WEAPONS IN THE RAIDERS' BACKFIELD **
Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio is very familiar with the Raiders' running backs. He was Maurice Jones-Drew's head coach from 2006-2011. Jones-Drew was selected to the Pro Bowl during Del Rio's final three seasons in Jacksonville. Del Rio has never coached Darren McFadden, but his defenses have faced him multiple times.
While the Raiders hold an 0-8 record this season, Del Rio was complimentary of their run game design.
"I had one in Jacksonville myself and played against the other one," Del Rio said during his Thursday press conference. "So I think they've got good skill people, good design—good people playing hard. So we're gearing up to play our best. For us it's about being as good as we can be every time out and so we're anxious to get back on the grass and get after it on Sunday."
The Broncos were on the prowl for some turnovers at practice Thursday, working on stripping the ball carrier and pouncing on loose footballs.
Darren McFadden leads the team with 358 yards on the ground and two rushing touchdowns. Jones-Drew's first season in Oakland started slow as he missed two games this season with a hand injury and has totaled 54 yards on 26 carries.
Del Rio, who watched Jones-Drew blossom into one of the league's top backs in his prime, had very kind words for his former player.
"He remains, to me, one of the guys in the league who is as smart and tough as anybody and he was a special player for me in Jacksonville," Del Rio said.
Jones-Drew, McFadden and the rest of the Raiders' running back corps have a tough task ahead of them on Sunday as they will face the Broncos' No. 1 rush defense. While the Raiders are last in the league in rushing yards per game, they haven't had the opportunity to gain momentum on the ground as they have fallen behind in games so frequently, forcing them to throw the ball.
While the Patriots were able to score 24 points in the second quarter of Sunday's game, the third quarter produced a reccuring problem in the Broncos' defense: third-and-long conversions.
During that quarter, the Patriots were 3-of-6 on third down and 1-for-1 on fourth down and possessed the ball for 10:44. All three of those conversions were on third-and-7 or longer. Del Rio said it's vital that the defense execute in those situations.
"We haven't executed at the efficiency that we expect in those situations," Del Rio said. "We've got good rush, we've got good coverage people, we've got good design and we'll be better at it. There are some areas we've been really good in and some areas we need to improve in. I don't get asked much about the real good ones (laughing). A couple of those bad ones we'll work on. That's certainly one. Anytime we get people in third and long, we expect to win. We've got really good rush up front. We've got really good coverage people in the back. We know we're sound in what we're doing so we just need to execute a little better."
The Patriots were allowed to convert on 37.5 percent of their third downs, the fourth-highest the Broncos have allowed all season. Two of those conversions in the third quarter were Tom Brady finding Danny Amendola for extra yardage, one a 21-yard gain and the other a 14-yard gain. The drive with the latter resulted in a Rob Gronkowski touchdown.
Del Rio noted that the defense cannot allow itself to get frustrated with the lack of success on third down.
"To me, you want to be purposeful, you want to make sure that you're executing and frustration typically doesn't lead to execution. We're most interested in being poised, being smart, being tough, playing good football and part of that is taking advantage of those situations and winning those situations.
"The good part is we're getting them in those third-and-longs. That is not easy to do. We want to capitalize on it and take advantage of that."
While Sunday's performance on defense wasn't the Broncos' best, overall the team's third-down D ranks in the top ten in the NFL, as they are holding teams to a 37.4 conversion rate.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BALL'S RETURN
Montee Ball returned to practice on Tuesday 12 pounds lighter than when he injured his groin a month before.
Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase said as Ball continues to progress, he will get back into playing shape and that they will "get some more food in him."
"I'm sure any time you drop 12 pounds, you're going to have a little more shape to you," Gase said. "I just don't want him to lose his game in the fact that he can move the pile and get the tough yards."
Ball played in three full games before injuring his groin against Arizona. During that time, he gained 165 yards with an average of 3.5 yards per carry. In Ball's absence, Ronnie Hillman has taken the reigns of the run game. In his four starts, he has averaged 74.8 yards per game and helped the run game take significant steps forward in balancing the Broncos' offense.
While Ball's status for Sunday's game is unclear, he was limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday. But, his status as the starter is questionable and it appears that there may be competition for the No. 1 spot. Gase said "It's always a good thing" when there's competition at a position and that he would "probably" go with the hot hand at back once Ball returns.
"Every day we're competing no matter what the position is," Gase said. "That group has done a good job. The holes that have been there they have hit and have gotten positive yards when there hasn't been anything there. Ronnie has done a great job of finding things that aren't really there. He's really improved in his whole game this year compared to where he was last year."
After three consecutive weeks of strong production from the run game, Sunday's game only produced 43 yards on the ground for the Broncos. Gase said he was frustrated that they couldn't run the ball better.
"We have to find a way to get these guys covered up, get our backs back to the line of the scrimmage and see what they can do," Gase said. "It's hard to make any ground when you're getting hit behind the line of scrimmage. That's where it starts. It starts with those front five guys making sure we've got guys covered up. Then it's the backs' job to find the hole and hit it. Once we start doing that on a consistent basis [we'll be fine], but until then, that's what it's going to look like. We've got to man up and start blocking better."