Raiders Preseason Week 3: Ballers & Busters

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 13: Bruce Gradkowski #5 of the Oakland Raiders shouts to his team during their game against the Washington Redskins at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on December 13, 2009 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Raiders came into this matchup with the 49ers on a high. They were 2-0 in the preseason after two dominant defensive performances and their offense seemed to be steadily improving. But as seems to happen more and more these days, the trip home was more of a trip back to earth-and they hit the ground pretty hard.

They game started out well for the Raiders offense with an 81 yard drive and it also had some nice moments throughout the rest of the game. The defense looked good in spurts but they couldn’t maintain any consistency overall and gave up too many big plays. And the special teams was it’s usual sad state of affairs.

But let’s dig a little deeper and look at who the common threads were in the successes and failures in this game.

Ballers

Bruce Gradkowski

The plan coming into this game was to hand the offense over to him in the third quarter. However that was jumpstarted early when Jason Campbell was carted off the field with a stinger in his shoulder. The offense had looked lethargic since their nice opening drive. But on Gradkowski’s first full series, he energized the offense, completing his first three passes culminating in a 74 yard perfectly thrown strike to Louis Murphy in stride for a touchdown. The first team stayed on the field in the third quarter and it was more of the same from Grad. He led the Raiders right down the field for a touchdown again. The amazing thing is he did it despite his receivers flat out dropping three straight passes right on their hands. He made up for those three drops with four completions, the final being a 27 yard pass to Zach Miller for the touchdown. Later on he had a 25 yard pass to Rock Cartwright to put the Raiders in scoring position and Janikowski added a field goal. He ended with 202 yards passing and two touchdowns in just over one half of football. Any talk of him losing his job to Kyle Boller ended before the fourth quarter and discussion of whether he deserves his starting job back started immediately thereafter.

Sebastian Janikowski

Every year about this time, we re-realize just how good this guy is. It happens about the time the team puts a rent-a-leg camp kicker in the game, like Swayze Waters. No offense to Waters, but Seabass is not called the Polish Cannon for nothing. He kicks touchbacks nearly every single kick off and making ridiculously long field goals has simply became commonplace for him. I think I can safely say that Cable is the only coach in the league that has no hesitation in sending his kicker out onto the field to kick a 55+ yard field goal at any given time. In this game Seabass trotted onto the field and nailed a 57 yard field goal like la-dee-da. Adding to the story was that he did it with the last man to kick a field goal for the Raiders other than him, Joe Nedney, on the opposite sideline. Nedney has been a fine kicker in his own right, but he could never dream of having the kind of leg strength and accuracy that Janikowski has. There isn’t a kicker in the league who does. And before anyone tries to list off kickers who have had a better field goal percentage, check the average distance of those field goals and check the touchback percentage on kickoffs. You will find out it isn’t even close.

Tyvon Branch

On a team with a glut of safeties to choose from, Tyvon is the only one who is a complete player. He plays the run and the pass with equal excellence. He had 4 solo tackles in this game. Three of them were run stuff at the line. The other he ran down Frank Gore from behind on his big 49 yard run to stop what would have been a TD otherwise. The 49ers ended up missing a field goal attempt so the Branch tackle turned out to be a very big play. He also had a perfectly played pass defense in which he stayed right with the receiver on a long sideline route and turned around to nearly come down with the interception. He was a Pro Bowl caliber safety last season and looks to have picked up right where he left off.

Marcel Reece

Reece came into camp as the de facto starter and he has earned it ever since. He has distanced himself from the rest of the field at the position with his combination of blocking skills, receiving skills, and speed. He came to work in this game. He started with a nice block on the first play for Michael Bush. Then he had the biggest play on the first drive when Campbell hit him along the left side for a 34 yard catch and run. He ended the drive blocking for Bush again to help the team get the final three yards for the touchdown. Later he took a screen pass for 11 yards. Not bad for a guy who didn’t even make the team out of camp last year and has played in only two games in the NFL. The team went out and made a concerted effort to find a starting fullback and it turns out he was here all along.

Louis Murphy

Still the most reliable, big play receiver on this team. I have said it before that he gets open consistently, has tremendous hands and is always looking to score. He had a couple of hiccups in this game. He was called for illegal formation that negated a 20 yard catch and run by McFadden and later Murphy also had a drop that was right in his hands. But he more than made up for those miscues with the two catches he had on the final Raider drive prior to halftime. The first went for 13 yards. The second one he ran a ‘slugo’ route in which he faked out his defender and then left him in the dust on a go route. As soon as he broke open he put his hand up and Gradkowski had the pass on the way. Murphy caught it in perfect stride and sprinted 74 yards for a touchdown. Gradkowski had that ball in the air as soon as he did because he knows that when Murphy gets his defender to bite on the short fake, he will be wide open every time. It makes more and more sense what Cable said after the draft last year when he said the Raiders took Murphy in the fourth round simply because they couldn’t believe he was still on the board. Suffice it to say there are 31 other teams that have been kicking themselves for passing on him three times.

