Oct 6, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders fans hold a banner and picture of San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Manti Te

Back to the Bay With Rory Anderson: Oakland Raiders have defense the fans have been waiting for

Each Thursday JBB Podcast cohost Rory Anderson publishes a column in which he breaks down the week that was in Raider Nation and previews Sunday’s matchup. 

Before I get into the Chargers game from Sunday, I want to apologize for not having a column up last week. We ran into some difficulties, but everything is all hammered out. With that in mind, we are also planning to have a podcast this week so check that out either live or on demand. Due to the fact that there was no column up last week I am including some Matt Flynn related talk to begin with. This BTTB is longer than usual so no worries that any Flynn talk has taken the place of my usual content. Here we go…

Matt Flynn

Firstly, there is the discussion of why the Raiders decided to go after him. From a general manager’s perspective the move made sense. If you are Reggie McKenzie and you have little reason at that time to have any faith in Terrelle Pryor because his mechanics were still amazingly flawed, then you only have a few options. Yes, they could have resigned Matt Leinart or some other low end quarterback, but instead he decided to give up a fifth round pick and a seventh for a quarterback he knew well and also knew he would fit into an offense run by the new offensive coordinator Greg Olson who is a west coast guy. By trading Carson Palmer who had a massive and debilitating contract that would have cost more to get out of later, the Raiders recovered a pick essentially meaning they paid a fifth for Matt Flynn. That is very little to pay for a quarterback. Combine that with a restructured contrac9t the guaranteed Flynn 6.5 million this year, and at most a 2.6 million dollar bonus next year (Raiders would save five million), and you can see how the Raiders did what was most important, create cap solvency moving forward.

Managing an NFL roster is about managing risk and the Raiders risked a fifth round pick and 6.5 million dollars for what was considered at the time a potential starting quarterback, but most importantly better cap future. That is the part of this entire discussion that fans forget. The salary cap has motivated the vast majority if not all of Reggie McKenzie’s decisions, and in this case he knew he could be healthier in 2014 and after that by making this happen. Yes it sucks as a fan and you have the right to say that this move was doomed from the beginning, but even if the Raiders went 0-16 they would be healthier in year three of the new regime. In economic terms, this season is about clearing the books of malinvestment, and the only way to do that is to pay the piper and suffer in order to succeed later. This is called delayed gratification and although it seems Raider Nation has been delaying its gratification for a decade, it actually hasn’t. For years Al Davis leveraged the future for immediate success, the problem was he made bad bets and he never got the profit he expected for his investment.

It is time some people in Raider Nation put themselves in Reggie’s shoes. He is in a “no-win” situation and hind sight is 20-20. Sure, it is easy to say now that they should have simply stuck with Pryor and forgot about Flynn, but all Pryor had shown was that he was an amazing athlete with huge mechanical flaws and that was true until week three against the Broncos. That would have been a much more risky proposition for Reggie McKenzie to place his money on. Some will question Reggie’s ability to scout and judge quarterbacks, but you can only make decisions based on the information you have at that point, and at that point they knew Pryor was a flawed athlete and Flynn had some starting experience albeit not much. At the end of the day, to steal a phrase, the Raiders made the right decision, but it’s the results that were disastrous. The Patriots made the right decision in extending Aaron Hernandez’s contract, but in doing so they overlooked his personal demons. It happens on one level or another.

Why Not Pull Flynn for McGloin Late?

I have seen this question floated around Twitter a lot since the game on Sunday and to be honest, although in some ways I understand the question, I also think it’s quite naïve. Here is a short Twitter conversation I had with ex-scout and 95.7 The Game frequent guest John Middlekauf:

Me: is it common for a HC to force a coordinator to change their playcalling/gameplan during a game?
JM: in certain situations the HC chimes in for sure, all depends on the HC.
ME: would u say its more common than not and would u expect dennis allen to do it?
JM: Would imagine he has some opinions for the D, probably not much on Offense
ME: last question. Seems nuts to bring in mcgloin with 0 reps. Ur thoughts and do u defer that decision to the OC?
JM: would have played Mcgloin yesterday, NO difference in him an flynn, He runs scout team at pract im sure

In this quick exchange I gathered a few key insights onto the situation. First, Dennis Allen is going to defer situations such as this to his offensive coordinator. Some fans may not like that, but you have to accept it. Not all coaches are the same and Dennis Allen is going to give his coordinators the ability to make those calls in game. Secondly, Dennis Allen is hands off with the gameplanning. Thirdly, Matt McGloin and Matt Flynn are the same kind of quarterback, so what is the point from a competitive angle of throwing in a rookie quarterback with no practice reps with the first team or even the second? You the fan may be rationalize this concept and have it make perfect sense, but this is a small glimpse into the mind of a coach. Lastly, this conversation tells me there are no right answers and all a coach can really do is go with what he knows and nobody knows what McGloin can do when the real bullets are flying. Of course, we also found out that everyone was wrong about Flynn.

