As the 2011 Oakland Raiders continue to fill in the blanks that were created when they released their head-scratching “final” 53-man roster, several questions still remain -- not the least of which is, are these starting five offensive linemen really going to cut it? Have no fear, for you are about to be hand delivered the answer to perhaps this most daunting question of all.
One of the most difficult tasks facing this Raiders’ offensive line this season is going to be learning how to deal with a 3-4 blitzing scheme such as the one they will face in the home opener against the New Jersey Jets. Trouble is that when your defense is a 4-3 base defense, the scheme is completely and utterly different from that 3-4. In the 4-3 you have four guys who rush nearly every down and perhaps one blitzing skill player every now and then. Meanwhile, in the 3-4, you have three steady linemen rushing the play and two linebackers who could come from various different directions.
Fortunately for the Raiders, they have a lot of game tape from last season in Hue Jackson’s offense so they can go back and remember what it is like to play against those defenses. In 2010, they played against 3-4 defenses 10 times, including six against divisional opponents, which leads me to my next point. Their division is heavy on the 3-4 defense, so they will get even more exposure to it this year. Last season, all three teams in their division attempted to run a base 3-4, and this season only the Denver Broncos have given up on it with newly acquired head coach John Fox.
The next diagnosis upon further inspection is that this offensive line has a benefit that not many in the league have at their disposal. They have to practice against one of the best four man defensive lines in the game including Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Matt Shaughnessy, and Lamarr Houston. Earlier this offseason, these four men were discussed as the best defensive line in the AFC West. But I’m going to take it a step further and say they are one of the best units in the AFC, if not the NFL, and they are coached by perhaps the best mind in the NFL in D-Line Coach Mike Waufle.
Practicing against this unit in live drills every single day should make the offensive line's improvement sky rocket. While veterans Khalif Barnes, Samson Satele, and Cooper Carlisle may not need the extra motivation, rookie Stefen Wisniewski and second year left tackle Jared Veldheer will need all the help they can get from being pushed to the brink by these talented athletes. I also want to put a spotlight on fifth and sixth defensive linemen Trevor Scott and Jarvis Moss. Their speed on the outside edge is going to help the Raider offensive tackles learn to deal with the speed of outside linebackers in that 3-4 I was talking about earlier.
If we go back in time for a minute, one of the biggest questions on deck in the offseason was: Do the Raiders need to bring in more offensive linemen, or can they work with what they have? The answer to this question lies in the hands of newly hired offensive line coach Bob Wylie and his assistant and long-time Raiders All-Pro, Steve Wisniewski.
The fact that these two coaches weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to make the organization bring in more talent for them to work with says a lot about how they feel about the guys they have. People often overlook the fact that Khalif Barnes was a starting left tackle for four seasons for the Jacksonville Jaguars while they were a decent NFL playoff caliber team. Veldheer in his second season is going to be an upgrade over Veldheer in his rookie season. Samson Satele is a fifth year starting center -- third with the Silver and Black. And Cooper Carlisle was getting it done at the ripe old age of 34. Over the past six seasons, Carlisle has only missed one game, while starting in a whopping 95 for the Raiders and his former team, the Denver Donkeys.
The Raiders have a decent NFL starting five and the development of second year player Bruce Campbell as well as the addition of veteran free agent offensive tackle Stephon Heyer gives them a little depth behind that front five. Add to that the holdover of Daniel Loper to back up the interior and the versatility of certain players and you have a nice mix here.
Don’t take this the wrong way, because there are currently about 20 NFL offensive lines that you would want in front of this one, but we do have potential here.
One of the things that is going to make all of the difference for this unit in the upcoming season is whether rookie left guard, Wisniewski, can fill the shoes of 2004 second overall pick Robert Gallery. It’s clear that Hue Jackson and his staff are ready to go all-in on Wiz Jr at this position. To his credit, Wisniewski said prior to the draft that he would prefer to play guard at the next level. Evidently, the Raiders realized that he may have been spot on with his analysis of himself. Granted, he did only play one season at center for Penn State.
If there is one thing for certain in this positional uncertainty, it is that the youngster has the right pedigree to play this position to its fullest. His uncle turned coach, Steve, was a two-time All-American guard for Penn State, and eight-time Pro Bowler and NFL All-Pro who was named to the 1990’s NFL All-Decade team. Stefen is hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Raiders’ legend, although he does have a one-up on his uncle right out of the gate, the fact that he was selected by the Raiders in the draft to be coached up by his uncle.
All in all, several factors are going to play into whether or not this line finds success in the near future. However, there are about a half dozen things that they already have going for them that other developing units do not have on their side. If the Raiders can get this unit to gel and become cohesive, it is a unit that could lead them to an AFC West crown.
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