ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If Terrelle Pryor and the Raiders offense were a skyscraper rising on the NFL landscape, there would be plenty of signs nearby that read, "under construction."
This isn't the worst thing for the electric young quarterback and an offense that has pivoted 180 degrees to capitalize off his explosive speed to the edges, his hair-raising improvisational skills and bullet passes. Oakland's coaches are still learning about what Pryor can do, and are building an offense with the belief that at some point this season, he'll be able to diversify his skill set.
But what is already apparent through just three NFL starts is Pryor's ability to flummox a defense.
It's not uncommon to see him start a play by dropping back, sprint in one direction, then circle back in the opposite direction before firing a pass, eluding three defenders along the way before getting hit by a fourth as he released. And in spite of taking such a meandering, 10-second journey, he completes it -- as he did on a 17-yard toss to wide receiver Rod Streater in the fourth quarter at Indianapolis two weeks ago; that third-and-10 connection put Oakland in goal-to-go and set up a touchdown three plays later.
This is Pryor at his best; he frustrates defensive linemen, draws a safety up from coverage, and then capitalizes off the downfield gap he creates and exploits a fatigued cornerback who was finally shaken free by the receiver. On that connection, Streater started by running down the seam, then cut right, left and then circled back right again before Pryor found him.
"Guys like (Pryor), we know that he's going to extend plays, so we have to plaster -- and by plastering, I mean, find our man and don't lose him," said Broncos cornerback
And then there is the zone read, which you certainly remember from its frequent use during Tim Tebow's 18 starts, particularly in the 2011 season. But the Raiders' zone read -- which was used on 10 snaps in Week 1 and twice as many in Week 2 -- looks different, and that starts with Pryor's speed, which is considerably more than Tebow's and reveals itself when he sprints to the outside.
Against Jacksonville, Oakland used the threat of Pryor's burst to the edge to catch the over-committing Jaguars linebackers out of position. They followed the expected flow of the play too far outside to overcompensate for Pryor, who has run for 75 yards on 11 carries out of the zone-read looks, along with 87 yards on 11 carries on other plays to give him 162 yards -- which places him on a 1,296-yard pace for the season. (No NFL quarterback has ever run for more than the 1,039 yards compiled by then-Falcon Michael Vick in 2006.)
With the Jaguars consumed with defending Pryor, they were gashed up the middle on carries by McFadden and Rashad Jennings, who combined for 77 yards on 10 carries out of the zone read that day. (The two running backs had 84 yards on 13 carries on all other plays.)
But if Pryor and the Raiders are to take their zone read to the next level -- and their entire offense with it -- they must nurture its effectiveness in the passing game. Pryor was slightly more inclined to pass in this scenario last week, firing away on 25 percent of the zone-read plays, compared to 20 percent last week. But a total of 20 yards on 3-of-7 passing out of the zone read so far this season will not do much to spur defenses into a guessing game when Oakland shows a zone-read look. If the pass frequency, accuracy and downfield threat don't improve, opponents may see fit to advance their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage or even bring their cornerbacks inside to better clog potential lanes that Pryor has been known to sprint toward on the edge.
There is evidence that Pryor can exploit defenses that overcommit; the aforementioned strike to Streater and a 41-yard pass to tight end Jeron Mastrud two weeks ago offer evidence. But just 20 of the 41 yards Mastrud gained were on the pass itself; the rest came after the catch, so the deep threat has yet to materialize.
Pryor has the arm strength to sling it downfield, but the accuracy and timing with his targets was not yet in evidence in the first two games. Eventually, this will matter, and if the Raiders and Pryor are to evolve, eventually they will have to create some semblance of a downfield threat that doesn't rely solely upon Pryor running around behind the line of scrimmage to buy time for his receivers.
But until Pryor grows more confident and effective stretching the field with his arm, the Raiders' run game represents their best chance of an upset Monday. Thanks to Pryor's feet and his ability to take the focus off McFadden, the Raiders' suddenly-diverse ground game amassed more yards in the first two weeks than anyone else, even with little tangible threat of the deep pass.
"The quarterback run threat: we have to be ready for that," Harris said. "We've been preparing for teams like this for a while, because we knew we had a lot of teams like this on our schedule.
"We have to stop the run. If we don't stop the run, it's going to be a long day."