In pro football, smart coaches let personnel dictate strategy, which is why the Raiders will be a run-first, pass-second team this season.
The Raiders made serious upgrades in their defensive backfield during free agency and added a great running back, Darren McFadden, through the draft. The one area they did not upgrade was the offensive line, where they released Barry Sims, who had proved he wasn’t good enough at either guard or tackle, and then signed free agent Kwame Harris. As 49ers fans know all too well, Harris is a good run blocker, but terrible on pass protection because he does not have quick feet.
There are ways to minimize the Harris factor. One is the obvious: emphasize running. McFadden is a terrific runner and he has good backups, veteran Justin Fargas and Michael Bush, technically a second-year player though he was on injured reserve most of last season.
If the running game is working well, the Raiders can use play-action passes to momentarily freeze pass rushers. They can use short passes, and McFadden can be effective if he takes a short pass and gets into the open field.
They can also utilize quarterback JaMarcus Russell’s athletic ability on rollout patterns. When I was at camp earlier this week, before Russell injured his elbow, he was throwing well on rollout patterns, and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp told me that was representative of Russell’s play.
“It’s the old Bill Walsh theory,” he said. “The quarterback has to plant his left leg before he throws, and Russell has been doing that.”
This plan only works, though, if the Raiders either have the lead or are just slightly behind. If they fall far enough behind that they have to resort to straight drop back passes, all bets are off. Opponents will turn Harris into a freeway leading to the quarterback, the reason the 49ers gave up on him.
We’ve seen an often repeated pattern in the last two seasons: Opponents would get a couple of touchdowns up on the Raiders and then all but take the air out of the football, playing very conservatively on offense to run down the clock. They knew the Raiders couldn’t catch up by running the ball and they weren’t capable of sustaining a good pass offense.
One way to break that patterns is with an improved defense. This season, the Raiders pass defense should be significantly better.
DeAngelo Hall and Nnamdi Asomugha are shut-down corners. Gibril Wilson is the strong safety they needed, allowing Michael Huff to shift to his natural position of free safety. The problem of missed tackles in the secondary should be eliminated.
But, the Raiders are still weak in stopping the run, and you can’t beat San Diego or Denver without doing that; the Chargers have a great back in LaDainian Tomlinson, and Mike Shanahan seems to be able to plug almost anybody into his offense in Denver. There are certainly reasons to be more optimistic about the Raiders this fall. The talent level is significantly higher, and coach Lane Kiffin, like Jon Gruden in the ‘90s, has changed the attitude of the players; they no longer think it’s all right to lose.
But, ultimately, their success will depend on whether they can establish game control with their running game, or whether their opponents will do that.