Zach Miller

He only had one catch in this game and it was a touchdown. He took the pass at about the five yard line, wrapped it up and fought and bulled his way into the endzone for a 27 yard touchdown. He scores those kind of touchdowns in practice every day. But he is one of the few Raider receivers who bring that same dominant play to the game.

Honorable Mention

Chris Cooper

As of last week I was up in the air as to who would fill the final roster spot at defensive end. After this game, I am fairly certain it will be Chris Cooper. He is a big body with solid run defense skills but more so with his speed, he pressures the quarterback with regularity. When he chases after the quarterback he also doesn’t run behind him but rather he stays in front of him to keep him from getting past him. The result can only be a long difficult throw or a considerable loss in yardage on the sack. The quarterback will almost always choose to throw the ball away in that instance rather than risk an interception or deep sack.

Betweeners(new category)

Michael Huff, Stanford Routt

Most people seem to be of the mind that Routt is a shoe-in for the Ballers and Huff would be a more likely Buster. But that is not what I saw. Both of the guys played fantastic games– all save one big mistake. That mistake was on the Frank Gore 49 yard run in the first quarter. Gore got through the line and waiting for him was Huff and Routt. Huff hit Gore but didn’t wrap up. Gore then bounced off of Huff and completely obliterated Routt. It was so bad that Routt did two backwards summersaults like he had been hit by a truck. If it weren’t for the otherwise stellar play of these two in pass coverage, they would both be Busters. The reason I have a problem with forgiving that one play is because something similar seems to happen to these two every game. They are completely tackle impaired. Huff will have the occasional hard hit but he hasn’t quite grasped the concept of wrapping up. And Routt doesn’t even hit, let alone wrap up. We can’t forget that these two play DEFENSE and the most important thing that the defense does is TACKLE. This is part of the reason Nnamdi Asomugha is so revered. Aside from being a shut down corner, he is a lights out tackler. That is something of which both Huff and Routt could stand to be students.

Busters

Mario Henderson

He cost the Raiders a lot in this game. First he cost them their starting quarterback. He was beat around the edge by Travis LaBoy who hit Jason Campbell hard on the sack. Campbell laid on the field for a good five minutes while the Raider training staff checked him out. Then he was hauled off the field on a cart. It was a tense few minutes until the word came down that it was just a stinger in his non-throwing shoulder. But even still, it could just as easily have been much more serious. Then later Henderson compounded issues when he was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It was immediately following a 13 yard catch by Louis Murphy that gave the Raiders their first1st down since the opening drive of the game. In an odd turn of events that first1st down ended up putting the Raiders back 2 yards behind where they were before the pass. One of those “only the Raiders” moments. Henderson has been ridden very hard by Cable in camp this year. Cable is regularly seen giving him pointed instruction. Henderson even does pushups whenever he makes a mistake. So far, it looks like the extra discipline is not paying dividends.

John Fassel

To those who read my stuff on a regular basis you may think I have made it my personal crusade to remove John Fassel as the Raiders’ special teams coach. And if you think that… you are not far off. Since he took over for Brian Schneider last season, the Raiders have gone from having one of the best special teams in the league to one of the worst. The Raiders had 5 return touchdowns during the 08 season. Since then they have had none. They continuously give up big returns and then get almost no yardage on their own return attempts. This game was no exception averaging 4.3 yards per punt return and 18 yards per kick return. The big moment happened when 49ers rookie return man Phillip Adams took a kickoff 83 yards for a touchdown. He ran it right through the middle of the Raider kick coverage team, through a gaping hole, untouched. And I shouldn’t even call Adams the Niners return man, because he isn’t. He is not even among their top three choices. He is a7th round rookie who wanted to get a chance to audition for the return job in the hopes it would help him make the team. Well, thanks to John Fassel and the Raiders return coverage, Adams now has a much better shot at it.

Tommy Kelly

He has looked better this offseason after coming into camp 34 pounds lighter. But he took a step back in this game. He got almost no pressure on the quarterback and consistently saw runs go right through his position. The most critical of those runs was a 17 yarder that set the 49ers up in scoring position resulting in a touchdown late in the2nd quarter. Either 49er OG Chilo Rachal is really THAT good or Kelly has not really improved quite as much as we had been led to believe. Although it could be a bit of both.

Chris Morris

He has all but played himself off this team. He was once seen as a valuable asset because he could play both guard and center. But now the Raiders don’t need him to play guard and he consistently blows it at the center position. He played so poorly last week that this week the Raiders felt more comfortable going with rookie Jared Veldheer at center in place of injured Samson Satele. Veldheer had a few mental errors you would expect from a rookie in his first start. But Morris came in midway through the3rd quarter and promptly gave up a big hit on Gradkowski that he was slow to get up from and had a false start. He doesn’t have the excuse of being a rookie and he is being outplayed by one. This looks like it could be the end of the road for Morris with the Raiders.

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About Levi Damien, Senior Writer

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