Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

04 Dec 2007

Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Broncos

by Ned Macey

One week ago, somebody named Kolby Smith ran for 150 yards against the Oakland Raiders. Just imagine what the vaunted rushing attack of the Denver Broncos could do to them. Actually, you don't have to imagine. We now know, and it is not as exciting as you expected. Sunday, Broncos running backs totaled only 77 yards on 22 carries, and team-wide sloppy play set up enough short fields for the Raiders to pull off the upset.

Just two weeks ago, the Broncos were tied atop the AFC West with a 5-5 record after an excellent Monday night win over the Tennessee Titans. Now, the Broncos' playoff hopes are effectively gone, and the team has gaping holes on both sides of the ball.

Two consecutive wins by Oakland highlight a team that is significantly improved from last season. Their pass defense and rushing offense are both solid units. Their run defense is admittedly horrendous this season. The good news on that front is that the struggles are largely attributable to the weak interior of the defensive line and easily fixed in the off-season. The other huge weakness is pass offense, and this game's victory marked the beginning of the JaMarcus Russell era. Seven passes are too soon for any substantive analysis, but he could be the missing piece.

The Raiders struck first on Sunday, largely featuring their revamped running game. The emergence of Justin Fargas has given the offense a spark. Since taking over full-time for LaMont Jordan, Fargas has brought an effective slashing style to the running attack. In their first possession, Fargas carried on eight out of 13 plays for 43 yards. The revamped Oakland running attack has had a great deal of success running to the right, but on Sunday, they excelled by running to the left at undersized defensive end Elvis Dumervil. The run-heavy offense also led to numerous downs where Dumervil came off the field, providing more time in the pocket for Raiders' quarterbacks.

This initial drive was symptomatic of the whole game, as it was only made possible by a Denver mistake. The Broncos had forced a punt after one first down but picked up a running into the kicker penalty to prolong the drive. Mistakes continued to set up the Raiders' suspect offense. A Travis Henry fumble set up the Raiders with a short field for their second touchdown. Their next score was a field goal after a Jay Cutler interception, on a drive where Oakland did not even gain a first down. Their next touchdown came after a Cutler fumble at his own 12-yard line.

These offensive miscues are in part the result of a flawed offense that struggles to run the ball. The Broncos have been built on the run since Terrell Davis was a rookie in 1995. We have calculated DVOA since 1996. During those years, the Broncos have only had a below-average running attack in 1999, 2001, and 2006. Not coincidentally, those are three of the four years during that period where Denver has missed the playoffs.

After a disappointing 9-7 campaign last season, the Broncos placed a great deal of faith in the development of Cutler. He has delivered for the most part,with dynamic play considering his suspect receiving corps. Injuries have severely hampered presumptive number one receiver Javon Walker, leaving Cutler with the unproven Brandon Marshall and the aging Brandon Stokley. Nonetheless, Cutler has been good, particularly on third down.

His one weakness, however, is his carelessness with the ball. After two interceptions and a fumble on Sunday, Cutler has 12 interceptions and eight fumbles on the season. However, while his turnovers cost the Broncos on Sunday, Cutler has rarely been the Broncos problem during a disappointing season.

Much more damaging has been the poor running of Travis Henry. In his defense, Henry has battled a fairly severe knee injury and a potential season-long suspension for a positive drug test. What Henry has done on the field, however, has been substandard. According to DVOA, Henry has been substantially below average, while undrafted rookie Selvin Young has been above average behind the same line.

That line, however, is not an asset to either Henry or Young. The middle of the line, in particular, fails to get any push. The weakness of the line was very evident against the Raiders, who are normally so susceptible to runs up the middle. Even against this foe, the Broncos failed to open holes. Center Tom Nalen's torn bicep is an enormous loss. According to Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards, the Broncos were sixth in the league in runs up the middle last year and are 30th this year. Last year, they were 16th in runs in short yardage situations, while this year they are dead last.

