Monday, July 18, 2011

2011 NFL Team Preview: the Raiders of Oakland

In an effort to expand this blog to cover all major American sports, I will periodically turn my attention to the NFL to break down a handful of teams possibly due for a breakout this upcoming season.  With talks between the league and the players association looking optimistic - my goal is to have this done sometime before the end of August.  This first entry will look at the Oakland Raiders.

If all goes to according to plan, this will be the first of a five-part series. Next season, folks.


Last season the Raiders finished with a record of 8-8 including an impressive 6-0 within their division. Despite playing in the AFC West, this showing wasn’t enough to garner them a playoff spot but there were some positives compared to previous seasons. According to projections published in the previous Football Outsiders Almanac, the Raiders were expected to be no better than a 4 to 5 win team. Standard observation considering the fact that many questions and doubts lingered throughout almost every major position on the team; so, what caused them to perform much better than expected?


In 2009, the Raiders under first-time head coach Tom Cable turned in an offense that ranked almost last in total DVOA at -22.3%. In his second season, Cable decided to do things a bit differently. After struggling with injuries and under-performance from many key young players, the plan became to simplify this offensive unit with the signing of perpetual quarterback project, Jason Campbell, as well as bringing in first-time offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

Campbell at quarterback was a safe addition for the Raiders. Despite his limited upside he is serviceable in the team’s vertical plan, or at least the type of offense that exemplifies the “Raider way”; in other words, the type of play calling that owner Al Davis likes to see. However, with Campbell under center as well as a line not skilled in pass protection, Davis’ vertical pass offense and man-to-man offensive line blocking would have to wait. Instead, Cable and his new offensive coordinator would further the team’s running game through effective zone-blocking as well as take advantage of their corps of solid running backs.

Entering the 2010 season, many analysts were prepared to accept Darren McFadden as yet another high-profile Raider draft bust. In 2009 he was ranked next to last according to both DYAR (-87) and DVOA (-30.7%) among the 50 players ranked with a minimum of 100 rushes. In 2010 this would all change as the Raiders running game took shape with McFadden sharing duties with fellow back-extraordinaire Michael Bush as well as adding one more important element: second-year fullback Marcel Reese.

Nearly forgotten in his previous two seasons, Reese was an undrafted pickup from the University of Washington and played in all 16 games last season as both an effective screen option and primary blocker for McFadden. This combination helped McFadden gain an edge against opposing defenses as well as dramatically improve in both DVOA (4.6%) and DYAR (112). McFadden also utilized his much-hyped “frontline speed” and reduced his fumbles while also looking better in terms of breaking tackles.

Overall, the team averaged over 155 yards rushing per game and with McFadden newfound success and Michael Bush’s consistency; the Raiders were able to use their zone-blocking scheme to much success against the AFC West, which is known for utilizing 3-4 defenses that tend to be weak up the middle.

On the other side of their offense, the Raiders still failed in pass protection despite moving from an atrocious 9.5% Adjusted Sack Rate in 2009 to 8.3% last season. It’s a step in the right direction but taking into account that they were ranked 30th in 2009 points to their inability to get much worse, so some excitement had to be tempered in that department.

Looking over their pass plays last season, Campbell did throw a lot of screens which is necessary in order to keep zone-blocking effective. Among their wide receivers only Louis Murphy and Jacoby Ford seemed like legitimate targets; however, both ranked below average in terms of DVOA and DYAR as Murphy ranked 69th among qualifying receivers in both categories and Ford came in 66th and 57th, respectively. Tight end Zach Miller remains a legitimate threat but his impending free agency once the dust settles does put his 2011 status on hold.


Looking at the defensive spectrum, Cable and last season’s defensive coordinator, John Marshall, utilized the Al Davis approved 4-3 scheme where pressure is created by the front line. In 2010, Oakland ranked 15th in total Team Defensive DVOA and was an improvement from being ranked 24th in 2009. According to their overall Weighted Defense, the team improved as the season moved forward. Among Raider defenders, Nmandi Asomugha is seen as one of the best cornerbacks in the game. After posting eight interceptions in the 2006 season, opposing quarterbacks have figured it is best to stay away from his side of the field.

