NFL Preview - Denver (2-0) at Oakland (1-1)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Denver Broncos are showing they can win games without Jay Cutler. What may be even harder to believe is that the team is doing it with defense.
Denver will attempt to move to 3-0 in the Josh McDaniels era when it pays a visit to the Oakland Coliseum for this Sunday's AFC West clash with the longtime rival Raiders.
Of all the personnel changes the Broncos made during a tumultuous offseason to begin former New England assistant McDaniels' first go-around as a head coach, the most important one may have been the hiring of Mike Nolan, one of the NFL's most respected defensive coordinators who's back in that role following a failed 3 1/2-year stint as a head coach in San Francisco. The switch to a 3-4 structure and implementation of eight new starters to a unit that was among the league's worst a season ago has been far from the long and painful process many expected, as Nolan's defense has yielded a mere 13 points in Denver's first two wins along with an average of 253.5 yards per game. Only Rex Ryan's resurgent New York Jets have surrendered fewer yards over the first two weeks of the 2009 campaign.
The Broncos were especially stingy during last Sunday's 27-6 dismantling of Cleveland in McDaniels' home debut, with the group limiting the confused Browns to just 200 total yards and 11 first downs. Denver also forced three turnovers and got an eye-opening four sacks out of pass-rush specialist Elvis Dumervil, converted from defensive end to a pressure-causing outside linebacker in Nolan's scheme.
The team has also gotten along just fine so far in the wake of Cutler's trade to Chicago following a public rift between the petulant quarterback and McDaniels over the winter. Replacement Kyle Orton has been both steady and productive under center, with the ex-Bear having thrown for over 500 yards without committing a turnover through his initial two tests as a Bronco.
Oakland enters Week 3 having split a pair of very wacky games against divisional opponents. After opening the season with a gut-wrenching 24-20 loss at home to San Diego on a touchdown in the final seconds, the Raiders were dominated statistically but not on the scoreboard in last Sunday's 13-10 triumph over a mistake-laden Kansas City team. This time Oakland did the rallying, putting together a nine-play, 69-yard drive capped by Darren McFadden's five-yard scoring run with 1:07 to go.
The Raiders prevailed despite being outgained by a 409-166 margin in total yards by the Chiefs and witnessing struggling quarterback JaMarcus Russell complete only 7-of-24 pass attempts for the game.
The Raiders lead the all-time regular season series with Denver, which dates back to 1960, by a 55-40-2 count, including an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home. Oakland was a 41-14 home loser when the teams met in a primetime game during Week 1, but returned the favor with a stunning 31-10 result at Invesco Field at Mile High during Week 12. The Raiders last defeated the Broncos at home in 2007.
Denver is 21-7 against Oakland since the 1995 season.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have split a pair of postseason matchups, with Denver winning the 1977 AFC Championship, 20-17, and the then-Los Angeles Raiders prevailing in a 1993 AFC First-Round Playoff, 42-24.
Oakland head coach Tom Cable is 1-0 against the Broncos, while McDaniels will be meeting both Cable and the Raiders for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
While Orton (506 passing yards, 2 TD) hasn't been Tom Brady in McDaniels' pass-oriented spread offense, he's done well enough while working with an accomplished corps of receivers that hasn't included much of Brandon Marshall (7 receptions), a 100-catch performer in each of the past seasons who's put himself in the new regime's doghouse due to attitude problems and an inability to fully grasp the playbook. With Eddie Royal (5 receptions), a 91-catch, 980- yard contributor as a rookie in 2008, also off to a slow start in the new offense, Denver's most effective wideouts in the early going have been veteran slotman Brandon Stokley (6 receptions, 157 yards, 1 TD) and Jabar Gaffney (6 receptions), an ex-Patriot well-versed in McDaniels' system. The Broncos have displayed good balance through the first two weeks, with the running back tandem of offseason pickup Correll Buckhalter (122 rushing yards, 1 TD, 3 receptions) and rookie first-round pick Knowshon Moreno (94 rushing yards, 2 receptions) having averaged better than five yards per rush attempt combined. Moreno had 75 yards on 17 carries in last week's rout of the Browns, while Buckhalter broke off a 45-yard touchdown scamper to close out the scoring.