Henry's failure to exploit the Raiders defense is a low point for his season, as the Raiders run defense is the worst in the league. The runs were admittedly highly ineffective, but the Broncos played into the Raiders hands by abandoning the run too early. After their first drive, which featured eight runs and five passes, the Broncos handed off to running backs on consecutive plays only twice the rest of the game.

The strategy is inexcusable since the Raiders are actually among the top ten pass defenses in the league. The Raiders specialize in stopping opposing number one receivers, which took away the emerging Marshall. Marshall made one huge play when he escaped a tackle on third down and busted a 32-yard completion. On eight other passes to Marshall, Cutler gained only 35 yards and had a pass intercepted. Much of the credit should go to the exceptional play of Nnamdi Asomugha, but several cornerbacks took turns covering Marshall on Sunday.

Even given the numerous opportunities, the Raiders still had to convert them into 34 points. Fargas and the running game were obviously crucial, but nearly as important was the surprising play of Josh McCown. It was a banner day for the McCown clan, the natural heirs to the Detmers. Josh's win in Oakland was matched by little brother Luke's win for Tampa Bay. Sunday's result may have been a bit of an aberration. Before this game, Josh had been the single worst quarterback in the league.

Against Denver, he looked like a young Jeff Garcia, working bootlegs and hitting tight ends down the middle. This strategy highlighted the major weakness in the Broncos defense. Denver features two cornerbacks who excel in man-to-man coverage in Champ Bailey and Dré Bly. After both were burned on national television by Brett Favre, the conventional wisdom is that the Broncos pass defense struggled in part because of them.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Broncos rank fourth in the league in defending both number one and number two receivers. They are last in defending other wide receivers and 29th in defending tight ends. On Sunday, Bly was beat for the first touchdown by Tim Dwight, but otherwise, each cornerback only allowed a couple completions. McCown only completed one pass to his top two receivers that gained more than ten yards.

The good news for Oakland is that in two drives, first overall pick JaMarcus Russell completed two such passes. Russell only attempted six passes, but he showed a good arm to the outside and good mobility in the pocket. Both drives he led ended up without points, but both drives moved the ball comfortably into Denver territory.

Nobody knows how good Russell will be, but he is unlikely to fail because of a poor offensive scheme. The Raiders' new scheme has shown some success in the passing game with Daunte Culpepper. Head coach Lance Kiffin took over one of the worst offenses in history, and not only has the run game been adequate, but Culpepper has been roughly a league-average quarterback in the scheme. Culpepper's lack of complete understanding of the offense and over-reliance on the shotgun formation have limited the unit's overall output, but the foundations of the new offensive scheme are clearly NFL-caliber, which is not something that could be said last season.

For Denver, the offensive scheme is not the problem, but the team will struggle for consistency unless it upgrades the offensive line and limits Henry's carries. Defensively, the Broncos are unable to use the advantage they have with Bailey and Bly to compensate for substandard pass defense from their linebackers and safeties. This team is arguably the worst of the Mike Shanahan era, and the continued growth of Cutler and Marshall will not be enough make it a regular playoff participant once again.

Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 04 Dec 2007

22 comments, Last at 06 Dec 2007, 9:03pm by forcefulmuffin

Comments

1
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 2:32pm

Why was Russell put into the game? Did McNown get hurt, or was the game out of reach at that point?

2
by bigluke (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 2:57pm

To my understanding Kiffin said he would so he did and Russell went in in the middle of the second quarter.

3
by Travis (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 3:12pm

Being an avid Denver fan, it has been a rough year, but I don't think enough attention has been brought to the fact of the injuries Denver has received on offense. You are right that the lose of Nalen was huge, as well as Walker basically being lost for the season. Also, look to the youth that has been playing on Denver: Cutler, Marshall, Scheffler (TE); 3/4 of their offensive line, 1/2 of the D line, 1/2 of their d-backs (when Lynch was hurt and they benched Ferguson). So, if they can stay healthy next year and fix a couple of holes on the D-line and O-line, I think they will be good.

