Oakland Raiders: Examining The Sparano Effect


For the first time this season I saw the Oakland Raiders that I was expecting to see from day one. With that being said, they still lost, but what I saw was an aggressive attacking team on both sides of the ball. There are issues with this team that proved to be the downfall in this game, but I can handle seeing the Raiders lose when they go down swinging. What we witnessed last week versus the Chargers was a gameplan, approach, and execution that Al would have been proud of. Luckily for the Raiders and all of Raider Nation, the team will get a second home game against the Chargers later in the year in South Oakland also known as San Diego.

An Efficient Running Game!

I am not one to toot my own horn….Ok, well that’s a lie. In fact I am one of the better shameless self-promoters out there, and here is another opportunity to do just that. I have been very adamant that the issue with the running game stems from the scheme and how the Raiders have approached play calling this season. The solution to me was a need to open up the offense. Come out the gates throwing the ball, and take consistent deep shots in order to keep the defense unbalanced. This was exactly how the Raiders approached this game, and in doing so, they were able to run the ball twenty times for 114 yards. That is an average of 5.7 yards per carry and it was much maligned Darren McFadden that did the bulk of the damage.

This running game is designed to be a committee backfield and we will see games where Jones-Drew receives the bulk of the touches, and in due time we will likely see more touches for Murray. There is still this line of thought that the Raiders need a “star running back” and that means use an early draft pick on one. The Chargers’ game and what I anticipate will be future running success this season, will show that an efficient running game will come from the existing passing threat and dominating at the point of attack on the line of scrimmage. It does not surprise me that the first game the Raiders had an efficient running attack came at the same time the Raiders averaged nearly nine yards an attempt in the passing game.

There were two particular plays that the Raiders ran that I expect to see more often. The first is the inside trap from the shotgun. Under Dennis Allen, this play was rarely if ever seen, but against the Chargers it was used with extreme efficiency and gave the Raiders a legitimate running threat from the shotgun. The second running play of note was one that I saw against the Patriots except it was called back for a holding penalty. The inside pitch is a fascinating play and it fits McFadden’s skill set perfectly. Having the quarterback deliver a pitch out to the back who gets a designed second to read the inside whole then cut it up inside is brilliant play design. I have seen some form of this from the Redskins under Shanahan with Robert Griffin III under center, but they ran it from the pistol.

I expect to see both of these plays used more and more as the season goes on. The Raiders resorted to more shotgun in this game, but unlike what Carr was asked to do at Fresno, the Raiders maintained a balanced approach. As a matter of ensuring their young quarterback is not killed, the Raiders will have to maintain balance schematically. This means having an efficient running game is a necessity, but ironically it will require the Raider passing game to be perceived as a threat. Carr attempted 34 passes and completed 18 of them. Pro Football Focus says the Raiders had four drops, I have seen other stat lines claim seven drops. Either way, this was the performance and the schematic shift the passing game needed and now it is a legitimate threat. Moreover, if the Raiders have a few more games like this, Derek Carr will be a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate.

The Offensive Line

Coming into this season the pundits were telling every Raiders fan that the downfall would be the offensive line. They could not be more wrong. Having only given up four sacks in six games, the Raiders are only outdone by the Bengals this season who have only given up two. Donald Penn has been an upgrade over Jared Veldheer and is an underrated acquisition. The rookie left guard Gabe Jackson outside of a few mental errors and the occasional pass blocking confusion, has been an absolute mauler. Austin Howard has had his struggles switching places to right guard, but when he gets an opportunity to move into space, he has shown serious ability. What is hurting Howard are the mental adjustments, but expecting him to be a pro bowl right guard immediately is being unrealistic. Right now he is serviceable and the more he plays the better he will be.

Menelik Watson made his first start of the season at right tackle for the injured Khalif Barnes and his outing earned him a 3.3 grade from Pro Football Focus. I am not sure his performance warranted such a high grade, but he had a very solid day. It should be noted that he received help when he had to face Dwight Freeney. The Chargers were smart to have Freeney lined up over him and to try and to exploit his immaturity rather than get swallowed up by Donald Penn, but the Raiders were equally as smart to anticipate this and have reserve tackle Matt McCants assisting him when they got that look.

This offensive line shut out what was considered one of the league’s better pass rushes and did so in stunning fashion. In reality when watching this game, other than two instances, the pass rush rarely got close to Carr. Early on the Chargers tried to test Watson by lining up three blitzers over him, and then have two drop out leaving a safety to blitz, and  Watson handled it perfectly. It is those sort of intelligent plays that made the offensive line so effective. The lack of confusion created by the multiple looks goes directly to gameplanning and was a healthy change to see.

