The Oakland Raiders took another step forward this season by beating Jacksonville in their home opener. Now coach Dennis Allen and his team will get a litmus test when they go on the road to play at Denver on Monday night.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos are off to an impressive start; after just two weeks, they’re already being talked about as a Super Bowl contender.
For the Raiders, the game represents a chance to establish themselves as an early contender in the AFC West.
Here are a few things to consider heading into the Week 3 matchup between the two division rivals:
The division has already had its share of surprises, maybe none more so than the Chiefs, unbeaten after two games under new head coach Andy Reid. Kansas City goes on the road to play a Philadelphia Eagles team that should be seething after letting a winnable game against San Diego get away from them in Week 2.
The Chargers win over the Eagles pulled them even with the Raiders at .500 heading into a matchup at Tennessee. Denver is obviously the class of the division, if not the AFC, which is why the Raiders can really put their stamp on the season by pulling off an upset at Mile High.
The Branch injury is obviously the most critical right now. Although there are reports the veteran safety has a fractured fibula, Oakland head coach Dennis Allen declined to get into specifics, saying only that Branch would likely miss some time.
If it is a fractured fibula, Branch could miss at least 4-6 weeks. Guard Lucas Nix also suffered an ankle injury, though it’s not thought to be as serious as Branch’s. TE David Ausberry continues to make slow but steady progress, but there's still no word on his return. Same goes for the offensive tackle Watson.
What Must Improve
As good as Terrelle Pryor has been, Oakland’s passing game has been sporadic at best. Part of that inconsistency has been the play of the wide receivers, part of it has been Pryor and part of it has been efforts of the makeshift offensive line. The timing between all three has been off at various times, which is why the offense sputters.
Somehow it has to get better against a Broncos defense that might be without cornerback Champ Bailey.
Oakland's defensive coordinator Jason Tarver faces two big challenges this week. First, he’s got to find a replacement for Branch at strong safety. He has three options there. The Raiders can move Charles Woodson over and bring in Usama Young at Woodson’s free safety spot. They could leave Woodson at free safety and start Brandian Ross. Or they could go with a combo of Young and Ross at the strong.
Dennis Allen said Monday he expects all three to play, regardless of who starts.
It’s hard to knock the blocking when the Raiders lead the NFL in rushing after two weeks, but the offensive line still isn’t as sharp as it needs to be. That’s to be expected given all the injuries up front. Depending on how severe Nix’s injury is, Oakland could have a new left guard for the Denver game, which will put even more emphasis on the communication.
Oakland continues to have problems getting the plays relayed to the offense in a timely fashion, and that’s caused some confusion at times. Whether it’s getting the calls in earlier or Pryor spitting out the plays quicker in the huddle, there has to be some way to get this issue corrected.
It hasn’t been a big issue up to this point but it could be at some point down the road.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski made four field goals in Sunday’s win over the Jaguars, but it was the one he missed that is a bit of a concern. It’s Janikowski’s second miss in two weeks, after he had just three misses in all of 2012. Janikowski is still trying to adjust to new holder Marquette King after years of working with Shane Lechler, and it hasn’t always gone smoothly.
Until the offense proves it can get into the end zone more consistently, the field-goal unit will have to shoulder the scoring load.
Cornerback D.J. Hayden is finding out that teams in the NFL will find out wherever a rookie defensive back is, and they’ll keep going at him until he proves he can hold his own.
Both Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Chad Henne of the Jacksonville Jaguars specifically targeted the Raiders’ first-round draft pick and both had success throwing at him. The thing is, Hayden hasn’t played all that poorly. His coverage has been tight, for the most part, and he does a good job closing on the receiver if he gets beat. Still, he can expect much more of what he’s seen already until he makes a big play or two.
Even then it might continue.