4
by David S. (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 3:12pm

I believe the strategy is to ease Russell in as the season winds down. This first time it was tied at 7 at the start of the second quarter. So while it wasn't a 2 minute drive in the fourth with his team needing a score, it still was a live NFL game where he couldn't afford to make any mistakes or set his team back a bit. I imagine as different scenarios come up this year he'll see at least one or two offensive series for each one. How he handles the game with his team up by a score, down by a score, etc. And of course he'll probably be permantantly put in during blowouts, though I'm sure the coaching staff won't take much stock in what happens during those instances.

5
by Torn (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 3:21pm

So far the Gator Experience has gone as well as the Browncos experience...meh. I feel flipping a coin is more accurate than trusting this team this year. But yea, Cutler can be really reckless with the ball...perhaps he trusts his gun too much...

6
by patriotsgirl (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 3:28pm

I was at the game (go figure) and the crowd went absolutely nuts when Russell went in, and was (shall we say) displeased when McCown went back in.

I hadn't compared the DVOA of Young to Henry, but I can completely believe it. In the first quarter, Young ran a few plays and looked dynamic, finding holes and getting a couple of 5-8 yard gains by run or reception. Henry went in and just seemed to tiptoe into the holes, fumbled, and remained the feature back. Weird.

7
by MJK (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 3:30pm

After seeing the Patriots run D in the 3rd quarter last night against the Ravens, I think we know where the Raiders' run D suctitude temporarily went this weekend...

8
by Dodd (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 4:01pm

McCown said on Sirius NFL Radio yesterday that Kiffin told him early in the week that the plan was to bring Russell in for a couple of series in the second quarter. Like as not, we'll continue to see them do this the rest of the season.

McCown was totally classy about it. He knows Russell is the future in Oakland but he sincerely wants to help the kid all he can while still winning games.

9
by David (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 4:10pm

#1, according to the announcers, Russel came in because McCown was in the locker room getting his banged up finger looked at and retaped. From the sound of it, there was no intent to turn the team over to Russel at that point.
#6, Young got hurt again after those couple good runs, that's why Henry remained the feature back. If there's one thing I've learned about Shanahan, it's that a guy who fumbles twice that quickly is coming out of the game if there's a reasonable replacement option. But there wasn't.

10
by David (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 4:12pm

But apparently, once again the foolish announcers on CBS led me astray into making myself look dumb.

11
by patriotsgirl (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 4:14pm

#9 - Ah, thanks. (One of the disadvantages of being at the game is that you don't get injury reports!) I had read after the game that Young was hurt in the 3rd quarter, but perhaps that was just the point he left the game for good; I did see that he made sporadic appearances in the 2nd, which is why I was surprised that he wasn't the feature guy.

12
by JR (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 7:00pm

After what happened with Pitt/West V on Saturday and almost happened in Baltimore last night, it is pretty amusing to read about this game as the "most surprising result of the previous weekend".
1. 30-point underdog blows up the BCS system on the last day of the season. 2. 4-8 team starting a backup QB has the "Greatest Team of All Time" on the canvas and lets them back up in a controversial and thrilling finish.
3. Below average team loses on the road to a slightly worse team. If they replayed it 20 times, I don't think the Raiders would be expected to win more than 8 or 10 of them.

Good article. I think that we football fans actually needed a day off from shocking results.

13
by Independent George (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 7:25pm

Where have you gone raiderjoe? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

14
by Duff Soviet Union (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 9:41pm

Just looking at some DVOA splits for my boys in Oakland. I knew the run defense had been terrible, but I didn't quite realise how terrible. Not just last, but last by an absolute mile at -23.7%. The next worst is -12.6%! Also, Ned is correct about stopping number 1 receivers. They are far and away the best in terms of stopping number 1 guys but are horrible against every other kind of receiver except tight ends (when you're playing 4 games a year against Gates and Gonzo that's pretty useful). I haven't got to see too much of the Raiders this year. Is that the difference in quality between Asomugha and Fabian Washington or something else? Game charters?

