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Oakland was nudged out of first place last season for the first time in six years and only the second time in 11 years, but don't look for it to happen this time around. The Raiders are ahead of the rest of the AFC West in depth, and in a 16-game season that could be the crucial factor.
Nevertheless, the Raiders are vulnerable on defense. The fact is that most people attack them in the wrong place. To be sure, Oakland's secondary is inviting, particularly now that Safety George Atkinson has been released, Cornerback Skip Thomas has been waived after a bout with hepatitis and Cornerback Willie Brown is 37. The Raiders surrender too many bombs, but they also come up with a lot of interceptions, and should get even more with the acquisition of Cornerback Monte Jackson from the Rams.
A much safer and more promising route against Oakland is along the ground. Opponents ran fewer times against the Raiders than against any other team in football last year, yet Oakland allowed 4.3 yards a rush, one of the worst records in the league. Coach John Madden is aware of the weakness, even if no one else is. How else do you explain trading a first draft choice for Green Bay Defensive Tackle Mike McCoy, who has been waived? The most valuable Raider for defensive purposes is Punter Ray Guy, who keeps opponents miles away from the Oakland goal line.
The Raiders are the highest-scoring team in football because they do everything so well. Their image is that of a passing, daredevil team, but, in fact, Oakland runs more—a lot more—than any other team. And so they should, given that massive line led by the left side—Guard Gene Upshaw and Tackle Art Shell. Behind their blocking, Mark van Eeghen led the AFC with 1,273 yards rushing and Clarence Davis added 787 more.
Quarterback Ken Stabler is one of the game's most versatile throwers and he has every kind of receiver in the rugged Tight End Dave Casper, speedster Cliff Branch and sideline artist Fred Biletnikoff. Even so, the way to stop the Raiders is to force Stabler to the air, where at least you have a chance to intercept him. In Denver's first game against Oakland last year the Broncos shut down the Raider ground game and ended up with seven interceptions and a 30-7 win.
Denver, the surprise of surprises, swept to the Super Bowl on the strength of its defense. To get back there, however, the Broncos must develop a more productive offense, and to do that they must get better line play. Fortunately, offensive lines and running attacks are Coach Red Miller's specialties. Miller has good enough runners in shifty Otis Armstrong and consistent Rob Lytle, but he could use more power out of the fullback position, where Jon Keyworth runs too upright. The Bronco backs find holes on the right side behind Guard Paul Howard and Tackle Claudie Minor, but not on the left, where Miller particularly needs help at tackle and an overall improvement in pass blocking. Quarterback Craig Morton was always under siege when he dropped back to pass last year.
The Denver passing attack occasionally caught teams by surprise with a deep gamble, but primarily it was carefully orchestrated to keep interceptions at a minimum. Hence the enormous number of sacks (50) but singularly few interceptions. Given better protection, Morton has all the receiving talent he needs for a strong passing game. Haven Moses is one of the best at running precise pass patterns. Jack Dolbin and Rick Upchurch supply downfield speed on the other side, and among tight ends Riley Odoms is a top receiver.
The Denver defense, which gave up the fewest points in the AFC, returns intact. A Mack truck would stall against the Broncos' 3-4 alignment. Its particular strength is the pursuit by its linebackers—Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Joe Rizzo and Bob Swenson. Gradishar is the slowest—he may also be the best—and he can run 40 yards in 4.8 seconds.
Nor were Denver's skies friendly to the opposition. The Broncos allowed plenty of short completions but little more. The line, particularly Defensive End Lyle Alzado, put on enough pressure to hurry quarterbacks, and the secondary picked off a slew of passes. Cornerback Louis Wright and Safety Billy Thompson both went to the Pro Bowl.
San Diego should be called Giants instead of Chargers. On the defensive line are Gary (Big Hands) Johnson and Louis Kelcher, the man with one of the biggest pairs of feet (size 16½ EEEE) in the league. Milton Hardaway, a 6'9", 312-pound tackle, is the biggest man in football. Joining him on the offensive line is 6'7" Russ Washington, who this year reported at his lightest playing weight ever, 285 pounds. Then there is Guard Ed White, who probably has the NFL's biggest biceps. But don't overlook the forest because of a few redwoods. It is not merely the size of the Chargers that merits attention, but their ability.