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Published on 09/26/2009 at Sat Sep 26 00:52.
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Denver Broncos fullback Peyton Hillis runs into a wall of Oakland Raiders defenders near the goal line during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Oakland, California September 8, 2008.  (REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

Denver Broncos fullback Peyton Hillis runs into a wall of Oakland Raiders defenders near the goal line during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Oakland, California September 8, 2008. (REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

The Denver Broncos can beat the Oakland Raiders.

The Raiders pose the toughest challenge the Broncos have faced in 2009.  Their defense is aggressive at all levels, especially along the defensive line, and their offense is underrated behind their duo of big bruising backs Darren McFadden and Michael Bush.  What’s more, the Raiders are a bad call away from being 2-0.  (No seriously, they should be.  Ed Hochuli can be at peace now; his zebra brethren repaid the debt).

It won’t be easy, and at times it won’t be fun, but beating the Raiders can be done.

Here’s how.

What the Chiefs did right

The Raiders have played two teams now, winning once and losing once. It would seem odd to want to model a gameplan after the team that lost, but based on the stats it’s clear the Chiefs played much better against the Raiders than the Chargers did.  Had Kansas City not shot itself in the foot several times over, it would have dropped Oakland to 0-2.  Take a look:

OAK Week 1 vs. SD Week 2 at KC
Points 20 13
Yards 366 166
Rush Yds 148 67
Yds allowed 317 409

Here are some of the things the Chiefs did right:

  • Contained the running game. The Chiefs were much more solid against the run than the Chargers were. The Oakland offensive line that looked semi-dominant in week one was brought back to earth, struggling to get a push against Kansas City’s revamped 3-4 front. It was clear the running backs were more hesitant in their approach in runs up the middle in Week 2, likely because Oakland’s line had a tough time getting a good push, while the Chiefs linebackers were faster and more physical in stopping runs to the outside than their Charger counterparts.
  • Eliminated Zach Miller. The Raiders tight end exploded in week one but was nonexistent in week two. Is it any coincidence that JaMarcus Russell had one of the worst games of his career a week after repeatedly hitting Miller for decent chunks in the middle of San Diego’s defense? The Chiefs made a point of taking Miller out of the game, mostly employing linebacker coverage and double coverage to take him out.
  • Short and medium passes. The Chiefs didn’t take many shots down the field, and when they did, it ended disastrous for them. The Raiders’ secondary is teeming with talent, particularly with Nnamdi Asomugha and (this season) Michael Huff. Huff’s story is particularly intriguing; his move from strong to free safety has already paid huge dividends as the fourth-year man has tallied three interceptions in two games. The Chiefs were able to rake up over 400 yards with a predominantly dink and dunk offense, and the Broncos would be wise to do the same and not challenge those athletic playmakers in the back end.

Accounting for Richard Seymour and the D-Line

If Josh McDaniels wanted a challenge, he’s got it.  The Raiders’ defense is built to stop the very spread offense McDaniels loves to employ, mostly because of its disruptive defensive line.

I wasn’t a fan of the addition of Richard Seymour, feeling that the five-time Pro Bowler was past his prime and not worth a first round pick.  So far, I’m eating my words – Seymour has been dominant and is already lining up all over the defensive line.  He plays predominantly RDE and RDT, lining up against the offense’s LT and LG, but he’s seen a few snaps everywhere.  Combined with the free agent acquisition of Greg Ellis and an already stout middle, I’m hard-pressed to think of a more talented 4-3 defensive line in the league.

Defensive end Richard Seymour #92 of the Oakland Raiders gestures toward the sidelines during a timeout during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on September 20, 2009 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Defensive end Richard Seymour #92 of the Oakland Raiders gestures toward the sidelines during a timeout during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on September 20, 2009 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It’s classic football, strength vs. strength – I wouldn’t trade Denver’s o-line for another in the league, so this matchup should dictate the tone of the entire game.  In my mind, if either side is the clear victor in this battle, that team will win the game.

We know McDaniels likes to line up in four or five wide receiver sets and give Kyle Orton plenty of options, but it’s difficult to assume a five-man front can handle the likes of Seymour, Ellis and company.  Even the Broncos o-line.