Asomugha’s stats are perplexing since he is so rarely thrown to; among all corners who were on the field for at least 300 coverage snaps in 2010, Asomugha was the least targeted at 6.6%. This will inevitably create more work for his teammates as fellow corner Stanford Routt was targeted a bit more at 18.1%.

Looking at their completion rates, things become a bit interesting. Among those times targeted, Asomugha saw opposing receivers have a completion rate of 3% while Routt had to settle for 7.7%. Measuring the quality of defensive backs can be tricky for those of us on the outside since game film is pretty much limited to team personnel but the fine folks at came up with an easy way to properly gauge this rate. By taking this data and multiplying the percentage of catches allowed versus times targeted and dividing that by coverage snaps and one can see that Asomugha doesn’t even rate among the top 20 at his position while Routt comes in at number six.

Looking at this data it is fair to say that Routt has developed in a quality defensive back while Asomugha seems to succeed on mere reputation? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Asomugha is anything below an above-average defensive back but it is curious, according to DVOA, that the team struggled against opposing #1 WR’s and ranking 17th overall against the pass. Obviously, not enough information is available to just assume that Asomugha is responsible for every metric that measures opposing #1 WR’s but this info is interesting, nonetheless, as we begin to witness Routt’s improvements defensively.

Last season, the Raiders defense was successful in neutralizing their opponents running game to an overall DVOA of -4.5%. In his rookie year, Rolando McClain was efficient enough to start as a middle linebacker but he did struggle getting off of blocks and falling back into zone coverage. He did battle through an assortment of foot and hip injuries which may have limited his performance.

Looking at the defensive line, the Raiders do have some reasons to be excited especially with the development of defensive end LaMarr Houston who seems to have the necessary speed to excel as a 4-3 end but with the firing of coordinator Marshall, I am a bit concerned especially with a young unit entering an important season where skill can finally transcend development.

Front Office

Like the firing of Tom Cable, the decision to let Marshall go has been hinted to have the same level of insubordination in terms of play-calling. Last season, Marshall favored complicated blitzes that were not popular with Davis’ defensive philosophy. Earlier this year, the team hired Chuck Bresnahan as Defensive Coordinator. Bresnahan was the former Raiders Defensive Coordinator from 2000-2003 and spent last season in the UFL as the defensive coordinator for the Florida Tuskers. All signs point to him as being the safe choice after the team failed to nab two of Green Bay’s high profile defensive coaches (Winston Moss and Darren Perry).

The recent hiring of passing-guru Al Saunders as offensive coordinator will be curious despite reports that new head coach Hue Jackson will still be the main offensive play-caller. As a practice, Saunders likes to establish the pass as his main offensive weapon but he also utilizes power rushers if the right players are available. Saunders approaches offense on a more intellectual level rather than the old-school pump your chest out domination. Hue Jackson and Saunders should be a good fit as both worked closely together with the Baltimore Ravens in 2009. But was does this mean for the Raiders success at utilizing the rush via zone-blocking?

In terms of offensive line structure, it’s expected that the Raiders will revisit their power running approach by incorporating power-blocking specialist Bob Wylie as the team’s offensive line coach. Is this wise, especially with a team that used the zone-blocking approach so well? With talented backs like Bush and McFadden along with Reese as the main blocker, this unit can still be expected to succeed but the transition from a capable zone unit to a man on man unit could reveal some potential flaws if the overall offensive line is below average and with question marks at center along with the departure of Robert Gallery at left guard, this could become a major concern.

Of course, most Raider fans will be interested in the fate of Nmandi Asomugha this offseason. His departure seems inevitable due to budget concerns. Having Stanford Routt return helps the defensive backfield but the team should be focused on acquiring another capable corner for the 2011 season.

However, the decision to ignore the advances made in both the team’s offense and defense will be detrimental to their development next season. The firing of both Cable and Marshall seem almost counter-productive, despite Davis’ attempts to dig up Cable’s character flaws, which – unfortunately – does have some merit, but these actions seem more ego-driven and blind to the logical changes and structure this team desperately needs.

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