AFC West preview (cont.)
What the Raiders do best: Struggle.
That's not meant to be a knock, but when you've had seven consecutive seasons of 11 or more losses -- the longest such streak in league history -- what else can you say until the Raiders turn things around? Thing is, change could be on the horizon. The team had its best offseason since reaching the Super Bowl in the 2002 season: It traded for QB Jason Campbell, drafted middle linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive end Lamarr Houston, signed free-agent defensive tackle John Henderson, hired offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and released QB JaMarcus Russell, the top pick of the 2007 draft who lacked drive and commitment.
There is a quiet confidence among the players that they will challenge for the division title. But there will be challenges, like knee surgery for No. 1 wideout Chaz Schilens, a broken thumb by running back Michael Bush and a wrist injury and stinger sustained by Campbell in the third preseason game. Oakland is not deep enough to overcome injuries to frontline players.
What the Raiders need to improve: Run defense.
The Raiders haven't ranked higher than 22nd against the run since 2002, and they took steps to correct that by drafting McClain and signing Henderson. They are big men who should provide a physical presence on the interior. When they hit the pile, it should move backward, which wasn't always the case in recent years. Also, tackle Tommy Kelly may have had his most impressive preseason since signing a big-money deal a few years ago. Rotate him with Richard Seymour and Henderson and that's quite an interior --if all of them play up to their abilities.
Will they really be better? Chicago's Matt Forte went 89 yards for a score against Oakland in the preseason, and San Francisco's Frank Gore had a 49-yard gain. Granted, Seymour was not on the field for either run, but the jaunts were disturbing in that divisional foes San Diego and Kansas City will be seeking to establish ground games this year. Also, the Raiders open against the Titans and Rams, whose starting backs, Chris Johnson and Steven Jackson, ranked first and second in rushing last season.
Which Raider needs to step up: Running back Darren McFadden.
The former Arkansas running back has struggled with injuries since being drafted fourth overall in 2008. He started strong, churning out 164 yards at Kansas City in his second game as a pro. Since then he has gone 23 consecutive games without breaking 100, and in 21 of those games he failed to reach 50.
Oakland desperately needs him to be the playmaker he was at Arkansas. The Raiders tied for last in the league with 17 offensive touchdowns last season and scored just 197 points overall, tying for second-fewest in the league. Their inability to threaten offensively puts undue pressure on the defense.
"It's been kind of frustrating not being able to do the things that I know -- and that I'm used to doing," says McFadden. "It's been rough for me. I haven't had the success I would like to have. I haven't showed people what I can do. I think a lot of people look at it like I'm just another guy who came into the NFL with high expectations and am not doing so well. One thing I'm going to try to get back to is getting that big-play ability going. That's my game. I've just got to go out and do it."
Predicted record: 8-8.
The Raiders will be much improved, but it's hard to see them making a quantum leap because it takes time to build chemistry and cohesion. Jackson, Campbell, McClain and Houston, among others, are in their first year in the system. Lack of depth and a suspect offensive line are also issues.
What the Chiefs do best: Run the ball.
Jamaal Charles, a speedy big-play threat, came out of nowhere last season to rush for 1,120 yards and seven TDs. He took off over the final eight games, during which his 968 yards rushing and 1,126 yards from scrimmage trailed only Tennessee's Chris Johnson, who had 1,047 and 1,388, respectively. Also, Charles' five rushes of 40 yards or longer ranked second to Johnson's seven for the season.
This year Charles will be complemented by Thomas Jones, a 32-year-old grinder who led the Jets last year with 1,402 yards rushing and 14 scores. The Chiefs have had to rely on the run because their passing game is so inconsistent, particularly the vertical passing game. Matt Cassel struggled in his first year in Kansas City after being acquired in a trade and signing a potential $63 million deal. He threw only 16 TDs and had 16 interceptions with a 69.9 passer rating. Not coincidentally, wideout Dwayne Bowe had the worst season of his career, though Bowe had a strong offseason and exhibition season.
What the Chiefs need to improve: Pass rush.
The Chiefs traded end Jared Allen to the Vikings after the 2007 season, and their pass rush hasn't been the same since. They averaged just 16 sacks the past two seasons, and only outside linebacker Tamba Hali recorded more than 4.5 in a season during that time. The secondary isn't bad, but its ability gets overshadowed when quarterbacks have so much time to throw.
Maybe linebacker Andy Studebaker will be the complement that Hali needs. Studebacker impressed during the exhibition season and was pushing starter Mike Vrabel for playing time. "We're all excited about him," says coach Todd Haley. "He's got the work ethic, the toughness, the athletic ability to be a good player. And he's working real hard trying to do that."
Which Chief needs to step up: Defensive end Tyson Jackson.
Jackson was the third pick of the 2009 draft, but the former LSU defensive end didn't play up to expectations. He made little to no impact as a rookie, and was not demonstrably better this preseason. The Chiefs don't need him to be great --3-4 ends rarely put up big stats -- but they do need him to be good. Consistently good.
Defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme are asked to occupy blockers and hold the line so the linebackers can flow to the ball. Jackson has the size and strength to do it, but he tends to disappear at times. That becomes an even bigger problem when the end on the other side, fellow LSU top-five pick Glenn Dorsey, does the same thing. These two have to step up for the defense to become formidable.
Predicted record: 6-10.
The additions of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will accelerate a return to respectability. Weis' arrival allows Haley to focus on managing the team instead of worrying about what play to call on offense. The record might not show it, but the team is headed in the right direction in Year 2 of the Haley/Scott Pioli regime.
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