Raiders

Raiders' Focus: Breaking Down the Beat Up Dolphins

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Raiders' Focus: Breaking Down the Beat Up Dolphins

Nov. 22, 2010RAIDERS PAGE RAIDERS VIDEOMIAMI PAGERich Libero
Comcast SportsNet

After a physically nasty showdown in Pittsburgh, the Raiders will face another ex-1970s rival on Sunday when they host the banged-up Miami Dolphins.

A Raiders-Dolphins matchup used to represent a showdown between perennial powerhouses. These days, it marks a matchup of two teams trying to re-join the NFL Contenders Club. The conclusion of the game will yield some answers as to which organization is indeed closer to playoff reality in 2010.

The Dolphins enjoyed a Pyrrhic victory over the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 14. The win lifted them to 5-4 and put them in residence with other AFC Wild Card hopefuls. But in the process of winning 29-17, they lost two quarterbacks, a starting center, their prized left tackle and a safety. The losses were too great to overcome in time for their Thursday home game against the Chicago Bears -- a nationally televised 16-0 loss. Additionally, the Dolphins lost backup center Corey Proctor to a torn ACL early in that game.

Offensive coordinator Dan Henning called only seven running plays against the Bears. The offense sputtered with untimely penalties, sacks and turnovers that conspired to waste excellent field position. All in all, the Dolphins performed like the 1-15 team from 2007.

Heres what the Raiders can expect on Sunday:

Coaching: The Dolphins are a potential disaster waiting to happen. A loss could send their season into a complete finger-pointing tailspin. Coach Tony Sparano draws the bulk of the criticism, but Henning is also deservedly under fire from both fans and the media. Hennings conservative playcalling is often mixed with puzzling, momentum-killing play selection. Miami ranks in the bottom five of the league in deep passing attempts over 21 yards. Expect lots of check-downs and wide receiver screens. Receiver Devon Bess is an excellent third down target with good yards-after-catch ability. Fullback Lousaka Polite is all but unstoppable on third- and fourth- and-short situations.

ESPN analyst and former NFL offensive lineman Mark Schlereth hammered Henning after the loss to the Bears: "That's an awful job by that coaching staff regardless," Schlereth said. "Their best 11 guys are when they get into their Wildcat formation, no disrespect to Tyler Thigpen. They got into the Wildcat exactly zero times on Thursday night, they did not run the ball at all on Thursday night. ... I've heard excuses coming out of Miami, I've heard people talking about, 'You know, We have a beat-up offensive line.' All the more reason that you run the football. Let me tell you something, pass protection in this league is 10 times harder than run blocking: assignment-wise, picking up blitz, all those different things.

Bill Parcells stepped down from his role as head of football operations in September. The general manager and the entire coaching staff could be feeling the heat if they fail to conclude the season in strong fashion. Injuries will be used as an excuse, but the bottom line is that this team is not a playoff contender -- on paper or the field -- at this stage. Another season of housecleaning could be in the offing, but with its fairly soft end-of-season schedule the team should realistically finish around 8-8.

In terms of injuries, starting center Joe Berger is expected to be back in the lineup while the Dolphins have worked out a couple of left tackle candidates with the idea of shutting down Jake Long and his recently dislocated shoulder. Diva receiver Brandon Marshall tweaked his hamstring and might not be 100 percent for Sunday.

Miami Offense: Thigpen is a bit of a gambler with a solid arm and great scrambling ability. Raiders fans will remember him as an emergency starter for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams provide a formidable 1-2 punch out of the backfield, but the Dolphins have not run the ball effectively this season. The front office spent much of the offseason mysteriously tinkering with an offensive line that rolled up over 2,200 rushing yards last season. The once-strongest unit on the team is now officially eligible for national disaster relief. The Wildcat is also a shambles, averaging less than two yards per carry heading into the Tennessee game. The trendy formation resides in mothballs these days, although Henning did whip it out for three plays against the Titans after Chad Henne hurt his knee.

With Thigpens legs and Miamis experience running the Cat, fans and media expected all kinds of gadgetry against the Bears, but Henning kept things pretty vanilla. It will be interesting to see if that changes this week in Oakland.

Miami Defense: The defense has performed fairly well this season despite constant flux along the line and secondary. Sean Smith started at cornerback as a rookie, but lost his job in training camp to former first-rounder Jason Allen before winning it back. Allen was released before the Titans game and replaced by former Packer Al Harris. Cameron Wake continues to excel as the Dolphins' best pass rusher with 9.5 sacks. And nose tackle Paul Soliai is having a breakthrough season in his third year. Karlos Dansby, the teams best linebacker, did not practice Monday and may be nicked up.

Can the Raiders win? The real question should be: How BIG will the Raiders' margin of victory be? It wont matter how many days the Dolphins have to prepare. They have too many injuries to too many key players. The offensive coordinator has had an awful year, special teams punt protection and kick return coverage has been awful and the Dolphins are, at 5-5, a ticking time bomb. Throw in the overall length of the trip and the Raiders should be the lock of locks this week.
Rich Libero is the vice president of digital content for Comcast Sports Group and the author of the book This Could Be The Year: My 30 Years as a Miami Dolphins fan.

