- Gary Horton, Scouts Inc.
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After breaking down film of the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers, Scouts Inc. runs down what to pay attention to during their matchup Thursday night, including a struggling LaDainian Tomlinson, red zone offense and Nnamdi Asomugha's impact.
• The Chargers' rushing attack has gone from the most dangerous run game in the NFL to a sluggish attack that generates few big plays and keeps future Hall of Fame back Tomlinson totally frustrated. The Raiders are ranked No. 29 against the run, so this could change, but last week LT generated only 24 yards against the Falcons' run defense, ranked No. 30. The line gets no push; they are not very physical; and by the time LT gets to the hole, it closes up. Compounding the issue is the fact that because the run game struggles, coach Norv Turner abandons it too early. This offense has become a pass-first attack. Tomlinson needs to have a big night with at least 25 carries, not only to boost his confidence, but also to lift the spirits of the entire team.
• You can blame his supporting cast, but the fact is that Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell does not look anything like a first-overall pick. He teases scouts with good play at times, but he is woefully inconsistent from week to week. He is not natural with his reads, he struggles to find his second or third options, and he doesn't always identify coverages. As a result, a lot of his passes are safe checkdowns to backs or short passes to TE Zach Miller. Without big-play wide receivers, the Raiders may move RB Darren McFadden outside to at least open things up and give Russell an explosive perimeter target.
• These two offenses are not very good in the red zone. Oakland is ranked No. 30, with only 10 touchdowns in 29 trips, while San Diego is ranked No. 23, with 21 touchdowns in 44 trips. The Raiders run the ball effectively between the 20-yard lines, but they struggle close to the goal line, even though they have quality physical backs in Justin Fargas and Michael Bush. Look for them to use McFadden near the goal line as a runner or receiver. Russell will also look to Miller on play-action over the middle because the Chargers' safeties are not very good in man coverage against opposing tight ends.
The Chargers do not run the ball effectively in any situation, so defenses are not threatened by them in the red zone. That puts more pressure on QB Philip Rivers and the passing game. Oakland will play man coverage in this situation, and that will make it even tougher for the Chargers.
• Oakland and San Diego are both near the bottom of the league in time of possession. Neither does a good job of converting on third down or getting off the field on third down. The Raiders stay committed to the run on first and second down, but their pass offense is so bad that the chances of dialing up a good third-down pass play is almost nonexistent. Meanwhile, the Chargers don't trust their run game, so they become pass-heavy and predictable, which also leads to a lot of three-and-outs. In this matchup, the Raiders will likely try to eat up the clock with the run because they are not explosive enough to get into a high-scoring game with the more explosive Chargers.
• The Chargers have the NFL's 29th-ranked pass defense and only seven interceptions, and they struggle to create any big plays. Part of the problem is the total lack of a pass rush. The only legitimate rusher they have with LB Shawne Merriman out is OLB Shaun Phillips, but offenses have put together schemes against him. A year ago, the Chargers' defensive backs did a great job of jumping routes because they knew the quarterback would have to get the ball out quickly, and that led to a lot of their big plays. This year they are still jumping routes, but without the same pressure up front: The quarterback is getting time, the receivers are making double moves, and the corners cannot hold coverage long enough. The good news for San Diego is that Oakland is last in passing and has given up 32 sacks.
• The Raiders may have the least explosive offense in the NFL, even though they have some playmakers, especially at running back. Russell rarely attacks deep, even though he has a big arm, because he has a group of subpar receivers who can't beat man coverage. Miller is a good pass-catching tight end, but he is not a deep threat: Most of his catches are dump-offs or hot reads. The only big-play option is McFadden, and he can make big plays as a runner, receiver or even as a quarterback in the Wildcat formation. He needs 20 touches in this game, and the Raiders should at least try to stretch the field against a struggling Chargers' pass defense.
• Asomugha is one of the most respected defensive backs in the league, and many of his admirers think he is the best pure cover corner in the NFL. Much like Broncos CB Champ Bailey in his prime, quarterbacks do not throw to Asomugha's side and rarely even look his way -- even though he usually matches up on the offense's best receiver. Asomugha breaks on the ball well, can turn and run, has excellent hands, and has rare instincts. But his best feature may be his attention to film study -- he knows all the moves that he will see on game day because of his preparation.
• Oakland could open up the passing game early to surprise and take advantage of the Chargers' subpar secondary, score quickly, and then protect their lead with a time-consuming run game. It's not their style, but what do they have to lose?
• Even though the Chargers are throwing the ball more than they are running it, their passing game has become conservative and predictable. Rivers is not throwing the ball to his wide receivers on the perimeter, and he's not going deep enough to try to create big plays. An explosive pass attack would force Oakland to play more coverage schemes and open up better blocking angles for Tomlinson. This would also give TE Antonio Gates more room to work underneath and in the middle of the field.
• Most offenses do not throw to Asomugha's side because of his outstanding cover skills, and he will go through entire games where he will get very little action. To get him more involved in coverage, the Raiders will move him inside in man coverage when they are facing an elite tight end, like Gates. With only adequate threats out wide for San Diego, the Raiders can probably get away with not having Asomugha stay out wide. If he can neutralize Gates, it takes away one of Rivers' favorite targets.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm, The War Room.