So if I’m the Raiders, the first thing I’m trying to do is cause a matchup problem with Seymour.  Denver’s offensive line is solid across the entire front, but if one lineman can be put on skates it’s LG Ben Hamilton.  For that reason I expect the Raiders to line up Seymour predominantly at RDT and try to force a one-on-one with Hamilton whenever possible (especially with Hamilton having been listed on the injury report this week).

Can we count on Hamilton to win that battle every single time?  He’s solid, but I don’t think so.  Casey Wiegmann will need to help whenever possible, if for the indirect advantage more than the direct one. Giving Hamilton help will spell the veteran guard in preparation for the times where he will have to face Seymour one-on-one. And no matter how well the Broncos scheme, the Raiders will blitz enough to make it happen.

The Broncos offensive line is so good, though, that I don’t see Ellis and company beating the rest of the o-linemen more than once or twice, and Orton has shown the ability to get rid of the ball when necessary. Key on Seymour and the rest will fall into place.

Preparing for Good JaMarcus — if such a person exists anymore

JaMarcus Russell‘s 2009 completion percentage stands at 35%. That’s low. That’s so ridiculously low it’s laughable. What’s worse is seeing the throws – Russell is just plain inaccurate. Wide open receivers five yards away are repeatedly victims of just silly over and underthrows.

That being said, Russell had the best game of his career against the Broncos last year, going 10/11 for 152 yards, one TD, zero INTs and a 149.1 passer rating.

Don’t assume Russell will struggle every week. Don’t assume you can give him time in the pocket and he’ll be inaccurate anyway. The Broncos need to get in his face and make him uncomfortable. The Broncos need to ensure that he continues to suck.

Because Russell did have some highlight-reel throws, particularly in the fourth quarter of both games.

The reason is clear in hindsight – Russell’s been groomed in the Raiders’ vertical passing attack, and he has the big arm to match.  Give him time in the pocket and he’ll pick apart your secondary. As McDaniels pointed out, Russell leads the league in yards per completion.

Don’t even give Russell the time to beat you. The Broncos’ DB’s are probably good enough to handle just about anything Oakland WR’s can dish one-on-one. While the linebackers will be needed in run support (McFadden and Bush don’t mess around), Mike Nolan‘s boys are smart enough to be able to get creative with blitzes and pressure packages and not get caught off guard. Don’t let the play develop; get in JR’s face before his seventh step.

In other words, make absolutely sure Bad JaMarcus comes out to play.

Respect Nnamdi Asomugha and Michael Huff

Brandon Marshall has never scored a touchdown or had a 100-yard game against the Raiders, and if Asomugha is covering him again that won’t change. The Broncos shouldn’t force it to BMarsh if he’s being smothered by Nnamdi.

Huff has been equally impressive this season, perhaps most so because of his ability to read the quarterback’s eyes. He is repeatedly finding himself in the proper position to make a play, and you can see him reading the quarterback as he does. The Broncos shouldn’t push it deep because of this; these two are a dangerous combo.

And they shouldn’t need to. The Raiders’ offense is anemic, and so the Broncos can afford to be conservative (or perhaps “smart” is the better word) and dink-dunk their way to victory.

And if they do get a chance at a shot downfield, make sure Huff is preoccupied and it’s against one-on-one coverage behind Stanford Routt. The Chiefs found a way to get Dwayne Bowe lined up against the nickelback and turned it into their biggest play, a decent-lengthed touchdown toss.

The prediction

If the Broncos offensive line can hold up, they should be able to utilize short throws and screens to loosen up the Raiders defense. In turn, this will get their ground game going. On defense the Broncos secondary is more talented than Oakland’s wide receivers, but Russell has the ability to make the difference if he has time in the pocket. He hasn’t gotten comfortable yet this season, and if the Broncos can keep the discomfort they should have no trouble coming home from the Black Hole with a ‘W.’

It’s a closer, more hard-fought battle than the final score indicates, but I have the Broncos 17, Raiders 6.