How John Pagano plans to impact Raiders defense: ‘There is always room for change’

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USATSI

How John Pagano plans to impact Raiders defense: ‘There is always room for change’

ALAMEDA – John Pagano can’t implement his scheme in a week. He can’t import his plays and preferences cultivated during five seasons as Chargers defensive coordinator. Full offseason programs and training camps are required for that.

Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was fired on Tuesday. Pagano will call his first Raiders game five days later against Denver at Oakland Coliseum. The Raiders’ assistant head coach – defense believes he can impact how the Silver and Black does business.

“There’s always room for change and there’s always room for doing things better,” Pagano said Thursday. “Without telling you our game plan, it’s about how we go out and execute the call, bottom line.”

Head coach Jack Del Rio said the Raiders weren’t playing fast enough. They weren’t creating enough turnovers, weren’t doing well enough on third down and weren’t regularly affecting the quarterback due to a lack of both rush and coverage.

That’s why Norton had to go.

Pagano’s first objective, which must get accomplished in a few days, is getting the Raiders to play with confidence. Then he can add some design wrinkles with some of his personality.

“You have to have that ability of going out there, knowing your assignment and playing faster,” Pagano said. “It’s not to say that there have been times where we’ve simplified things, but taking the thinking out of the game and making them react is, I think, most important. Going out there and playing fast and that’s doing the little extra things, the attention to details of studying and getting those things processed. See ball, go get ball.”

That last sentence sums up how Pagano wants his guys to play. He’s a quality play caller and creative blitzer with a knack making simple plays look complex. He can find and exploit opposing weak links. His defenses have always been good creating pressure and turnovers alike. The Raiders need more of both.

To do that Pagano wants to relieve a player’s mental burden and keep them focused on using talent well.

“The one thing I’ve always stressed and always been about is technique, fundamentals and unbelievable effort,” Pagano said. “I think those three things can get you home.”

The Raiders haven’t been home much as a defense. They’re tied for last with 14 sacks. They’re dead last with six turnovers. They’ve gone 10 games without an interception, the longest single-season drought in NFL history.

A lack of big defensive plays has killed the Raiders this season. It obviously increases points allowed. Good field position has been hard to come by. The offense has to earn everything the hard way. That’s a recipe for losing football, a maddening turn after the Raiders finished second with 30 takeaways last year.

Pagano has a chart listing “MOPs,” short for missed opportunities. There have been many, especially in a secondary he oversaw before this week.

“I talked to these guys this week about we need to do simple better,” Pagano said. “What is simple? It’s fundamentals of covering. It’s tackling. It’s communicating. It’s catching the ball when it comes. We’ve had opportunities. It’s not like we’re out there struggling and straining to dive and layout for the thing. It’s hit us in the hands where we’ve had many, many opportunities.”

Missed opportunities have also plagued a pass rush featuring reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack. Pagano brought up a moment early in Sunday’s lost to New England, when Treyvon Hester forced a fumble near three teammates that the Patriots somehow recovered.

Pagano’s goal is to improve performance. Players must buy in to do that. Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin headline a large group close to Norton, one with enough pride and professionalism to get behind a new playcaller in Pagano, who could be here long term.

“There is a human element to this,” Pagano said. “We are family. It’s sad any time a member of your family gets dismissed or something. At the end of the day, we have the Broncos coming in here on Sunday and we have to get our minds right to go play this game. That’s something that they’ve done a great job with this week, truly focusing in on what we need to do.”

Irvin, Mack given a day off from Raiders practice

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USATSI

Irvin, Mack given a day off from Raiders practice

ALAMEDA – Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin were out at Raiders practice Wednesday for the stretching period. Both edge rushers left one-at-a-time during the individual period, which was open to the press, headed into the main building and did not return.

There was no perceived reaction, certainly no surprise, from the coaching staff or players on the field. Irvin and new defensive coordinator John Pagano were seen joking around on the field before practice began in earnest. 

Both Irvin and Mack were given a practice off. A Raiders official called it a day off/rest-type day that was not injury related. The Silver and Black typically practice in pads or shells on Wednesday, but were in jerseys and sweats in the interest of recovery.

This day off's timing did raise an eyebrow.

Wednesday marked the first practice Irvin has missed since training camp. Mack hasn’t missed one in months.

Mack and Irvin’s downtime also came a day after beloved defensive coordinator Ken Norton’s firing.

Several defensive players were upset about Norton's firing, but Mack and Irvin especially were among those loyal to Norton. Mack and Norton developed a bond after the coach was named defensive coordinator in 2015. Norton and Irvin go way back to their days together in Seattle. Irvin credits Norton for helping him get on the right path and stay there.

Neither player was happy Norton got the axe. Irvin made his displeasure clear, tweeting “BULLS***” shortly after news of Norton’s demise broke. Mack told ESPN “I like to keep my thoughts private.” Defensive stars declined comment Wednesday or didn't appear in the locker room when the media was present. 

It isn’t immediately clear if the non-injury related day off was related to Norton’s dismissal. Head coach Jack Del Rio won’t speak to the media again until Friday. New defensive coordinator John Pagano is scheduled to speak Thursday afternoon.

Del Rio addressed the media before Wednesday’s practice, and was asked how he’ll handle players unhappy with the in-season shake-up.

“I don’t try and 'handle' them,” Del Rio said. “I think the biggest thing is to understand the relationship, respect that, give him a little space and then at the end of the day, we’re going to get on with our work. But, I’m human. It wasn’t easy for me either.”