A match-up within the mach-up this weekend that you will want to keep an eye on will be Rolando McClain, the Oakland Raiders rookie middle linebacker, against Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts veteran quarterback. While McClain may not have the accolades of Manning like four-time NFL MVP, 11 straight 4,000 yard passing seasons, sixty-three 300-yard passing games, and two Super bowl appearances with one ring, the things the young linebacker does have in common are heart, determination, grit, and excellent film study skills.
Earlier this week, McClain spoke about how important it is to study, “As much film work as I put in, you need the practice, but the film work really helps a lot. I watch a lot of film by myself and with (linebackers) coach (Mike) Haluchak, so I think watching film is just as important as practicing.”
One thing worth noting is that McClain has missed two and a half straight weeks of on field practicing with his teammates. He also missed Monday’s practice and may not participate for the remainder of the week.
Head Coach Tom Cable also spoke about his young stud at middle linebacker, “He has that dimension we talked about earlier in the year, where he…spends a lot of time preparing. In my mind, the impact he has had is some continuity in getting us lined up and getting us checked. He’s always prepared, he works a ton at it away from the field. He’ll work; he’ll spend as much time as it takes until he figures he’s got it.”
You really expect that kind of film work from someone like Peyton Manning, or a quarterback in general for that matter. But a middle linebacker who watches film until he figures he has got it, especially a 21 year old rookie middle linebacker who already has his big contract signed?
But that’s the kind of player McClain is and the Raiders were well aware of what type of player he was before they selected him with the seventh overall pick of the draft this year. However, there is a lot of difference in preparing for a rookie quarterback on the 3-10 Broncos, Tim Tebow, and preparing for a veteran field general who has been down the beaten path and become one of the NFL’s top ten players of all-time.
Cable also spoke of preparing for playing Peyton Manning, “It’s a challenge, it really is. But we are a challenge for him too, and I think we have to look at it that way.”
McClain’s teammate, linebacker Quentin Groves, who played Indy four times in two years as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars chimed in as well, “I will tell you this, you try any and everything to get the guy out of his game and it just doesn’t work…any and everything and it doesn’t work. So you just have to do what you do best.”
McClain has not physically been at his best for the last three weeks, but during that time, the Raiders have won the two games that McClain has played in. He missed the Jacksonville Jaguars game because of a lingering foot injury that has now been described as tendonitis. When asked if he was playing through a lot of pain with the injury, McClain replied with a sly smile, “No comment.”
But he did go on to say, “Last week’s game was the first game I’ve ever missed in my life and it was hard. So I was like, ‘No matter what it takes, I have to get out there.”
Peyton Manning has been no stranger to injury this year with his Colts team either. Not to himself personally, but to his teammates, including several wide receivers and one of his go-to guys, tight end Dallas Clark, who was placed on injured reserve earlier in the season. At one point this season, the Colts played in a game missing a total of 11 starters from the squad.
Manning has had a tough time dealing with getting to know the new members of his offensive squad and adds that it has been tough for the team to play well together in all three phases this year. At one point the Colts suffered a three game losing streak, something that their opponents Sunday are accustomed to dealing with, but not the Colts, a team that has won at least twelve games in each the past 10 seasons coming into this year.
There are all kinds of scenarios that could play out Sunday, but even with a win, the Raiders will still need a Chiefs loss to remain in the hunt to win the AFC West. They have already missed their opportunity to get in via the wildcard after going 0-5 outside of their division to AFC conference opponents.
Everybody knows the best way to beat Peyton Manning is to keep him on the sidelines. And everyone who has beaten the Colts has been able to get to Manning in the pocket and get him rattled. That is certainly one of the things the Raiders have been able to do this year, especially with the help of their new man in the middle, McClain, and improved play from the big boys on the defensive line in front of him.
“He adds a lot to us inside there,” said Coach Cable, “Behind those two tackles (Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour). It’s hard to push us around in there and I think he’s got a really good feeling of confidence in there with two guys keeping blockers off of him and make plays.”
Seymour is certainly accustomed to the style of Manning as well. Some of his battles while he was with the Patriots against Manning’s Colts created one of the best new rivalry games the NFL.
But for McClain, it all goes back to the basics, “I play football; you tackle the guy with the ball. And then in coverage, I’m guarding the running back mainly, so that’s not hard. I think I’ve gotten better, steadily better, but there’s always room for improvement.”
With 71 tackles, McClain is tied for sixth among all NFL rookies, but is second among linebackers trailing Indianapolis outside linebacker Pat Angerer (78). Angerer is a guy many Raiders fans may remember coveting prior to the NFL draft this year. While he would like to get to 100 tackles, McClain said his main goal is to improve the defense and make the guys around him play better this year.
If nothing else then, Sunday’s game against one of the most prolific field general’s in NFL history will at least be a learning process for Rolando McClain en route to accomplishing his ultimate goal of making the defense around him a top tier defense. With their new quarterback in the middle, the Raiders defense has gone from a 26th place finish in total yards last year, to 11th this so far this year. But they still struggle (although improved) vs. the run and are giving up too many points per game (23.2). Of all the stats, McClain’s coordinator, John Marshall, said getting the points per game stat down is the most important one.
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