I have had some people on Twitter tell me, “At least McGloin would have chucked the ball downfield”. Really? He would have? What makes you think this? And the answer is, nothing, they are simply guessing and rationalizing. What we do know is McGloin has a skill set similar to Flynn, he has no first team reps, and has no valuable experience. How is an offensive coordinator that is only behind by seven or ten points going to justify that move to his head coach or even himself?

Speaking of the gameplan, Greg Olson did Matt Flynn no favors in his gameplan and play calling. Early in the first quarter, the Raiders marched down the field for a touchdown utilizing a timing based passing game and Flynn connected with Mychal Rivera for his first NFL touchdown. This strategy for the most part persisted through the first half, but in the second half Greg Olson decided to a very Pryor-esque gameplan and plays. When you watch the second half of that game from the coach’s cam you see that on almost every play all of the wide receivers are running deep routes. Flynn does not have a strong arm, but that is not the inherent problem. The real issue was the Redskins were playing all deep coverage with a lot of 2 man under or cover three meaning all of those receivers were covered on every play. I have seen it mentioned on Twitter that the plan may have been to run those guys deep and have McFadden catch the ball underneath, and that does make some sense, but why not simply go back to what you know Flynn can do at least reasonably competently? Where are the slants and short ins, or the crossing routes?

To finish this entire discussion, Matt Flynn has been cut. If he signs with a team the Raiders will get the value of that contract back in cap space. Furthermore, because he was cut and will not be on the roster in 2014 the Raiders get their 2014 fifth round pick back. This means in reality all the Raiders did was pay a guy 6.5 million dollars and he didn’t work out. Let us now get into the Charger game!

Offensive Line

To me one of the most compelling and diverse performances was the offensive line. The starting offensive line for the Raiders was the fourth string left tackle Khalif Barnes, backup left guard Lucas Nix, backup center Andre Gurode, first string left guard Matt Brisiel, and third string right tackle Matt McCants. McCants for those of you that do not know was a sixth round draft pick of the New York Giants in 2012. Many scouts thought he had all the tools to be a solid left tackle in the NFL, and he was a highly rated blocker coming out of University of Alabama-Birmingham. Watching him against the Chargers was fascinating. He has smooth feet and natural pass blocking abilities, but what impressed me most was his lack of mistakes. He didn’t have an overwhelming game, but he was very solid and that cannot be overlooked. Like Brian Sanford, Reggie McKenzie somehow found potential in a guy that was seemingly unwanted and to be left behind from a talent lacking offensive line group such as the Giants is fascinating. Don’t get me wrong he has a lot of room for improvement, but he has the foundational skills to be a good player.

What really helped McCants was the solid play of right guard Mike Brisiel. He also played a very solid game even if the team struggled to run the football. He did a very nice job in pass coverage, but as with the rest of this offensive line, he is struggling to get to the second level in run blocking. That is more of a problem due to the turnover that this squad has seen. There is soon coming a time when this offensive line is going to be healthy. After week eight Jared Veldheer will return to be the left tackle and although Menelik Watson had a setback on Wednesday by sitting out of practice, that may be because the coaching staff rather have him get healthy and return after the bye week. The same probably goes for Stefan Wisniewski. In that case, I am going to project the starting offensive line as Veldheer, Barnes, Whiz, Brisiel, and Watson with Pashos, McCants, and Gurode in reserve. I think Mady will return to the practice squad unless the Raiders choose to only carry two quarterbacks.

Still the big issue for this offensive line is left guard. Lucas Nix had another unimpressive game although for what it’s worth, it was better than previous games. I have some serious concerns going into this week’s Chiefs game in Arrowhead where the crowd wants to beat the noise record the Seahawks set earlier this season. Most likely they will run multiple looks that try to confuse Nix and send free rushers at Pryor. I continue to believe that Nix is a talented football player, but he needs to make sure he is prepared for this Sunday and plays consistent football with consistent pad level and leverage.