The Raiders were woeful in stopping the run last season, finishing next-to- last in the league in rushing yards allowed (159.7 ypg) and permitting 28 touchdowns on the ground, but the team held a pair of decorated backs -- San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson and Kansas City's Larry Johnson -- firmly in check over the first two games. The recent addition of five-time Pro Bowl lineman Richard Seymour (9 tackles) from the Patriots has clearly helped out both that area and the pass rush, as the ninth-year pro racked up two sacks against the Chargers in his Oakland debut. End Greg Ellis (8 tackles), another veteran offseason acquisition, has amassed three sacks thus far to further bolster a pass defense that contains one of the game's true shutdown corners in Nnamdi Asomugha (5 tackles). Former first-round pick Michael Huff (3 tackles, 3 INT, 5 PD), a bust as a safety, has flourished in a nickel back role and picked off Kansas City's Matt Cassel twice to help impact last week's win. He may find himself in the starting lineup on Sunday, with regular free safety Hiram Eugene (7 tackles) a question mark because of a strained calf.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Oakland did have success moving the football in its season-opening loss to the Chargers, with Russell (317 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) hitting sure-handed tight end Zack Miller (6 receptions) for a number of big gains and the combo of the speedy McFadden (103 rushing yards, 1 TD, 4 receptions) and 245-pound bruiser Michael Bush (90 rushing yards, 1 TD, 2 receptions) forming a strong inside-outside duo in the ground game. That tactic failed to work last week, however, as the Chiefs stacked the box to neutralize the run and held Miller without a catch by paying him extra attention, forcing Russell to target raw rookie receivers Louis Murphy (6 receptions, 1 TD) and 2009 first-round choice Darrius Heyward-Bey, who's mustered only one catch for 18 yards so far. Although Russell completed an unacceptable 29 percent of his throws against Kansas City, the 2007 No. 1 overall selection did not turn the ball over and came through with a few big plays on the team's late go-ahead drive. The Raiders did suffer a very significant loss last week, as standout left guard Robert Gallery fractured his left fibula and will miss at least a month. That's a potentially big blow to an offense that needs to establish the run to be at its best.
Although they may not have faced the stiffest of competition in the early part of this season, there's little doubt that the Broncos are a much improved club on the defensive side than last year's disaster. Ex-Browns inside linebacker Andra Davis (19 tackles, 1 sack) and former 49ers nose tackle Ronald Fields (2 tackles) have made Denver a much tougher foe to run on, as evidenced by the 54 rushing yards Cleveland mustered a week ago, while seasoned safeties Brian Dawkins (17 tackles, 2 PD) and Renaldo Hill (13 tackles) have brought a stabilizing presence to the secondary that was missing last season. The Broncos do have a pair of game-changing holdovers in perennial All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey (11 tackles, 2 PD) and Dumervil (9 tackles, 1 forced fumble), whose four sacks of Brady Quinn last Sunday were the most by a Denver player since 1990.
Those seeking a team defense in leagues where Denver's is still on the waiver wire may want to pick up Nolan's contingent for at least this week, as the Raiders' one-dimensional attack shouldn't pose a whole lot of problems on Sunday. There's not too many enticing individual options in a matchup that has the makings of being low-scoring, but Miller's a good choice as the clear-cut focal point of Oakland's poor passing game. McFadden gets enough touches to be a worthy flex play, although the potential of the bigger Bush stealing goal- line carries diminishes the former Arkansas star's value some. Russell and the young Raider receivers are way too erratic to be taken off fantasy benches right now. Orton wouldn't make a bad pick, however, as the triggerman for a Denver team that likes to put the ball in the air. Since the Broncos spread the ball around so well, none of the receivers carry much upside and can be viewed as sure-fire starts. That includes both Marshall and Royal, two mainstays in owners' lineups last season. Denver's running back situation remains a little cloudy right now due to the timeshare between Moreno and Buckhalter, though both should get enough work to be considered at flex positions.
Denver's rebuilt defense isn't the second coming of the 1985 Chicago Bears, but it'll look quite good again this week versus an Oakland offense that can barely complete a pass and will be without its best lineman on Sunday. The Broncos are hardly a well-oiled scoring machine as well right now, but Orton and his skill players appear to be getting more comfortable with McDaniels' system and are good enough up front to control the line of scrimmage. In a game that doesn't figure to resemble the up-and-down shootout of the old AFL days between these two storied foes, Denver's better balance and talent on offense give the unlikely unbeatens a slight edge.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 16, Raiders 10
09/24 16:42:04 ET