Every Play Counts is Michael David Smith's weekly look at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game.
As I went through the stat lines from all the box scores from last weekend's NFL action, this one stood out above all the others:
JaMarcus Russell: 10-11, 152 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions
Really? JaMarcus Russell? The Raiders' quarterback who had barely completed half his passes this season? The guy who had a game earlier this month when he threw the ball 19 times and only had six completions for 31 yards to show for it? That guy completed more than 90 percent of his passes in a game, for almost 14 yards a pass? And the Raiders beat the Broncos 31-10 after getting blown out 41-14 in the season opener? How is this possible?
To find out, I watched the Raiders-Broncos game for this week's Every Play Counts.
The first thing I should say is that the Broncos' pass defense stinks. I point that out not to be dismissive of a good day from Russell -- I'll have plenty of good things to say about him -- but simply to make clear that I don't see Russell having a lot more games where his passer rating is in the 150 range, as it was on Sunday.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, who has as good a track record as anyone for predicting the NFL success of college quarterbacks, described Russell as having the most exciting skill set of any quarterback he had ever seen coming out of college football. And watching Russell against the Broncos, it was those raw physical skills that really leaped out at me.
Russell's first pass of the second half was absolutely amazing. On first-and-10 from the Raiders' own 30-yard line, Russell took a seven-step drop, almost back to the 20-yard line, and then threw deep down the right side of the field to wide receiver Ashley Lelie, who made a nice leaping catch to grab it for a 51-yard gain. That pass traveled about 60 yards in the air, and Russell looked when he was throwing it like he was just playing a friendly game of catch. I'd love to see how far he could throw a football if he really put his whole body into it.
Another beautiful pass from Russell came on a play that isn't reflected in the stats: On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Raiders had first-and-10 at the Broncos' 30-yard line. Running back Darren McFadden was lined up as a wide receiver on the right side of the field, with Broncos cornerback Marquand Manuel in single coverage. Russell took a five-step drop and gently lobbed the ball to the corner of the end zone, and Manuel just cut off McFadden's route, taking a 24-yard pass interference penalty on a Russell pass that may very well have otherwise been a 30-yard touchdown. It was smart recognition by Russell to see the single coverage, and another beautifully thrown deep ball.
Two plays later, Russell got the touchdown pass that Manuel's pass interference denied him. On second-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Russell faked a handoff, felt pressure coming, backpedaled about 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage, looked to his right, saw pressure in his face from Broncos defensive end John Engelberger, looked to his left, saw Ashley Lelie crossing the field in the middle of the end zone, flung the ball off his back foot and hit Lelie right between the numbers for a touchdown.
I've heard some TV commentators say Russell shouldn't have thrown that ball at all because there were two Broncos in the vicinity, but I disagree. It's not that a quarterback can never throw into double coverage, it's just that a quarterback has to know he can put the throw on the money. In this case, Russell did, because he has a strong enough arm to throw a bullet off his back foot when he has a defender coming at him.
On that play, I liked the way Russell avoided the pass rush. But while Russell was never sacked against the Broncos, he could certainly stand to get better at reading blitzes and delivering the ball more quickly: He's already been sacked 26 times this season on just 249 pass attempts. That's way too many.
The good news is that Russell is a natural when it comes to throwing on the move. In the second quarter, with the Raiders facing second-and-7 from the Broncos' 33-yard line, Russell faked a pitch to the left and rolled out to his right, where he had two choices: He could either make the easy, safe throw to Ronald Curry, who was dragging across the field a few yards in front of him, or he could make the tough, risky throw downfield to tight end Zach Miller, who was running a seam route between two Denver defenders. Russell chose the tough throw and delivered it beautifully, throwing across his body and hitting Miller for a 30-yard gain. That's tough to do.
As Russell gets more comfortable recognizing the blitz schemes that NFL defenses throw at him (and as the Raiders, hopefully, put a better offensive line in front of him), I think he's going to cut way down on the number of sacks he takes.
I've focused mostly on plays that are a result of Russell's arm strength and athleticism, and the knocks on Russell have always been more about his decision making. So are those knocks valid?
To some extent they are. Russell's first pass of the day was one of his worst, when on a third-and-6 he threw a short pass to Miller, who caught it for just three yards, forcing the Raiders to punt. Russell homed in on Miller on that play and didn't seem to notice that wide receiver Chaz Schilens had run a slant route and gotten good inside position for what could have been a first down.
But Russell has such incredible physical tools that I believe if the Raiders put him in a good offense, run by a coach who knows how to take advantage of an athletic, strong-armed passer, he's Pro Bowl material. On a third-and-3 in the first quarter, when Russell rifled a 22-yard pass to Lelie, I thought to myself, "There aren't five other quarterbacks in the league who can make that throw."
If the Raiders can't find a way to take advantage of that kind of talent, they're more hopeless than any of us thought.
Every Play Counts: JaMarcus Russell originally appeared on NFL FanHouse on Tue, 25 Nov 2008 09:00:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.