Raiders coach Tom Cable decided early on last week to dispense with misdirection.
With Bruce Gradkowski out with a separated throwing shoulder, Jason Campbell would be the quarterback. And it was made clear repeatedly during the week that Campbell would be executing a lot of handoffs.
Following a 28-13 win over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium Sunday, Cable and his team were like a boxer who called the round and then delivered.
“Identity” was the word of the week. Pick a Raider, any Raider, and it came up. The Raiders would get back to running the ball. As for that stout Chargers run defense, and the fact that the Raiders had only 70 yards in their previous two games?
The Raiders would run, or they would be done.
San Diego has by now removed those powder blue uniforms, adorned by cleat marks and grass stains. The Raiders offensive line served up more pancakes than an all-you-can-eat breakfast. When it was all over, the Raiders had run the ball 52 times, gained 251 yards and had three rushing touchdowns.
Darren McFadden was back on track with 19 carries for 97 yards and a game-clinching 7-yard run where he lowered his shoulder and brutalized Eric Weddle to get into the end zone.
Michael Bush contributed 23 carries for 95 yards, and his 7-yard scoring run in the first half was equally impressive in that he broke three tackles to make it into the end zone. Quarterback Jason Campbell had an artful 37 yards on seven carries, faking the entire San Diego defense with a play-fake on fourth-and-1 from the 9 and running all by himself into the end zone to his left. Even at that point, on its first possession, Oakland had been hammering at the Chargers with enough success that defenders were hopelessly biting on the run.
The Raiders ran for 111 yards on 25 carries in the first half while taking a 21-3 lead. They ran 27 times for 140 yards in the second half while maintaining it.
Only the week before, McFadden’s first two rushes lost three yards each, the Raiders lost yardage on five of 16 attempts and were held for no gain on two others.
Against San Diego, on the road, against a statistically superior run defense, the Raiders (excluding a kneel-down) didn’t lose yardage until the fourth quarter when Bush was hit for a 3-yard loss on the 38th rushing play. Of Oakland’s 52 carries, 45 were for positive yardage, four were for no gain, one was for the 3-yard loss and two were kneel-downs.
“Our main focus today was to get positive yards on first and second down and create the opportunity on third down to have the opportunity to make the first down,” Campbell said.
The Raiders ran a couple of reverses and no Wildcat. No spread option, either. Just a lot of basic meat-and-potatoes running plays which kept them in the thick of the AFC West race at 4-0.
“There really wasn’t any trickery,” Cable said.
Everything the Raiders did in this game was in large part due to their ability to control the game with the run.
“We told ourselves all week we wanted to stick with the run, whether it was working or not,” McFadden told reporters afterward. “We feel like we got back to our identity today. We wanted to run the ball and we did a great job with it.”
The early muffed punt return by Darren Sproles got things rolling, but Oakland started quickly with a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Miami and it meant little in the final result.
As good as Campbell is in terms of play-fakes, neither the touchdown run nor the 37-yard camera-fooling pass to Louis Murphy are possible without a defense that has been kicked repeatedly in the teeth.
Running not only helped Campbell with his efficiency and effectiveness, but it kept a defense fresh enough to choke off the Chargers running game and harass Philip Rivers (23-for-39, 280 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception) into an erratic performance.
“A tremendous football game by the Raiders,” Cable said. “Getting back to our identity, getting back to what we do best, and that’s play hard on defense, battle them in the kicking game and run the football . . . it’s a great job of pulling together and gettinb back to what I think we are.”
More news, notes and observations:
— The Raiders stumbled a bit in the third quarter and lost a pair of scoring opportunities to penalties (unnecessary roughness on Langston Walker, holding on Samson Satele), but generally maintained control of the game throughout. It didn’t have the same shock value of the explosion in Denver, but it came against a better team, at a place where the Raiders hadn’t won since 2002, in a game they absolutely had to have. The Raiders hadn’t swept the Chargers since 2001.
“They have been the big dogs for as long as I’ve been in the league,” defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said. “To come down there and beat them, to sweep them _ beat them at home and then come here and prove it wasn’t a fluke _ that says a lot right there.”
In short, it was the most noteworthy Raiders performance since Jan. 19, 2003, the day they beat Tennessee in the AFC championship game to go to the Super Bowl.
— Cable did just about everything right in this one, converting fourth-and-1 plays after the early turnovers, one on the 9-yard scoring run by Campbell, with Campbell also getting the first down on the second fourth-and-1 by following Satele for a 3-yard gain up the middle.
The end result justified his decision to kneel on the ball at the end of the half even though he had a time out left, 27 seconds to play and about 20 yards to go for a long-distance Sebastian Janikowski field goal attempt.
In the second half, Cable burned the Raiders final time out on an Antonio Gates reception after an 18-yard gain to the Chargers 43-yard line and 3:22 to play. San Diego trailed 28-13, but two touchdowns an extra-point and a two-point conversion could have tied the score in the extreme. The fact that the Raiders lost the challenge wasn’t the point. It stopped San Diego’s momentum and Rivers was incomplete on his next four passes.
— Rolando McClain blew up Sproles on a short pass over the middle, a costly 7-yard gain in that the Chargers lost one of their best offensive players with a concussion. There’s already a lot of “helmet-to-helmet” conjecture, but officials ruled it a catch-and-run (Sproles was not defenseless) and it seemed more like McClain got him with his shoulder not his head, although some of the Chargers players begged to differ.
McClain finished with seven tackles, and apparently his “arthritis,” according to the CBS broadcast crew, has been re-diagnosed as “tendinitis.”
— Instead of looking rattled and confused when faced with poor down and distance, Campbell was relaxed and in control. He completed 10 of 16 passes for 117 yards, a 12-yard touchdown to Jacoby Ford and no interceptions.
“Over the last two weeks, we’ve been in third and long situations and it’s been hard for us to stay on the field when you have to convert third and nine-plus all the time,” Campbell said. “Everything is predicated off our run game. We really just got back to the basics and guys did a good job coming off the ball today.”
Of his 37 yards rushing, Campbell credited the inspiration of a certain Heisman Trophy winner-to-be that attends his alma mater.
“Watching Cam Newton, I had to go back to my Auburn days and make some plays with my feet,” Campbell said.
It was evident Campbell played better with Gradkowski out of the picture.
“Today there was really a calmness about him,” Cable said. “I’ve felt for about three days now that he was confident and ready to go. He just did what you asked him to do.”
— San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers never got into a steady rhythm as Oakland stopped the run and applied mostly natural pressure with a blitz here and there.
“Even if we didn’t get sacks we had to hurry him,” defensive tackle Richard Seymour said. “We had to make him feel jittery in the pocket.”
— Cable said no Raiders failed to finish the game due to injury. Chaz Schilens saw limited action but didn’t catch a pass.
— Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey still hasn’t caught a pass since Oct. 31 (he wasn’t even targeted against San Diego), but his rub-off screen enabled Ford to get free for a 12-yard touchdown pass and he ran 14 yards with a reverse.