Terrelle Pryor

I have long been a Terrelle Pryor fan since his days at Ohio State. His game always fascinated me and finally he is getting the opportunity he needed to show what he could do. Don’t get me wrong, he has been a very flawed prospect the last couple of years, but now having a couple of years to sit on the bench and get some serious help from pitching coach John House, he has really started to put it all together. It seems every week he does not make huge jumps, but instead takes baby steps, doing something new or refining something he did in a mediocre manner beforehand. In this game it was his progressions. Unlike many mobile quarterbacks and in specific Colin Kaepernick, Pryor has been put into a complex system that requires he scan the whole field. Kaepernick on the other hand is a single hi-lo read offense and I have mentioned this before in previous columns. What Pryor is doing shows amazing maturity and poise. It is very reminiscent of Ben Roethlisberger and his uncanny ability to scramble away from pressure, but continue to always keep his eyes downfield so he can find someone for a big gain.

My biggest knock on Pryor is his strange talent for making the occasional rookie mistake. This is something I expect him to grow out of as he continues to start. He is after all only going into his fifth start even though he is in his third season. I honestly believe that he is the future of this franchise. More importantly than his football abilities is his charisma. The way he handles himself, projects himself, and leads both the football team and community is something both this franchise and community desperately need. Terrelle understands that with his success come responsibilities and he has shown that he takes his responsibility of a leader in the community and a person kids can look up to very seriously. I see too many intangibles in him to not have the full confidence in both him and the coaches that he turns into a very successful football player. Reggie McKenzie has some important contracts to work out this season and I hope he gets Pryor’s done now so he can lock him up for a lower price similarly to what Green Bay did with Aaron Rodgers during his rookie deal.

Greg Olson

Wow, it seems the offensive coordinator may be reading my columns. That’s just a childish hope for my own vanity, but on a serious note, he called an excellent game excluding the third quarter which I will discuss later. I loved his first play call and his decision to go for the jugular right after the first interception of Rivers was aggressive and very Raider-esque. To see Pryor throw a tremendous pass right over the shoulder and into the waiting arms of Rod Streater was a thing of beauty. The play call was simple, all go’s out of a “strong I” formation with a deep playaction drop. It was a staple of Al Davis football and it was a reminder of where this franchise comes from and where it is heading. Olson seemed to have changed and developed as much as any of the players for the Raiders. It seems he and Pryor are both beginning to understand each other and we are seeing this playbook opening up, for the most part.

My only real issue is the way Olson handled the third quarter. I understand with a 17 point lead that a team is going to want to run the ball and control the time of possession, but with an offensive line that is this beat up, you have to continue to do what works and that is let this offense flow through Pryor. Olson has a west coast background, he knows that a short controlled passing game can replace or supplement a running game. Why he did not go with those concepts in the third quarter is mystifying to me, but he did after a dismal 29 yards in that quarter begin getting more aggressive and moving the football using Pryor’s arm and feet.
The development of Pryor is exactly why I think Darren McFadden is due to move on from the Raiders next year. He has been a phenomenal teammate for his six years in Oakland, but now that there is a multi-tool quarterback handling the ball, pretty much any running back can be successful in this offense. What is needed is solid blocking and developed concepts. When this offensive line is healthy, it can be very good, so all that is needed is several role playing backs that can be substituted in and out to do different jobs in different situations. The era of a work horse running back is over in Oakland and that is fine, because the Raiders have the one thing that matters, a playmaker at quarterback that can sling it with the best of them.

The Defense

It seems defensive coordinator Jason Tarver is a bit of a two face. One week he seems to blitz defensive backs on every play and the next week he runs a bunch of three man rush zones. They call Tarver the “Mad Chemist”, I am going to rename him “Sybil”. On a serious note, sometimes this guy is all over the place. The difference is, this time it worked out just the way he wanted to. I may be poking fun, but I clearly understand what he is trying to do. What he wants to do is show a quarterback a ton of looks that fake zone or blitz or man in order to force a mistake. All Tarver cares about is turnovers. Also sacks and forcing field goals, but over and over again the only consistent theme we have seen in his defensive gameplan, is the clear overlooking of yardage given up. Two of the interceptions of Rivers were on deep zone coverage where the safety bracketed the deep wide receiver although he was far enough off of him to bait Rivers into a throw. Both of those throws were too long. The middle interception was by DJ Hayden who has struggled at times. This is a rookie who had virtually no offseason and is being thrust into a dynamic defensive scheme with a lot of nuance and is being asked to cover a team’s best wide receiver every week. I am happy for him that he picked that ball off. He was beat but his immense closing speed saved him and he made a fantastic play.

