AFC West preview (cont.)
What the Raiders do best: Run the ball
They averaged 155.9 yards rushing last season to rank second in the league behind the Chiefs. The scary part? Oakland appears to be even deeper at the position this year. In addition to Darren McFadden, who led them with 1,157 yards rushing and a 5.2 yards-per-carry average, and Michael Bush, who had a team-high eight rushing scores, they added rookie speedster Taiwan Jones, who was averaging 6.2 yards per carry through three preseason games. The young line more than held its own against the Saints in the third exhibition game, which some teams treat as a dress rehearsal for the season opener. Look for the run game to be the foundation of the offense.
What the Raiders need to improve: Run defense outside the division
In one of the more peculiar stats of last season, Oakland held the running games of AFC West opponents to an average of 85.3 yards and .5 touchdowns a game. However, outside the division they surrendered an average of 162.6 yards and one touchdown rushing a game.
Defensive end Richard Seymour says the problem is more mental than physical, contending that the Raiders need to approach games outside the division with the same mindset and intensity as they do against the Chargers, Broncos and Chiefs. The talent is present to get it done. Oakland is big and physical up front and has the ability to bully some teams. But it must be disciplined and pay attention to gap assignments, otherwise the problem will perpetuate itself.
Which Raider needs to step up: Cornerback Stanford Routt
With Nnamdi Asomugha now in Philadelphia, Routt becomes the team's No. 1 cornerback. That could be asking a lot considering that last season was the first time in three years he started more than four games. Regardless, the Raiders are paying him like a shutdown corner. They signed him to a reported $31.5 million, three-year deal in the offseason that could pay him $20 million in the first two seasons.
Predicted record: 8-8
The Raiders have the potential to win the division -- they were 6-0 against AFC West teams last season -- but their failure to play well against non-divisional opponents is troubling. They finished 2-8 outside the West last season and this year must play five of their first six games vs. non-divisional teams. As if that weren't daunting enough, their non-divisional schedule is comprised of the Packers, Jets, Patriots, Bears, Texans, Lions, Vikings, Dolphins, Browns and Bills.
The good news is that they should be able to build early momentum by opening against the Broncos and Bills. They beat Denver by an aggregate 98-37 last season and Buffalo is rebuilding after a 4-12 finish last year.
What the Broncos do best: Get the ball to Brandon Lloyd
The veteran wideout led the league with 1,448 yards on 77 receptions last season and tied for fourth with 11 TD catches. But that was in an offense constructed by Josh McDaniels, who was fired late in the year. At this point there's no way to know what to expect of Lloyd and the passing game. If training camp was any indication, he should continue to excel. Lloyd caught everything thrown in his direction, and incumbent Kyle Orton remains the starting QB.
What the Broncos need to improve: Overall defense
After a solid showing in 2009, the unit posted league-low averages in points allowed (29.4 a game) and yards allowed (390.2), ranked last in sacks (23) and gave up more yards rushing (154.6 a game) than every team but one.
First positive, 2009 sacks leader Elvis Dumervil is returning after missing missing all of last season with a torn pec. Second positive, the Broncos are shifting back to a 4-3 base defense, which means Dumervil and Robert Ayers can return to playing at the end spot, their natural position. Third positive, new coach John Fox is a respected defensive strategist who figures to help put players in positions to succeed.
Which Bronco needs to step up: Linebacker Von Miller
The Broncos are searching for a pass-rush complement to Dumervil, and Miller could be the guy. He was drafted No. 2 overall this year and made an immediate impact on teammates in training camp.
The Broncos haven't had a 4-3 outside linebacker with Miller's type of explosion and pass-rush ability in some time. In most cases the 6-foot-3, 246-pound Texas A&M product will line up on the opposite side of Dumervil to prevent offenses from sliding their protections to one side.
If the Broncos can firm up interior of their defensive line, they have the personnel to make Sundays miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Miller will be coming off one edge, Dumervil off the other, and third-year pro Robert Ayers is expected to make a dramatic improvement after returning to end after two years at linebacker.
Predicted record: 5-11
Finding five wins was tough, simply because the organization has so much work to do to rebuild a franchise that has gone four straight years without a winning record, and because the schedule is unforgiving. There are games against the defending Super Bowl champion Packers, the reloaded Patriots and a participant from each of last season's conference finals (Bears and Jets). Throw in a game against up-and-coming Detroit, two against AFC West champion Kansas City and four against the Raiders and Chargers, who've beaten them a combined six straight times and eight of the teams' last 10 meetings and, well, the picture is not pretty.