The Defense

What was the by far most frustrating aspect of this game was the defense and specifically the pass rush. I have received many tweets about how Woodley is terrible or Mack is not doing anything. That is nonsense. Both players repeatedly got very deep pass rushes taking Rivers off his spot. What was lacking was someone in the middle to clean it up and get the sack. When Wilson got his sack, it was because Woodley and Mack forced Rivers up into the heart of the pocket. There was even an instance where Rivers stepped up, and then curled up like he was going to be sacked, but the sack never came and he delivered a big pass.

The pairing of Woodley and Mack outside is one that I believe is doing it’s job very well. Mack was lined up over a 6’7 340 pound left tackle who is not very talented, but has the strength to dominate, and because Mack lacks a true counter move inside, he got handled. It must be noted that on several plays Mack was doubled and one of the favorite ways of doing it in this game was to use a guard to take Mack out after Dunlap engaged him.

Defensively we saw fewer dramatic schematic changes than we did on offense, but what we still have yet to see is an all out blitz or even consistent six man rushes. What we do see from Tarver is a scheme that emphasizes overload concepts, fooling offensive lineman, and relying on four man pressure. The best change the Raiders can make to produce a more effective pass rush is relegating Smith and Tuck to inside pass rushers only. Taking Simms out of pass rush situations would be highly advantageous. Another change I want to see is the inclusion of Wilson in more pass rush situations as well. He should be a starting defensive lineman in base defense and get more rush opportunities as well. Smith and Tuck should be used sparingly and allowed to focus specifically on pass rushing.

The biggest positives defensively have been in the defensive backfields. The injury to Branch has actually produced a better duo in the defensive backfields. Usama Young is more of a true free safety while Charles Woodson is really best suited playing in the box. Young plays the deep center very well and can man up verses tight ends well. Of course when you are supposed to cover Gates on the one yard line, you are in an impossible position, but his play the rest of the game was very good.

Emerging as a serious long term talent for the Raiders is seventh round cornerback and kick returner TJ Carrie. He had a very solid game against the Chargers and proved that he has serious upside as a potential starting cornerback. The first time I watched Carrie’s tape after he was drafted I was honestly flabbergasted. He could play every scheme, he was a solid tackler, and was considered a leader for the Ohio Bobcats. The duo of Hayden and Carrie will be one I think Raiders’ fans will grow to love over time.

There are two young players along the defensive line I want to see more of in the near future. The first is Mayowa. He has the size that could lend him to being a decent interior pass rusher in certain situations, but I would like to seem him used on stunts and other defensive line actions that get him converting his speed to power. The second is Shelby Harris. I described him early on as a Justin Tuck sort of defensive end and I believe he could be a significant boost to the interior pass rush. He is a 280 pound defensive lineman that played tackle in college. He was placed on the practice squad for a combination of poor practices and injury issues to other positions, but I could see him being promoted soon and making an impact early on.

Lastly, the Raiders need to solve their inside linebacker issues. Burris does some things very well, and he actually did a solid job reading the direction of the plays and diagnosing them against the Chargers, but he simply fails to make plays in space. With the addition of Jamar Chaney, the Raiders have an experienced, true middle linebacker who knows the position. This would allow Burris to be moved back to the outside where he would be allowed to attack downhill and be much more effective. Furthermore, with the addition of Ray Ray Armstrong introduces something the Raiders have lacked since Roach got injured. A linebacker with coverage abilities. It would be highly advantageous for the Raiders to essentially have a mike linebacker by committee until they can permanently solve the position.


Beating the Cardinals will be a very simple proposition. Can the Raiders get to Carson Palmer? If they can with his propensity to turn the ball over, the Raiders could force several mistakes that lead to a victory. The Cardinals offense is based on the pass. It requires the defense fear the threat of the vertical pass to create running lanes. With tall vertical talents at the receiver position, the Cardinals can be a formidable offense. However their weakness has and continues to be their offensive line. The Pro Football Focus grades of the Cardinals offensive line are abysmal. They have a -18.2 in pass blocking and a -19.6 in run blocking. The Raiders on the other hand have a 3.0 in pass protection and -13.1 in run blocking.

Even the defensive grades tell a strange story. The overall defensive grade for the Cardinals is a -25.3 with the Raiders -11.1. The Cardinals run defense is very good, but their pass rush can be very limited at times, while their defensive backs have a tendency to make mistakes and bite on misdirection. The Cardinal defense will play fast and aggressive, but the Raiders have shown their offense should be feared.

Protecting ex-Raider Carson Palmer is ex-Raider Jared Veldheer. Veldheer is huge and strong every Raider fan knows this, but he has a significant issue with speed. Speedy pass rushers especially those with a solid inside counter move make Veldheer look terrible. In reality, Veldheer has done little to grow as a pass protector and still struggles with the same things he couldn’t handle as a Raider. This could be the game Mack goes off. Although he lacks a true inside counter, he does a great job setting up tackles with outside moves then converts speed to power with a nasty rip/swim move.

Cardinals 21, Raiders 27