Controversy and turmoil surround the Las Vegas Raiders, whose head coach Jon Gruden resigned this week in the wake of inappropriate emails that were uncovered. As a result of the fallout that was ironically announced at halftime during Monday night’s Ravens-Colts game, Raiders' special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia has been named interim head coach.
In the Denver Broncos' first divisional matchup of the season, they'll square off with the Raiders in the Mile High City. Like the Raiders, the Broncos are coming off back-to-back losses and desperately need to win on Sunday — that is, if Denver hopes to contend in the AFC West.
As fate would have it, Denver's former two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Shanahan will be honored on Sunday at Empower Field as he's inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame. With the history and rivalry of both franchises, it’s easy to get pumped for the loathed and hated Raiders.
The wiseguys in Vegas currently have the Broncos as 4-point favorites and the line hasn’t moved despite Gruden's resignation. While Denver will most likely benefit from the Raiders' distractions and headlines, the Silver and Black should be viewed as a dangerous, wounded animal that’s been backed into a corner.
I’m not saying that the Raiders will have an unprecedented rallying cry behind their interim head coach but I am cautioning Broncos Country that the first AFC West game of the season will be anything but easy and that Las Vegas shouldn’t be slept on. That said, it’s time to look ahead to three crucial keys to victory for the Broncos vs. Raiders matchup.
Ride the Hot Hand
It’s time for OC Pat Shurmur to stop being cute with the running game. In 2020, Shurmur listed both Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon as co-starters on the depth chart and doubled down by starting both players on the first snap of the season. The results were disastrous as neither back was utilized to feature their respective talents and Lindsay was later shown the door.
Not too much has changed in the five games of this season as Shurmur stubbornly repeats past behavior and abandons the running game. Simply put, the Broncos offense is becoming predictable to opposing defenses.
Shurmur called running plays on almost every first-down of Week's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Neither Gordon nor rookie Javonte Williams was given the chance to really get going as it seems they’re deliberately splitting 50/50 reps by halftime of most games.
By running the ball with either back, it’s very realistic to expect a 3-to-4-yard gain per play. In theory, this should produce shorter third-down opportunities and take some pressure off the struggling passing attack.
The current run-to-pass ratio isn’t doing the O-line or backs any favors as defenses can predict when to pin their ears back tee off on QB Teddy Bridgewater. At the beginning of the year, teams stacked the box to respect the rushing attack.
Now, opponents are stacking the box to get in the backfield and are waiting for Shurmur to flinch and panic into three-WR sets. I couldn't care less about injuries, excuses, egos, or offensive philosophy. Running the football is critical for a team that still doesn’t have an identity almost a half-decade after hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Feed the offensive line by allowing it to move forward instead of always playing on its heels in pass protection. If Gordon is ripping off big chunks, then feature ‘Flash.’ On the other hand, if Williams continues to run angry, then it’s time to pound the rock with ‘Pookie.’ No more cutesy reps, or predictable play calls because they don’t work.
Create Manageable Third Downs
The Broncos are converting 28% of their third-down attempts — ranking dead last in the NFL — and the film backs up the embarrassing statistic. Oftentimes, the rushing attack is abandoned at the first sign of trouble: namely, the opposition scoring the first points of the game.
Most of the Broncos' offensive snaps this season have come with three receivers at a clip of approximately 75.2%. For a point of reference, the Philadelphia Eagles are converting 40% of third-down attempts and sit right in the middle of the pack, ranking 16th in the NFL and they're a disaster, so what’s that say about the Broncos?
3rd-&-8 is also the average distance on Denver's money-down attempts, ranking the Broncos as the second-worst in the NFL. This proves that the offensive attack on first and second down isn’t working.
Not every small gain is as bad as it could be made out to be but in this case, the devil truly is in the details. No longer is this team deprived of talent. It’s not a ‘Jimmys and Joes' issue, it's the Xs and Os, folks.
Account for Mad Maxx
Raiders pass rusher Maxx Crosby has led the team in sacks the last two seasons after being drafted in the fourth round back in 2019. Thus far, the former Eastern Michigan playmaker hasn’t missed a beat and was previously named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after Las Vega's victory over the Ravens in the season-opener.
Against the same Baltimore team that beat the breaks off the Broncos, Crosby logged six tackles, four QB hits, and two sacks. Not only did he give Lamar Jackson fits, but Crosby was seemingly all over the field, going 100 mph on every play.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound pass rusher is no stranger to accolades having earned the same award during his rookie year as well as AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors last season.
If the Broncos offense plans on having success, it better plan to hit Crosby and disrupt his momentum. Denver's starting RT Bobby Massie will need assistance in chipping Crosby with running backs. Even TE Eric Saubert needs to be brought over to Crosby's side to assist with the double team.
In addition to being a dynamic, effort-first pass rusher, Crosby is a consistent threat in containing the perimeter and funnels runs to the inside. While his numbers haven’t popped since Week 1, this could very well be the breakout game the Raiders desperately need him to have based on Crosby's past run-ins with the Broncos.
Sometimes you must confront your biggest threat head-on and play big-on-big football. After all, football isn’t rocket science. For the love of everything that is good, Shurmur can’t afford to ignore Crosby’s level of aggression.
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukePattersonLP.
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