TOM CABLE isn'tafraid of being unorthodox. The Raiders' coach opened training camp with eightconsecutive walk-throughs before finally allowing his players to go full padsand hit each other. The strategy caused some coaches around the league toscratch their heads, but Cable, the former offensive line coach who took overwhen Lane Kiffin was fired last September, wanted to make sure his players wereup to speed on their assignments so they could play fast and loose once thecontact commences.
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2009 issue
His approach toimproving a defense that ranked among the league's worst for the past twoseasons could be viewed as unconventional too. Instead of bringing in massreinforcements or dismissing underachievers, Cable focused primarily on hisstaff. John Marshall, a 30-year NFL assistant who was the Seahawks' defensivecoordinator for the last three years, takes over for the departed Rob Ryan.
"I love theplayers we have on that side of the ball," Cable says. "We haveterrific talent in the secondary, a good front seven that can run, and we'vegot plenty of size down the middle. The big issue to me is—and maybe this fitsin the discipline category—if you're defending the B gap [between the guard andthe tackle], then by God be in the B gap. Don't be somewhere else trying to dosomeone else's job. Structure and discipline are definitely ourissues."
The noncontactwork over the first eight practices was primarily for the defense's sake. Inpast seasons there were too many Raiders defenders playing for stats orthemselves; it wasn't uncommon during position drills for the linemen to breakthe huddle by calling out, "Sacks!" Then they'd shake their heads onSundays after another opponent gashed them for big gains on the ground.
Oakland hasranked 22nd or worse against the run every year since 2002 and was 31st each ofthe past two seasons, allowing an average of 145.9 yards in '07 and 159.7 in'08. In '08 the Raiders surrendered 65 runs of 10 or more yards, including aleague-high 11 for touchdowns. They also allowed six backs to gain 100 or moreyards. Perhaps not coincidentally they were 1--5 in those games and 4--6 in allothers.
Marshall, withCable's backing, is preaching selflessness and accountability. When players areasked to specify how the defense will look different, they stammer and speak invague terms. But there is no uncertainty when it comes to discussing thedifference in preparation. "The coaches are actually teaching run fits[players' basic responsibilities against the run]," says cornerback NnamdiAsomugha. "Not just teaching it, but stressing it and going over the basicsof where everybody should be. That does seem fundamental, but what I'm hearingfrom the guys is that it's never been this detailed before."
Tackles TommyKelly and Gerard Warren have taken a lot of heat for Oakland's strugglesagainst the rush—at times rightfully so—but the ends also failed toconsistently hold the point of attack. That could be a problem again this yearbecause new starters Trevor Scott (promoted from backup) and Greg Ellis (signedas a free agent) are known more for their pass rushing than for stopping therun.
Marshall and newD-line coach Dwaine Board are steeped in the 4--3 scheme that Raiders owner AlDavis prefers. Ryan had a more varied background, having spent time in a 3--4system with New England. The significance? "We have [coaches] who've beenaround the league a long time and have seen the way the 4--3 is supposed to berun," says fourth-year linebacker Thomas Howard. "They've seen it doneright, and they've seen it done wrong—so they know when it's wrong what has tobe done to get it right."
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
DarriusHeyward-Bey (42 rec. at Maryland) and Johnnie Lee Higgins (22 rec., 366 yards)are deep-threat WRs; Justin Fargas (853 yards) will push McFadden.
Ninth-yearveteran Morlon Greenwood (43 tackles), a free-agent signing from the Texans,adds OLB insurance for the unproven Alston.
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2008 RECORD 5--11
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 10 > 32 > 29
DEFENSE 31 > 10 > 27
14 SAN DIEGO (M)
20 at Kansas City
4 at Houston
11 at N.Y. Giants
25 N.Y. Jets
1 at San Diego
15 KANSAS CITY
26 at Dallas (T)
6 at Pittsburgh
20 at Denver
27 at Cleveland
NFL Rank: 19T
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .480
Games against playoff teams: 6
The Raiders, who've lost 10 straight in prime time, must be thankful that theseason opener is their only night game. And in other good news for theground-oriented Silver and Black: The schedule features opposing defenses thattend to be weak against the run. Finally, if that Thanksgiving game seems odd,it's because Oakland hasn't played on Turkey Day since 1970.
Darren McFadden, Running back
SLOWED BY a turf toe injury in his rookie year,McFadden failed to make the splash that was anticipated after he was drafted atNo. 4 out of Arkansas. But this summer, while studying video of the Raiders'offense, coach Tom Cable got a reminder of why Oakland took McFadden so high.He saw McFadden break loose for a 50-yard gain during a 164-yard rushingperformance against the Chiefs in Week 2. He saw McFadden catch passes out ofthe backfield that went for 20-plus yards. He saw McFadden line up to take thesnap in the Wildcat. "When we used him many ways last year—not just as arunner—we were much better," says Cable. "The goal is to expand on thatrole and make him a key part of what we're trying to do."
In training camp McFadden was getting extended work atwideout as well as at running back. He came off the bench in the exhibitionopener against Dallas and gained 63 yards on four carries and a nine-yardreception. "Coach told me he wants to try to put the ball in my hands andlet me go with it, whether that's handing me the ball, throwing me screenpasses or spreading me out wide," says McFadden, who shows no effect fromlast year's toe injury. "I'm cool with that. I'm healthy and ready to go. Ifeel a lot more confident with the running scheme and the blocking scheme—theoffense, period. I'm not out there iffy about should I block this guy or thatguy. I know what to do."