|For Ellis and the other linemen, school's in session on their run responsibilities.
|Peter Read Miller/SI|
14 SAN DIEGO (M)
20 at Kansas City
4 at Houston
11 at N.Y. Giants
25 N.Y. JETS
1 at San Diego
15 KANSAS CITY
26 at Dallas (T)
6 at Pittsburgh
20 at Denver
27 at Cleveland
Darren McFadden, Running back: Slowed by a turf toe injury in his rookie year, McFadden failed to
make the splash that was anticipated after he was drafted at No. 4 out of
Arkansas. But this summer, while studying video of the Raiders' offense, coach
Tom Cable got a reminder of why Oakland took McFadden so high. He saw McFadden
break loose for a 50-yard gain during a 164-yard rushing performance against the
Chiefs in Week 2. He saw McFadden catch passes out of the backfield that went
for 20-plus yards. He saw McFadden line up to take the snap in the Wildcat.
"When we used him many ways last year -- not just as a runner -- we were much
better," says Cable. "The goal is to expand on that role and make him a key
part of what we're trying to do."
In training camp McFadden was getting extended work at wideout as well as
at running back. He came off the bench in the exhibition opener against Dallas
and gained 63 yards on four carries and a nine-yard reception. "Coach told me he
wants to try to put the ball in my hands and let me go with it, whether that's
handing me the ball, throwing me screen passes or spreading me out wide," says
McFadden, who shows no effect from last year's toe injury. "I'm cool with
that. I'm healthy and ready to go. I feel a lot more confident with the
running scheme and the blocking scheme -- the offense, period. I'm not out there
iffy about should I block this guy or that guy. I know what to do."
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Structure and discipline? With this team? Those are the watchwords for a new staff that's going back to basics.
Tom Cable isn't afraid of being unorthodox. The Raiders' coach opened
training camp with eight consecutive walk-throughs before finally allowing his
players to go full pads and hit each other. The strategy caused some coaches
around the league to scratch their heads, but Cable, the former offensive line
coach who took over when Lane Kiffin was fired last September, wanted to make
sure his players were up to speed on their assignments so they could play fast
and loose once the contact commences.
His approach to improving a defense that ranked among the league's worst for
the past two seasons could be viewed as unconventional too. Instead of bringing
in mass reinforcements or dismissing underachievers, Cable focused primarily on
his staff. John Marshall, a 30-year NFL assistant who was the Seahawks'
defensive coordinator for the last three years, takes over for the departed Rob
"I love the players we have on that side of the ball," Cable says. "We have
terrific talent in the secondary, a good front seven that can run, and we've got
plenty of size down the middle. The big issue to me is -- and maybe this fits in
the discipline category -- if you're defending the B gap [between the guard and the
tackle], then by God be in the B gap. Don't be somewhere else trying to do
someone else's job. Structure and discipline are definitely our issues."
The noncontact work over the first eight practices was primarily for the
defense's sake. In past seasons there were too many Raiders defenders playing
for stats or themselves; it wasn't uncommon during position drills for the
linemen to break the huddle by calling out, "Sacks!" Then they'd shake their
heads on Sundays after another opponent gashed them for big gains on the
Oakland has ranked 22nd or worse against the run every year since 2002 and
was 31st each of the past two seasons, allowing an average of 145.9 yards in '07
and 159.7 in '08. In '08 the Raiders surrendered 65 runs of 10 or more yards,
including a league-high 11 for touchdowns. They also allowed six backs to gain
100 or more yards. Perhaps not coincidentally they were 1-5 in those games and
4-6 in all others.
Marshall, with Cable's backing, is preaching selflessness and accountability.
When players are asked to specify how the defense will look different, they
stammer and speak in vague terms. But there is no uncertainty when it comes to
discussing the difference in preparation. "The coaches are actually teaching run
fits [players' basic responsibilities against the run]," says cornerback Nnamdi
Asomugha. "Not just teaching it, but stressing it and going over the basics of
where everybody should be. That does seem fundamental, but what I'm hearing from
the guys is that it's never been this detailed before."
Tackles Tommy Kelly and Gerard Warren have taken a lot of heat for Oakland's
struggles against the rush -- at times rightfully so -- but the ends also failed to
consistently hold the point of attack. That could be a problem again this year
because new starters Trevor Scott (promoted from backup) and Greg Ellis (signed
as a free agent) are known more for their pass rushing than for stopping the
Marshall and new D-line coach Dwaine Board are steeped in the 4-3 scheme that
Raiders owner Al Davis prefers. Ryan had a more varied background, having spent
time in a 3-4 system with New England. The significance? "We have [coaches]
who've been around the league a long time and have seen the way the 4-3 is
supposed to be run," says fourth-year linebacker Thomas Howard. "They've seen it
done right, and they've seen it done wrong -- so they know when it's wrong what has
to be done to get it right."
-- Jim Trotter