Finally, "It was a banner day for the McCown clan, the natural heirs to the Detmers." Brilliant, Ned.

15
by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 10:01pm

The injury to Nalen has been the biggest problem on offense for Denver. They were thin at WR before the injuries, so I take those problems to be punishment from the football gods for allowing that to happen.

As a Coloradan, I can say people are being pretty accepting of Cutler. Not nearly the gripes you continually heard about Jake the Snake, even though Cutler is giving the ball away quite often. That's a good sign for his development. Unrealistic expectations have sunk a lot of careers.

16
by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Wed, 12/05/2007 - 1:19am

I've heard scouts compare Russell to a black Elway. Is there any truth to this?

I know the chances are slim, but I'd love for that nickname to stick.

17
by Bronco Jeff (not verified) :: Wed, 12/05/2007 - 1:27am

The primary reason the Broncos abandoned the run was that they weren't planning on giving Henry much work coming off of his injury and Selvin Young was hurt, leaving Travis as the only "healthy" running back. He was slow hitting the hole and this hardly helped the running game for the Broncos. With a healthy running back, the Broncos would have run a lot more on the Raiders.

I'm in agreement about the O-Line interior--it isn't pretty. When you have 3 new starters on the inside (Kuper-Myers-Holland) it will look like that, I suppose.

As for Russell being the black Elway, I don't think he has enough swagger to compare.

18
by Sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 12/05/2007 - 2:27am

Who called him the "black Elway"? In this era of PC I'm amazed any announcer would say that.

But, conventional wisdom earlier this season was Russell's holdout would cost him basically the whole year, with the assumption being the Raiders would be playing out the string by the time he did get onto the field. It's a huge plus that they're competitive and he's getting some time, even if it is a tiny amount.

#17: Cecil Sapp had 7 carries for 28 yards versus the Bears two weeks ago, 1 carry for 0 yards against the Raiders. With everybody else banged up, why didn't he get the ball a few more times against a terrible run D? I think Ned is right--they had an odd game plan given who they were playing.

19
by patriotsgirl (not verified) :: Wed, 12/05/2007 - 5:26am

15: Well, it's his second year with the team and he hasn't yet thrown a left handed interception inside his own 10 to a linebacker - that should count for something, right?

Not to mention that he was apparently Mr. Olympia 2006. Who knew?

13: Raiderjoe recently posted in the Roy Williams XP, for some reason, comparing Roy Williams to Ronald Curry. I'm kind of shocked that he hasn't made it over here by now.

And for folks other than raiderjoe, a query: after going to the Raiders game this week and finding it enjoyable, I'm kind of tempted to go to the Colts game in a couple of weeks (to see Manning live, if nothing else). Am I crazy for contemplating attending two Raiders games in a single season?

20
by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 12/05/2007 - 8:51am

"Who called him the “black Elway�? In this era of PC I’m amazed any announcer would say that"

I know Raiderjoe has. On numerous occasions.

21
by Erik (not verified) :: Wed, 12/05/2007 - 3:23pm

Having watched the plays, my reaction was that he needs to learn how to lower his non-throwing shoulder into the tackler if he is going to run it on a roll-out.

Taking Jamarcus Russell shoulder-first will not be a good experience for many cornerbacks or safeties. Why let the defender define how contact is going to happen.

22
by forcefulmuffin (not verified) :: Thu, 12/06/2007 - 9:03pm

Some credit should be given to the raiders for stopping the run, when sapp and sands actually stay home instead of trying to penetrate the line every play those young linebackers, especially
Morrison can play pretty well, and Huff continues to become a better player each game