, and both are capable of hammering out a few yards when needed. Lonyae Miller is also one to keep an eye on. Miller has a much more hard-nosed running style was impressive at times with Dallas last season. Be careful how quickly you judge the unknowns like Miller, because Arian Foster was also once an undrafted free agent.
When people talk about wearing down defenses, why is it that big backs always come to mind? Sure they can punish tacklers at times, but more times than not bigger backs are slower to the hole and can be bottled up and gang tackled before doing much damage. Speed backs on the other hand force the defense to always be chasing for fear of being a step late and giving up a potential touchdown on every play. You factor in a guy like Chris Johnson who can stop on a dime and reverse field and McFadden who can deliver a devastating stiff arm if you do finally catch up to him and you begin to reevaluate which one would wear you down quicker.
As seen on Bleacher Report.
Owner Mark Davis and general manager Reggie McKenzie were in Napa, Calif. to watch the first practice under new head coach Dennis Allen. The new era of Raiders football got underway on a beautiful sunny day in wine country and finished on a positive note for the defense when rookie defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi picked off a Terrelle Pryor screen pass and returned it for a touchdown.
Allen believed the Raiders had a pretty good day of practice, but there was plenty of room for improvement. Once Allen goes back to watch the video of practice, he will see a few players that really helped themselves on Monday and a few who didn’t.
Not only did McGee make a few nice catches, including a long grab from Carson Palmer over veteran cornerback Shawntae Spencer, but McGee was coming in with Ford with the No.2 unit ahead of standout rookies Juron Criner and Rod Streater.
It’s a sign that McGee is very much still in the mix to make the team, particularly because he made the most of the opportunities that were given to him.
DaMarcus Van Dyke
Van Dyke broke up a pair of passes during practice while playing with the first-team defense. One of the two break ups was nearly intercepted and it fired up a few of his teammates on defense temporarily.
Veteran cornerback Ron Bartell missed practice with a hamstring injury which opened the door for Van Dyke to get playing time with the starters. It’s worth noting Van Dyke played behind Spencer during OTAs and minicamp with Chekwa getting the reps behind Bartell, but it was Van Dyke that had that duty today.
The Raiders need both Van Dyke and Chekwa to become solid NFL players in 2012 and it’s possible Van Dyke could push for a starting role if he keeps performing like he did on the first day of training camp.
The depth of the secondary in Oakland is very much a question mark in 2012 and Lee is just one of the many players McKenzie brought in to solidify the position. Lee is a known commodity on special teams, but will probably need to prove himself to be a quality reserve to make the roster.
Lee made one of the best defensive plays of the day when he got a hand on a pass over the middle and tipping it up in the air where Chimdi Chekwa was easily able to intercept it. It’s the type of play that is likely to get Lee noticed when the coaches re-watch practice on video.
Ford took an end around to the left, planted to go up field and crumpled to the ground holding his left knee. It was scare for the speedy receiver, but after walking it off and a little work from the trainer, Ford jogged into position with Denarius Moore and the punt return unit.
Moments later Ford was jumping up and down on his left leg as if to tell the media and his teammates that he was okay. Ford reiterated that he was fine after practice, “I think it just scared me more than anything.”
Ford may be something of a special package player in 2012 and he might end up returning both punts and kicks to save Moore. Ford also received reps with the No.2 offense and in the three-receiver set. He’s a winner for coming out of the practice healthy.
Streater made two more nice catches in practice including one deep pass and one fluttering pass he grabbed between two defenders. Had the defenders been wearing pads, Streater may have gotten a good pop from the defender and been lucky to come down with the ball, but he showed he’s willing to elevate and make a play.
If you were to describe Streater, it would be sneaky fast and fluid. At this point, it would be hard to find a reason Streater wouldn’t make the final 53-man roster.
The offense didn’t do much deep passing and all the quarterbacks were checking down to the fullbacks. Reece was targeted many times in the flat and underneath linebackers and if this is part of the new offense, it will suit Reece and veteran running back Darren McFadden.
Curry was placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list with a knee issue and did not participate in practice. The PUP designation may indicate that he might be the furthest away from returning to practice of the four players that didn’t participate on Monday.
Miles Burris took his place with the starting defense. Curry needs to get back quickly before Burris gets adjusted to the pro game and turns the outside linebacker spot into a camp competition.
Criner got reps with the No. 3 offense, but didn’t make any noteworthy catches on Monday. After all the noise Criner made during OTAs and minicamp, it was a disappointment that he didn’t get much action.
Part of this could just be opportunity as the offense practiced a lot of short passes and only occasionally tried a deep pass and any opportunity to impress in drills would have been on the far-side of the field away from the critical eyes of the media.
Matt Leinart is clearly the backup quarterback and it’s not even a competition right now. While Pryor’s arm strength is good, he lacked confidence throwing over the middle, fumbled a snap and threw an interception at the close of practice after stumbling on his drop back.
Pryor’s passes didn’t hit the receivers in stride and too many passes came out of his hand wobbly. Pryor’s asset is his legs, but the quarterbacks weren’t asked to use them much on Monday.
Getting beat deep by McGee sticks out, but otherwise he didn’t make much of an impact. If Van Dyke continues to play like he did Monday and Bartell comes back full strength, Spencer might find himself as a backup.
Aaron Curry (Knee): Physically unable to perform
Shane Lechler (Knee): Present, but no participation
Ron Bartell (Hamstring): Did solo work on separate field only
Travis Ivey (Conditioning): Ran on the treadmill for most of practice.
