When the Raiders and Broncos meet Sunday at O.co Coliseum, it will be the Raiders with the higher-ranked offense – a huge turnaround from recent seasons.
The Peyton Manning-led Broncos rank 27th in the NFL in yards per game (304). The Raiders are 17th, at 351.5 yards per game.
For the first time in a long while, it’s the Broncos’ defense that is the catalyst to the team’s 4-0 start.
When the 2-2 Raiders’ potentially explosive offense of Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and Latavius Murray looks across the line of scrimmage, it will see the NFL’s No. 1 defensive unit.
The Broncos give up just 275.5 yards per game and just 17.2 points per game. They’re also the best team in the league on third down (giving up a conversion just 25 percent of the time), have 18 sacks and 11 takeaways.
The Broncos pass rush is ferocious, so the Oakland offensive line will need to be at the top of its game to give Carr time to throw. Denver pass rushers DeMarcus Ware (25) and Von Miller (24), outside linebackers in the 3-4 scheme, lead the NFL in quarterback pressures. Ware leads the team with 4½ sacks.
Oakland tight end Lee Smith said this week that the Raiders might have success running the ball toward Ware and Miller to mitigate their effectiveness.
“You always try to run the ball at elite pass rushers, try to beat them up a little bit,” Smith told reporters. “You hope that would slow their pass rush down a little bit. But these guys are going to pin their ears back no matter what.”
The Broncos, however, also have been solid against the run, ranking No. 8 in the league. They’re allowing 90 yards per game on the ground. The Raiders, meanwhile, haven’t been able to pound the ball on the ground as well as they’d hoped. They rank No. 22 in the league, averaging 96.2 yards per game.
One thing the Raiders offense will have to do Sunday is contend with the Broncos’ blitzes, a key part of their success. According to ESPN, Denver blitzes on 37 percent of opponents’ dropbacks. In a victory over the Vikings this past week, the Broncos had seven sacks. So, Carr will have to make his reads quickly and get rid of the ball efficiently against the Broncos’ pressure.
It is, however, an area in which Carr has improved this season. As Bill Williamson of ESPN.com noted, Carr hasn’t been blitzed much this season, but when he has, he’s been very effective, averaging a league-best 11.2 yards per throw.
One advantage the Raiders may have is head coach Jack Del Rio, who was in charge of the Broncos defense the past three seasons. Carr, in fact, says Del Rio has helped him significantly this season in understanding defenses.
“That’s kind of where he’s been huge in my growth,” Carr said on a conference call with reporters this week. “He’ll show me clips and say, ‘Now this is the situation. This is the personnel they are in. This is why they’re doing it. This is the front. This is the stuff they’re doing and this is why.’ My football knowledge has grown from learning from him.”
He'll need all of that knowledge Sunday in a key AFC West game for the Raiders.