Tomorrow, the Raiders kick off their 2014 Pre-season with an away game versus the Minnesota Vikings. Pre-season games are typically very “vanilla,” meaning the teams do not really scout against each other nor do they implement packages designed to specifically exploit any weaknesses they see in the opponent.
Tomorrow’s game is not likely to be any different. This does not mean that we cannot learn from the game – quite the opposite, really. Here are some things I will be looking for in tomorrow’s game:
1. Defensive Line pressure
The Raiders struggled to win individual matchups last year and so they struggled to create natural pressure on the opposing quarterback. Defensive coordinator Jason Tarver was forced to create pressure by using a variety of blitzes, which backfired on him, at times.
Because the pre-season is so vanilla, Tarver is unlikely to be using many blitzes. Instead, the Raiders will be watching, as will I, to see if their new defensive line can create pressure without having to resort to blitzing tactics.
On the flip side, it will also be valuable to see how well the defense does against the run. The Vikings will likely be playing without All-Pro Adrian Peterson, who typically does not play in pre-season so he can avoid injury and wear and tear on his body, so the run defense should be very good. If it is not, it’s likely going to be a long season for the Silver and Black.
2. Offensive line protection
Like the defensive line, the offensive line does little in the way of scheming for the pre-season. This means that they will mostly be going with man blocking, exclusively, with few pulling guards or zone concepts.
The offensive line is completely revamped with only Khalif Barnes and Stefan Wisniewski playing the same positions they did last year at left guard and center, respectively. New to the line are left tackle Donald Penn, who has had a very good camp, right guard Austin Howard and right tackle Menelik Watson, who played some left tackle as a rookie at the beginning of last season before getting injured.
There is a lot of talent on the offensive line but they have not been working together for too long and Watson, in particular, is still raw. I will be looking to see how the team does in pass protection and as run blockers.
When the 2nd team comes in, I’m especially interested in 3rd round pick Gabe Jackson, who has the makings of a road-grader at guard, but has struggled in pass protection, at times, in camp.
3. Quarterback connection
The depth chart isn’t set, yet, but even if it was the depth chart is mostly meaningless to the players. As we’ve seen over the years, just because a receiver is listed as the starter, doesn’t mean that that player is going to catch the most balls.
A successful quarterback to wide receiver connection is one based on respect and trust – and hours and hours of practice. Because quarterback Matt Schaub is new to the team this year, he has not had the time to get to know all of his receivers well.
Instead, it’s likely that he will have a better connection with one, perhaps two of the receivers. It’s my guess that James Jones will be his number one connection – the guy he looks to when he knows he needs a catch. Jones has shown the ability to athletically adjust and comes down with most of the balls that are thrown his way. He may or may not be a number one on the depth chart by the time the season starts, but I think he’ll be Schaub’s number one guy.
4. Running game
Both Darren McFadden and newcomer Maurice Jones Drew are looking for bounce-back seasons and both have looked strong in camp. McFadden typically looks great in camp but does less well when there is live tackling because he does not do well with breaking tackles and creating more yards.
Jones Drew is fantastic with yards after contact – historically, he’s been one of the best in the NFL in his time there – because of his low center of gravity. It will be interesting to see how both look against the Vikings and if anything can be gleaned about how they will be used this season.
Later in the game, second year RB Latavious Murray is still a big unknown after being injured for his rookie season. It will be worthwhile to check out how he does with the ball – he is a big back with great speed but has not played against NFL caliber competition in any meaningful way, yet.