Mike Mitchell (Knee): Full participation
Stefan Wisniewski (Shoulder): Full participation
The Raiders have a non-padded practice tomorrow at 2:50 p.m. Follow @Raidersblog on Twitter for practice updates.
The Oakland Raiders came into the offseason with salary cap issues and needing to improve a team that finished a disappointing 8-8 last season. New general manager Reggie McKenzie was hired to reshape the Raiders’ front office and establish a new philosophy to guide the team into the future.
McKenzie has a plan and as time passes his philosophies will slowly be revealed. So far, McKenzie has made a flurry of moves designed to help the Raiders reach short-term and long-term goals such as getting under the salary cap and shedding back-loaded contracts that would have handicapped his plans in 2013 and beyond.
A lot of activity doesn’t always indicate a lot of change. As it stands, the Raiders will return 16 of 22 starters.
What does the Raiders activity or lack of activity mean for the team in 2012?
1. Reggie McKenzie wants to win and knows how to build a team to do it.
Overreacting, overvaluing and overpaying is not a recipe for success in the NFL. The most successful teams find value. Making a big splash is free agency is usually a recipe for failure.
The top free agents are almost always overvalued and no team loses a player they truly want to keep.
Without the cap flexibility, the Raiders were never going to be big players in free agency, but instead of signing one top free agent and overpaying for his services, McKenzie has already brought in two value free agents at positions of significant need.
McKenzie knows building a winner requires patience. Even with limited cap space the Raiders should be able to sign a handful of free agents that can help the team for a reasonable price.
The moves being made aren’t just moves to help the team in the future, but moves that can have a positive impact on the win total in 2012.
2. The Raiders may struggle to find a natural pass rush.
With the release of Kamerion Wimbley, the Raiders lose their best edge rusher. Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly will continue to apply pressure up the middle, but the Raiders lack a natural edge rusher.
A healthy Matt Shaughnessy will help the pass rush, but the Raiders will still have to rely on the blitz much more than they ever have before.
The struggle with the blitz is that elite quarterbacks can beat it consistently and the Raiders’ division could be adding another in the form of Peyton Manning to go along with Philip Rivers.
McKenzie still has time to find a natural edge rusher, but as it stands the Raiders will have to manufacture pressure on the quarterback.
Allen’s entire defense hinges on the team’s ability to get a pass rush, so the blitzing safeties and linebackers will have to execute in their new roles.
3. Darren McFadden’s health is vitally important.
Dennis Allen hinted that the Raiders would look into if the practice fields were contributing to the high-rate of foot injuries the team had sustained over the last few years. If the Raiders’ practice field has contributed to foot and leg injuries, McFadden has been hurt by it the most.
Michael Bush is testing the free agent market and is likely to find a team that will make him a full-time starter. That leaves Taiwan Jones and Marcel Reece to backup McFadden.
Jones and Reece are both very capable, but neither are proven running the ball or carrying the load when an injured starter goes down.
With Carson Palmer in the fold, the team can survive without McFadden, but if the team has playoff aspirations McFadden must stay healthy.
4. The offensive line is in flux again.
The Raiders offensive line has been in a constant state of change over the past decade. Tom Cable and the zone-blocking scheme initially brought some success, but that quickly faded and the Raiders began the transition back to the man blocking scheme over the past two seasons.
Greg Knapp’s return to Oakland means the zone-blocking scheme is coming back and the Raiders return only two of the five starters on the offensive line from a season ago.
To solidify the offensive line, the Raiders signed right guard Mike Brisiel from the Houston Texans. Brisiel is a solid zone-blocking guard that will provide a nice upgrade over Cooper Carlisle. Brisiel may also help implement the scheme as he is familiar with Knapp and offensive line coach Frank Pollack.
The question remains what the Raiders will do at right tackle, left guard and center. Stefen Wisniewski will either stay at guard or move to center and the Raiders will need to address whichever position Wisniewski doesn’t play.
The theory behind the zone-blocking scheme is that high-priced lineman are not required if the team knows what traits to look for in an offensive lineman. The Raiders will put the theory to the test in 2012.
Jared Veldheer and Stefen Wisniewski will also have to learn the zone-blocking system. Both should be able to pick up the scheme and both have traits that should translate, but it’s still something new and developing a new skill takes time away from their development of existing skills.
The Raiders should be able to run the ball, but pass protection could be an issue when the line might have three new starters.
Perhaps Joseph Barksdale is ready to compete for a starting job and maybe the zone-scheme can salvage Bruce Campbell’s career.
In the end, the offensive line could be a strength or a weakness of this team. We’ll just have to wait and see.
5. The Raiders will be much better in coverage.
The Raiders released 2011 starters Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson, but brought back Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch. After a terrible year in coverage, a few changes were merited and McKenzie has started the process of solidifying the secondary.
McKenzie signed Ron Bartell to play cornerback on a modest one-year deal. It’s the kind of bargain contract that can pay huge dividends for the Raiders if Bartell is fully recovered from a neck injury he sustained early last season.
Bartell is 30 and had seven solid seasons in St. Louis before being released. He still has all the physical tools to be successful and he can obviously play, but even if there was some question if Bartell had lost a step, McKenzie is known for his ability to tell which players can play and which players can’t.
The Raiders have to figure out what to do on the other cornerback position. One option is free agent cornerback Tracy Porter who will have a visit with the team later this week according to Vittorio Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Porter is a young cornerback with the skills that will fit what Dennis Allen likes to do on defense. Porter’s best seasons came when Allen was his position coach in New Orleans.
Allen’s defense will help take the pressure off the secondary, but the changes have already been positive and McKenzie should continue to add solid depth.