It has also been amazing to watch Kevin Burnett this season. He is playing like a man on fire and perhaps the only man who had a better game was Charles Woodson. Old man Chuck recovered a football and housed it tying the record for most defensive touchdowns in a career with both Rod Woodson and Darren Sharper. On top of that, he also had the final interception that iced the game. It was amazing watching these two guys fly all over the field and make plays. They are both playing out of their minds and you can see it infecting the rest of this defense. After Hayden’s interception, the entire defense surrounded the guy and showed him some love. They know what he is going through. Woodson was a rookie corner once. He knows it’s the hardest non-quarterback position to transition to in the pros. These guys watch the film, they know who he has been asked to cover, and they know how hard he has worked. What is clear to me is no matter who it is on this defense, whether it is Mike Jenkins, Nick Roach, Pat Sims, or Brian Sanford, all of these guys know the meaning of “team” and they give everything they can to the Raider Nation week in and week out and this week it paid off in a magical way.

Beating the Chiefs

This game is simple. Stop Jamaal Charles and force Alex Smith to beat you. Andy Reid is coaching a team that is nothing like his old Eagles teams. The Chiefs right now are a ball control, run oriented offense that has done well in preventing turnovers and winning with the exploitation of turnovers. That’s a legitimate way to win, but this team is a bit of a paper tiger. Although they are immensely talented on defense, their offense is very bland and can be stopped up. The Chiefs have a talented offensive line although rookie right tackle Eric Young has been struggling mightily so far this season. I expect Jason Tarver to be aggressive and attack that side of the offensive line and do his best to get pressure up the middle taking Alex Smith off his throwing point and throwing off the timing of his passes. The matchup of Houston versus left tackle Brandon Albert is going to be important and if Houston and rip past him for a sack, then they may be forced to shift their protections opening up rushing possibilities somewhere else.

What people did not expect from the Raiders defense, but it was something I focused on, was the depth this team has. There may not be many exceptional play makers, but there are several guys who do their jobs well. Guys like Pat Sims, Vance Walker, Justin Hunter, Brian Sanford, Christo Bilukidi, and Jack Crawford are defensive lineman that have come in and played admirably when called upon either as a starter or a backup. They will need that sort of mentality in Arrowhead on Sunday and if they play together and trust each other, they will have success against this Chiefs offense. The last thing I will say, expect a lot of blitzing from Tarver.

Offensively the Raiders will have to continue to be aggressive and diverse The Chiefs have struggled stopping the run and with that in mind I am sure the Raider will make a concerted effort to run. They however cannot dwell on this and forget passing the ball. The Chiefs do have a talented group of defensive backs, but you can exploit their linebackers in coverage. I would expect that Greg Olson would draw up a gameplan to utilize both Marcel Reece and Mychael Rivera in the passing game. Nose tackle Dontari Poe has had a stellar year so far meaning backup center Andre Gurode will have to be on his “A” game. Gurode’s game is mauling so this will be a critical matchup. The offensive tackles will also be challenged. Tamba Hali is a good pass rusher and he will give Barnes some trouble, but Justin Houston is the rising stud pass rusher. Tony Pashos is expected to be god for this game upcoming and although he has played well, he will have to make sure he contains Houston and not allow him to get upfield on him preventing Pryor from scrambling to his right. If that happens things could get ugly. Ultimately, I like our chances. We have beaten the Chiefs six times in a row at Arrowhead, let’s make it seven.

Getting Healthy
Just some quick notes. Firstly, Watson who was practicing last week reinjured his calf. I would bet they slow him down this week and focus on getting him right for after the bye week. He is very talented and the Raiders need him healthy. Tyvon Branch is also starting to close in on some potential return dates so watch for him the week after the bye. I think that is when we will see movement on him as well. Veldheer is slated to return week nine and he is out of his brace so it seems recovery is moving well for him. Stefan Wisniewski is also probably out this week, but I also would think they are trying to get him healthy for after the bye week.


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