WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Having a healthy McGahee (460 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 2 total TD) should bring a boost to a Denver offense that’s put up just 28 points in Tebow’s two starts, as the rejuvenated 30-year-old put together back-to-back 100-yard efforts in games against Green Bay and San Diego to begin October and followed up with a respectable 76 yards on 18 carries in the comeback win at Miami in Week 7.
He’ll likely work in a timeshare with former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno (123 rushing yards, 9 receptions, 1 TD) if active on Sunday, with Tebow (412 passing yards, 4 TD, 1 INT) bringing an added dimension to the Broncos’ eighth-ranked ground attack (125.9 ypg) with his outstanding scrambling ability. The ex-University of Florida star has ran for 122 yards in his two extended appearances this year, and Denver has averaged a notable 186 rushing yards over that stretch. Throwing the ball and recognizing pressure have been different matters altogether, however. Tebow has been able to develop somewhat of a rapport with second-year receiver Eric Decker (30 receptions, 5 TD), who hauled in six passes for 72 yards and a touchdown in last week’s loss, and fellow wideout Eddie Royal (12 receptions) has been targeted often by the young quarterback as well.
The Broncos would also like to get talented 2010 first-round selection Demaryius Thomas more involved in the passing game, though the big-bodied wide receiver has come up only four grabs totaling 37 yards in two games since returning from a torn Achilles.
The Lions were able to frustrate Tebow by relentlessly blitzing him last week, and expect the Raiders to follow suit. Oakland possesses a good pass-rushing outside linebacker in Kamerion Wimbley (24 tackles, 1 sack) and a pair of tackles who can collapse the pocket in six-time Pro Bowler Richard Seymour (20 tackles, 5 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (21 tackles, 2.5 sacks), with the duo combining for three of the team’s five sacks of Orton in its Week 1 meeting with Denver. Both players were factors against the run in that game as well, helping the Raiders limit their divisional foe to a mere 38 rushing yards on 13 attempts.
The defense has been pretty tough in that area as of late, even with valuable middle linebacker Rolando McClain (43 tackles, 1 sack, 6 PD) not at 100 percent due to an ankle problem, as the Silver and Black have held their last three opponents to an average of 3.2 yards per carry. A secondary led by speedy cornerback Stanford Routt (24 tackles, 1 INT, 6 PD) and strong safety Tyvon Branch (56 tackles, 1 INT) has also had its moments, with Oakland allowing just a 53.1 percent completion rate on the season, third-best in the NFL.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Though the probable absence of McFadden (614 rushing yards, 19 receptions, 5 total TD) robs the Raiders of its best playmaker, there’s still depth on hand for an offense that’s compiled the second-highest rushing total (159.3 ypg) in the league and amassed 190 yards on the ground in its early-season win over the Broncos. Understudy Michael Bush (237 rushing yards, 3 TD, 9 receptions) is a capable fill-in who lends a more physical presence to the backfield than McFadden, though he doesn’t have his teammate’s explosiveness, while rookie blazer Taiwan Jones showed big-play potential in the preseason and should get more of a chance to demonstrate his abilities on Sunday.
In Palmer, Oakland is getting a quarterback with significant starting experience and two 4,000-yard seasons under his belt, though those came in 2006 and 2007 and he’s coming off a year in which he threw 20 interceptions. Jackson is counting on the 34-year- old Houshmandzadeh to add a seasoned and dependable option out of the slot and help young wide receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey (27 receptions, 434 yards, 1 TD), Denarius Moore (14 receptions, 2 TD) and Jacoby Ford (11 receptions) through their growing pains. The light has seemed to come on for Heyward-Bey after two straight disappointing seasons to begin his career, as the 2009 No. 7 overall pick has averaged 96.3 receiving yards and 17.5 yards per catch over the last four games.
Palmer should fare better this week than he did in his Oakland introduction, as he’s now more well-versed in Jackson’s offense and will be going up against a Denver defense that’s been generally awful against the pass this season. The Broncos are giving up nearly 250 yards per game through the air and have surrendered 14 touchdown passes to date, with enemy quarterbacks having completed over 68 percent of their throws.
Father time is beginning to catch up with cornerbacks Champ Bailey (16 tackles) and Andre Goodman (24 tackles) and safety Brian Dawkins (27 tackles, 2 sacks), all of whom are 33 years old or above, and the aging backfield has only gotten marginal help from a pass rush that’s been sporadic with the exception of impressive rookie linebacker Von Miller (26 tackles), who’s recorded six sacks in his first seven pro games. Though Denver had trouble containing McFadden in the opener and permitted 206 rushing yards in a loss to San Diego back in Week 5, the run defense has shown improvement over the last two weeks, with middle linebacker Joe Mays (38 tackles) and tackle Brodrick Bunkley (16 tackles) both grading out well as of late.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Obviously, how each of these teams’ recently-promoted quarterbacks perform will have a major bearing on the outcome of this contest. It goes without saying that another six-interception output like Palmer and Boller had in Oakland’s last game isn’t going to bring about success, while Tebow will need to show he can consistently make some plays with his arm to prevent the Raiders from stacking the box and focusing solely on stopping Denver’s ground game.
Tebow’s cause would be greatly aided by a productive afternoon out of McGahee, though ball security could be an issue with the veteran running back essentially playing with one hand. Denver’s offense isn’t good enough to overcome costly turnovers as presently comprised.
Special teams. Both clubs made their mark in this department in the first meeting, with Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski making three pivotal field goals that included an NFL record-tying 63-yarder and Decker scoring one of the Broncos’ two touchdowns on a 90-yard punt return. If this game winds up close, a big special teams play on either side could prove to be the difference. Janikowski missed the Kansas City loss with a hamstring injury, but isn’t believed to be in danger of sitting out on Sunday.
Prediction – At no time in 2011 did you ever think you would see Tim Tebow vs Carson Palmer, but that’s what we will see Sunday in Oakland. Tebow is a nice kid, but is not a good QB, and won’t be against the Raiders, who will pressure him into more bad throws and mistakes. Palmer can’t possibly be as bad as he was two weeks ago against the Chiefs. He has to not make bad mistakes, and it will help if he can get production from the run game. The Broncos are a mess, and it will show in the Black Hole. Oakland 19 Denver 10