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Quarter-term grades

By Jerry McDonald - NFL Writer
Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007 at 3:25 pm in Oakland Raiders.

Grading the Raiders four games into a 16-game season:

RUSHING OFFENSE: A — The No. 21, 22, 23 and 24 rushers in the NFL are Larry Johnson of the Chiefs (263 yards), LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers (262 yards), Justin Fargas of the Raiders (261 yards) and Frank Gore of the 49ers (254 yards).

Three of the NFL’s top rushers from a year ago and the Raiders backup to LaMont Jordan.

Lane Kiffin is correct in that the Raiders haven’t faced the truly stout rushing defenses as yet. Miami in particular was a sieve. But Kiffin seems truly committed to running the ball where it seemed Norv Turner and Art Shell paid it only lip service.

There’s not much more to be said regarding the Raiders offensive line that hasn’t already been said. If there’s been a bigger turnabout with any position group anywhere in recent years, I haven’t heard about it.

At best, Jordan aggravated a back injury which could nag him the remainder of the season. At worst, he could be out for a long while. The good thing is Dominic Rhodes begins practicing Wednesday after a four-week suspension and the window for activating Michael Bush begins Oct. 15.

If Jordan is hurt, Rhodes should help immediately. Even if Bush is activated, it may take him awhile to be a contributor, considering how long it has been since he’s been in team sessions.

PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus–Daunte Culppepper has hit some big throws when he needed them, although his stats aren’t much to look at because of Oakland’s emphasis on the run. He has passed only 25 times (completing 12 for 188 yards) in 14 possessions as opposed to 74 running plays. Josh McCown did some good things and some bad things in the opener and was awful in Week 2, where Kiffin termed the passing game “embarrassing”.

This doesn’t have the look of a big-play passing offense, but it’s worth noting that Jerry Porter has only seven receptions but is averaging 20.6 yards per catch with three touchdowns. Tight end Zach Miller hasn’t been the factor many expected coming out of training camp.

The running backs are viable passing targets, although throws to the backs have dropped off since Week 1.

Overall, this is an area that will be tested more seriously once opponents take a look at their run-pass ratio and dare them to throw.

RUSH DEFENSE: D-plus — The Raiders are giving up 5.3 yards per carry, the second-worst figure in the NFL, and are ranked 24th overall in rushing defense at 129.5 yards per game. They gave up big numbers to Denver’s Travis Henry (26 carries, 128 yards) and Ronnie Brown (15 for 134).

Terdell Sands, given a $4 million signing bonus to bypass free agency, lost his starting job to Gerard Warren and hasn’t been the anchor the Raiders expected. Safeties Stuart Schweigert and Michael Huff aren’t lower-the-boom hitters. They’re too often making stops yards after opposing runners have put yards in the bank.

Hard to argue with linebackers Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard in any part of of their game. Strong-side backer Sam Williams is prone to the occasional whiffed tackle in space.

They’ve given up way too much ground, but it’s worth noting the run defense wasn’t the primary culprit in either loss.

It needs to be much better, however.

PASS DEFENSE: C — Thanks to three interceptions each by Morrison and Howard, the Raiders are holding opposing passers to a 74.7 rating, the sixth best figure in the NFL. it’s deceiving, however. Teams have largely avoided cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and chased Fabian Washington to a new job of nickel back.

Stanford Routt, Washington’s replacement, has a pair of gift interceptions in Week 1 and 4. The Raiders have surrendered 48 passing first downs _ only nine teams have given up more.

Huff and Schweigert have played 20 games together as starters and neither has an interception during that time. Kiffin has worked in B.J. Ward and Hiram Eugene of late, but neither of them appears to be the answer.

Oakland has just seven sacks, 21st in the NFL, and Gerard Warren has three of them. Derrick Burgess, out for for the last two games with a calf injury, doesn’t have a sack, and neither does Warren Sapp.

Up until the final two drives, Oakland did make Cleveland’s Derek Anderson uncomfortable, and also hurried Miami’s Trent Green.

On the plus side, the Raiders have never had two cover linebackers at the same time as good as Morrison and Howard. Howard scored a touchdown and set up one, while Morrison had a theft against Cleveland that set up a score.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D — Punter Shane Lechler, after a subpar 2006 season in which he had 19 punts inside the 20-yard line and 19 touchbacks _ by far the worst ratio of his career — has six punts inside the 20 and just one touchback this season.

Sebastian Janikowski has 12 touchbacks, four more than he had all of last season, when the Raiders seldom scored so they seldom kicked off. His career high is 22.

That, and a blocked field goal attempt by Tommy Kelly against Cleveland, is about the extent of the good news.

Janikowski is 5-for-9 in field goal attempts, and although he’s 0-for-3 from 50 and beyond and got Shanahaned in Denver, he’s paid to make long ones. Opponents are averaging 12 yards per punt return.

Rookie Johnnie Lee Higgins is averaging 2.3 yards on seven punt returns, kickoff return specialist Chris Carr 21.1 on 18 kickoff returns. Opponents are averaging an eye-popping 31.1 on kickoff returns.

Kiffin openly questioned desire and effort in Denver, as did Carr, who in a rare admission said the Broncos simply wanted it more.

Huge improvement is needed in this area if the Raiders hope to swing some close games in their favor.

COACHING: B — The handling of the Culpepper-McCown quarterback thing is just plain weird, and you could make a strong case that using an injured McCown over a healthy Culpepper in Week 2 cost the Raiders a win in Denver.

Overall, however, although Kiffin is publicly recoiling from a 2-2 record, he must know on some level how much better the Raiders are since he took over.

If he doesn’t, it really doesn’t matter.

Kiffin’s best moves haven’t even been on game day. He helped repair the locker room by getting Randy Moss out of town. This was a positive move even if Moss catches 100 passes for 2,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in New England, sending a message that Kiffin is intolerant of indifference. He’s established an offensive identity for the first time since 2002.

Offensive line coach Tom Cable has done the best job of any position coach in the NFL. No way anyone else is close.

Defensively, Rob Ryan’s defense hasn’t clicked as well as he or anyone else had hoped through four games. There are mistakes and assignment errors against both the run and the pass, and the substitution patterns, particularly along the defensive front, seem strange.

Arm-chair defensive coordinators are having a field day with Ryan’s strategy, although it’s dangerous territory for anyone who puts in a few hours a week watching and reading about football to match wits with someone who has been doing it his entire adult life.

The real issue is that Ryan’s defense hasn’t played with the sort of cohesiveness anyone would have expected from a team that returned all its starters. The problem isn’t the defenses Ryan is calling as much as it is getting his players to execute the defenses he is calling.

As much as the players detested Ted Daisher and like replacement Brian Schneider, special teams are not any better as yet under Schneider’s watch.

OVERALL: C — A .500 record is average no matter how you look at it, although the Raiders get stars a the bottom of their report card which note they have made great strides after four years wallowing at the bottom of the class curve.

Your own grades, of course are welcomed and encouraged . . .

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