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Silver Bullets
Michael Silver
September 27, 1999
After shutting down the Vikings, the Oakland Raiders must be considered armed and dangerous contenders in the suddenly wide-open AFC West
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September 27, 1999

Silver Bullets

After shutting down the Vikings, the Oakland Raiders must be considered armed and dangerous contenders in the suddenly wide-open AFC West

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Charles Woodson was pushing every button he could think of, but he just couldn't get to Randy Moss. Woodson, the Oakland Raiders' perpetually calm cornerback, finally became frustrated and briefly lost his cool last week as he sat in the living room of his Alameda, Calif., town house, fiddling with a Sony Playstation controller. Four days before facing the Minnesota Vikings' receiving sensation in the flesh, Woodson hoped to simulate their showdown through the magic of Madden '98. But alas, Woodson's exhaustive search for his rival's video-game likeness gathered no Moss. "Man," Woodson said, chucking the controller to the floor. "I don't have time to figure this stuff out."

Woodson, like the rest of the football-watching universe, was eager to see how this battle of second-year standouts—Generation Y2K's answer to Jerry Rice versus Deion Sanders—would play out. But as he chilled on his couch and broke down the matchup, Woodson fixed his thoughts on a larger prize. "Everybody's going off about me and Randy," he said, "but I'm just anxious to go up there and win this game."

The Raiders, who lost their opener to the Green Bay Packers on a Brett Favre touchdown pass in the waning seconds, were 11-point underdogs to the Vikings, and Woodson felt a loss in Minneapolis would be a disaster. "Even with last week's disappointment," he said, "we proved to ourselves we can play with anyone. Now we have to deliver, because not everyone can handle being 0-2. Some guys will just pack it in."

No team has folded more regularly than the Raiders of recent years, but thanks to a relentless defense and a shut-up-and-play mentality, the Silver and Black is back on track. In muscling out a 22-17 victory over the Vikings, Oakland not only sucked the air out of Minnesota's vaunted passing attack but also emerged as an unlikely powerhouse in a league gone mad. With the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos 0-2, the reinvented Raiders look capable of contending for the AFC West title. On Sunday they played tough, crisp, smart football, then stead-fasdy refused to get caught up in their own hype. "We're not beating our chests and saying, 'Look at us!' " said halfback Tyrone Wheatley, who bashed his way to 67 of his 83 yards in the second half. "We'll come hard every week and let the other teams around the league look at the film and decide what our identity is."

While much has been made of Oakland's murderous schedule, which includes October games against the Broncos, Bills, Jets and Dolphins, no one considered the opposition's perspective: As Minnesota quarterback Randall Cunningham can attest, facing the Raiders holds all the allure of spending an afternoon crash-testing a Miata. Though Cunningham threw for 364 yards, he was sacked six times and pummeled repeatedly, and he completed just 4 of 11 passes after the Vikings closed to within five points early in the fourth quarter. "We whipped their ass," said Raiders nickelback Darrien Gordon, a Broncos starter the past two years. "Teams have to realize that when they play the Raiders, it's going to be a smash-mouth game." Moss, who caught four passes for 86 yards—but only one, for 15 yards, after halftime—is already convinced. "They beat us, simple as that," he said. "No fluke. They hit us in the mouth."

Moss's mouth played a role in Oakland's preparation for this game. In the middle of the week he complained to reporters that a true mano a mano contest against Woodson would never materialize because, as usual, he expected double coverage. "That's the only way you can really slow me down, by bumping me and rolling the safety over the top," Moss said. "That's taking the 'punk' way out. If you're trying to see if your guy is worth what he says he is, let him play one-on-one."

Dream on, Randy. The Raiders punked Moss all afternoon, bumping him hard at the line of scrimmage. Oakland kept its corners in place, with Woodson on the left and savvy veteran Eric Allen on the right, and gave the illusion of bringing help over the top. Moss moved around frequently but never found a comfort zone. "Because of his comments, we knew he had been worrying about two-deep coverage," Allen said, "so in the first half we pressed him and showed him that look—to make him think that's what we were doing—but rolled the safety away from him. Later, we started rolling toward him, and I think he got frustrated. Hey, Michael Jordan was here to watch him play: The guy really wanted to get off."

Raiders defensive coordinator Willie Shaw, who should be some team's coach this time next year, swears he wasn't preoccupied with stopping Moss, who lit up the league for 17 touchdowns last season but has yet to reach the end zone in '99. "My only concern was getting after the quarterback," Shaw said. "All that talking Moss did in the paper about punk coverage, that's high school stuff. If you're really going to be a good player in this league, just go play. I think he psyched himself out."

Shaw sent extra defenders after Cunningham on more than half of the Vikings' snaps, mixing zone blitzes with more traditional pursuits such as Mike Dog 1, an alignment in which 6'2", 245-pound linebacker Greg Biekert bursts through the middle of the line. On Minnesota's second play of the third quarter—after the Raiders took a 13-10 lead on Rich Gannon's nine-yard pass to wideout James Jett—Cunningham's slant pass to Moss was batted into the air by the blitzing Biekert and intercepted by defensive tackle Russell Maryland, setting up Michael Husted's 42-yard field goal.

Even without extra pass rushers, Oakland's underrated defensive line consistently collapsed the pocket on Cunningham and forced the Vikings, who had minus-one yard rushing after halftime, into a one-dimensional attack. Cunningham had success mixing things up in the first half, spreading the ball to wide receivers Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed and tight ends Andrew Glover and Carlester Crumpler. But when the Raiders' offense came alive in the third quarter and staked Oakland to a 22-10 lead, Cunningham started locking in on his wideouts. "It's not that Randall gets rattled, but when he gets a lot of pressure, he starts to eliminate guys," says Allen, a former Philadelphia Eagles teammate of Cunningham's in the '80s. " Favre beat us the previous week because in crunch time he kept the window open and used the whole field—Joe Montana was the same way, no matter how hard he got hit—but with Randall, things get narrow, and he forgets about some of his options."

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