After a relatively easy victory last week, the Raiders head to Denver to face their AFC West rival. The Broncos are on a roll, but does Oakland have what it takes to pull off an upset? Here are 5 things to watch in tonight's Monday night match-up.
Tonight the Raiders visit Mile High to take on what could very well be the strongest team in the AFC, if not the entire league. It was never out of the realm of possibility for Oakland to be 1-1 at this juncture, but the nature of that 1-1 record is what's surprising. The Raiders have looked surprisingly competitive. Their pass rush has improved greatly, in large part due to defensive coordinator Jason Tarver's penchant for bringing pressure from the defensive backfield, and Terrelle Pryor has done enough to keep the offense on schedule.
Still, the Raiders will need more than that as they face Peyton Manning and a Broncos team that has been cooking - even without the presence of longtime Bronco Elvis Dumervil and suspended superstar pass rusher Von Miller. Defense was the difference in last week's "Manning Bowl", as the younger brother was forced into repeated mistakes while the elder cruised. Indeed, Peyton Manning is on pace for a record season.
So what can the Raiders do to stay in this prime time match-up? Here are five things to watch tonight on Monday Night Football:
1. The Raiders need to get more pressure with a four man rush.
After week two, the Raiders were tied for the league lead in sacks with nine. Give Jason Tarver all the credit in the world - he found ways to bring pressure without having a consistently dominant sack artist on the edge. Tarver has effectively dialed up blitzes from the safety and cornerback spots, but unfortunately taking defensive backs out of coverage against Peyton Manning is a recipe for disaster.
So instead, the Raiders need to play team defense on the back end and rely on their front four to make Manning uncomfortable. And with the Broncos' elite left tackle Ryan Clady out for the season, all eyes will be on the battle between rising star defensive end Lamarr Houston and new Broncos left tackle Chris Clark. Clark spent most of the offseason program as Denver's starting left tackle, so he won't be going in completely green. He'll also be aided by Manning's quick release and outstanding sense of pressure. Still, Lamarr Houston has been relentless as the Raiders' right end thus far. If Houston can take advantage of Clark's inexperience it'll go a long way towards keeping the Raiders in the game.
2. With Tyvon Branch out for the season, Brandian Ross and Usama Young have to step up.
After Tyvon Branch broke his leg last week, Brandian Ross is expected to step in to the starting strong safety role. Usama Young, who had a sack and a half against Jacksonville, will also see an increased role on defense.
Ross and Young are both quick, physical players who have looked very solid in limited action - especially while blitzing. But they won't be doing much of that in Denver. They'll be tested in coverage early and often. Particularly Ross, who will have the tall task of being asked to match up with players like wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas in man coverage. Young and Ross need to more than hold their own if the Raiders are going to have a chance in this one.
3. Kevin Burnett and Sio Moore have to protect the flat.
One thing Peyton Manning will do if he DOES face pressure is look for his options in the flat. That could be a tight end like Julius Thomas, or a running back like Knowshon Moreno. In the past, the Raiders defense (particularly their outside linebackers) have been victimized in this area of the field, repeatedly giving up first downs on dump offs.
However, Kevin Burnett and Sio Moore have been the most impressive Raider outside linebackers in years in terms of holding their own in coverage. It's absolutely vital for them to keep Denver from getting yards after the catch on short passes. Manning will try to exploit this soft area of the field, so Burnett and Moore need to be ready.
4. Greg Olson's playcalling has been fantastic thus far, but he needs to call the game of his life tonight.
A huge reason that Terrelle Pryor has been so effective is that Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson has done a superb job at calling plays. He hasn't given Pryor any more than he can handle. He's implemented an offense that compensates for the Raiders' soft interior offensive line by using misdirection and opening holes for Pryor and McFadden. The resurgence of the run game is a huge reason Oakland has looked so competitive. Sustained drives, even if they don't result in points on the board, keep the defense from spending too much time on the field.
This will be absolutely vital against Denver. If the Raiders defense is on the field for a substantial amount of tonight's game, eventually Peyton Manning is going to find weaknesses and exploit them. He leads an offense that can put up points quickly. So the Raiders best defense might indeed be an efficient performance by the offense.
The Raiders will need to lean on the run game, avoid mistakes the way they did last week, and protect Pryor from seeing too many third-and-long situations. It may still be unrealistic to ask Pryor and the Raiders offense to keep up if the game turns into a shootout, but if they can stay on schedule it can help keep things from getting to that point.
5. Peyton Manning will be Peyton Manning.
Regardless of what the Raiders do, Peyton Manning will do what he does. He's one of the best to ever play the game. There's no question that he'll capitalize on any mistakes the Raiders make. He'll get his yardage, and he'll put up points.
The real test is how this young Raiders team responds when Peyton Manning does Peyton Manning things. It's probably unrealistic to expect the Raiders to win this game. In fact, short of Tracy Porter heroics (several times over), the Raiders will almost certainly leave Denver with a 1-2 record. But if the competitive Raiders team that almost upset the Colts shows up tonight, it can do a lot for their confidence. They might not be there quite yet, but if they can hang with the best it'll be a good sign of things to come. But if the result is another blowout loss and the Raiders have to go back to the drawing board, it'll be a disappointing setback after what has been a surprisingly strong start to the season.