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If Raiders can get run game going, many other pieces will fall into place

Offensive lineThe Raiders have now made their way through two games and have the same number of touchdowns to show for it.  Teams that start 0-2 are by no means eliminated from playoffs but with a very tough schedule coming up with Pittsburgh, Denver and Atlanta – all playoff teams last year and all looking to be very solid this year as well – a 0-5 start is entirely possible.

But this year was never a playoff-likely year.  Playoffs were a possibility (and they still are) but this year was never really a playoff-expectation year.  Playoffs were a bonus, not an expectation.

This season has always been more about building for the future and initiating the massive amount of change that comes with a new owner, first time GM, first time head coach, first time defensive coordinator, new offensive coordinator and the resulting personnel and schematic changes that also follow.

There has been much hand-wringing about the Raiders offensive struggles through the first two games and rightfully so.  The offense – and the rushing offense in particular – has looked terrible.  There is some light at the end of this tunnel, however.

If the Raiders can get the zone blocking scheme (ZBS) that Knapp and Allen prefer working well, it will fix or improve a number of the ills of the 2012 squad.

First, I’d like to address ZBS itself.  There are many who do not believe it can be an effective scheme.  I’ve never been able to understand this.  There are any number of teams that have used the scheme with success.  Whether or not one is a believer in Knapp as a play-caller has nothing to do with the scheme.  It’s been shown time and time again in the NFL that zone blocking can and does work as a scheme.  In fact, Allen, a defensive-minded coach, is himself a proponent of the scheme because it is difficult to defend against!

Zone blocking is, however, much more complicated than most other offensive schemes.  It takes intelligent, athletic linemen to execute a blocking scheme with a coordinated effort and the offensive line must be disciplined and must work in concert.  Like any complicated scheme, this can take some time as the players must learn how the blocking schemes work and learn them so well that they can execute without thinking about them.

The Raiders offensive line has not yet achieved this.  They’ve shown flashes but they’ve been muted flashes, only.  The team is a mix of old and young players some with zone experience and some without.  They must learn how to work with each other and the nuances of the scheme.  I’m sure Allen and the rest of the coaches wished that had been completed in training camp but it doesn’t always go as quickly as we’d like.

However, the bright news is that the Raiders offensive line is still learning.  They have the talent along the line to be able to win the battle with the opposing defensive line as long as they are able start playing and stop thinking while still executing the scheme appropriately.

I hear a number of comments from Raiders fans that complain about why the Raiders chose to change schemes anyway since the 2011 offense was clicking well.  I get that complaint, it’s frustrating to see the regression and changing to Knapp’s possession offense with the zone blocking offensive line may not be the best thing for the 2011 team.

I do, however, argue that implanting a scheme-based offense and defense is the best thing for the team, long term.  I argue that a scheme-based team, in general, is much better than the opposite.  Here is the thinking – if you have a scheme already in place you are better able to find players that fit that scheme and you are better able to find players who may not be elite but whose skillset can plug into the system and bring out the best in the player while masking the weaknesses.

It doesn’t mean that the team has to be so locked in that they don’t make changes and every team should work around the players they have but the importance of the Raiders having one, set, solid scheme that they can build upon for more than a year or two cannot be understated.  I am not the only one who is of the opinion that much of the Raiders’ difficulties are the result of so much constant coaching turnover and changing philosophies from year to year.

If the Raiders can, in fact, work out many of the kinks in their zone blocking and begin to run the ball to at least an average level, it will have a ripple effect on the rest of the team. 

First, Knapp’s offense is a possession offense.  He has no problem using all three downs as long as he can get the 1st down on 3rd down.  This all comes down to creating favorable down and distance and if the team can’t run, it can’t advance to 3rd and short situations.

Second, the passing game wants to be based more on play-action.  Play-action cannot be as successful if the defense does not believe it and if the team is unable to run the defenders are less likely to believe the play-action fakes.  The Raiders need the run to be successful to draw the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage so they can go vertical more often and with greater success.

A successful run game will not only help the offense, though, it will help the defense, too.  Playing defense is harder than playing offense because the offense knows where the ball is going where the defense does not.  Defenders use more energy than the offense in trying to defend which is why defenses have a greater tendency to wear down as games go on.  The defensive line, especially, can get worn out with a great number of snaps.

So, if the offense can get their running game on track, it will allow the Raiders offense to stay on the field longer and longer, which gives the defenders a greater break before having to go out and play again.  This will help keep the defense more fresh and allow them to be more dominant during their time on the field.

Likewise, it will wear down the opposing defense and will open up scoring later in the game for the Raiders offense if they can keep driving down the field consistently.

There is a lot to dislike in the first two games this season but I put the running game at the top of the list (with special teams’ abysmal play).  If the Raiders can get their running game on track, they can drastically improve their offense and defense.  It remains to be seen if they will be able to do this in a timely manner but I like the players on the line and think they have the appropriate skill set to be able to excel.  I expect that when things start to click, they will move forward very quickly and I would expect the coaches to make the run game a focus until things improve.

For more Raiders news and analysis throughout the day, follow me on Twitter @AsherMathews