Friday, August 15, 2008

Raiders' Russell continues to impress

I’ve covered hundreds of NFL games from press boxes throughout the nation. This time I’m coming to you from my living room with some thoughts about the Raiders’ 17-16 exhibition road loss Friday night against the Tennessee Titans. Blogging, what a concept. I could get used to this.
  • The more I watch Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the more I like him. This guy is more than just a physical monster with a huge arm, more than an offensive lineman disguised as a quarterback.
    Sure, he’s a huge man and can throw the football from Oakland to Berkeley from his knees. But he’s also smooth. And cool under pressure. And, believe it or not, quick. That’s right, the big man can move. After all those offseason rumors that Russell was gaining weight and contemplating a switch to Sumo wrestling, he reported to mini-camp then training camp looking, well, not svelte, but nothing like a blimp.
  • Against the Titans, Russell consistently sidestepped rushers and rolled away from pressure. What’s more, he made sound, solid decisions and delivered accurate, high-speed darts. Russell hardly looked like a quarterback who has started just one regular-season NFL game. Raiders boss Al Davis, sitting in a box high above the field, had to like what he saw from his multi-million dollar investment as he outplayed Titans quarterback Vince Young.
  • Russell was at his best on the Raiders’ lone touchdown drive in the first half. He started the drive with a 22-yard strike to tight end Zach Miller, deep down the left seam. Russell then rolled to his right, avoiding pressure, and hit Ronald Curry along the right sideline for 12 more. Then he found Miller again over the middle for 14 and fullback Oren O’Neal in the flat for 3. On third-and-7 from the Titans’ 10, Russell sidestepped pressure again and gunned a pass over the middle to Miller – who else? – who made a diving catch in the end zone.
  • The Raiders’ defense did a decent job against the run, but I’m not convinced they’ve truly fixed what was such a huge problem last year. I’ll need some more proof before I believe a defense that ranked 31st against the run last year is ready to face the LaDainian Tomlinsons and Larry Johnsons of the AFC West. Here’s what caught my attention: When Tennessee rookie speedster Chris Johnson entered the game in the second quarter, he gained 15 yards on each of his first two carries. On Johnson’s second carry, safety Hiram made a touchdown-saving tackle. Later in the second quarter, Johnson added a 13-yard gain, part of the Titans’ 140-yard rushing night. Fortunately for the Raiders, they won’t see many running backs as fast as Tennessee’s Johnson. He ran a 4.24 40 at this year’s NFL combine, the fastest of any player.
  • What else can you say about running back Darren McFadden? He’s only a rookie but we’re already running out of superlatives to describe him. He carried six times for 44 yards against the Titans. His 26-yard burst set up Aaron Elling’s 56-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
  • Raiders coach Lane Kiffin might have to tie offensive tackle Mario Henderson to the bench before he gets one of his quarterbacks killed. Henderson’s man buried backup quarterback Andrew Walter with a blindside hit just after he released a pass. Walter got up slowly with blood flowing out of his nose. The Raiders traded up in the draft last year to get Henderson out of Florida State in the third round. They might want a do-over.
  • Titans rookie wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins did himself and the Cal Bears proud. Hawkins caught a 51-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, beating Michael Waddell along the right sideline, then cutting back inside. Hawkins also did some work over the middle, his forte at Cal. And he opened some eyes on special teams, returning punts and kickoffs. On one 24-yard kickoff return he broke a couple tackles. But after a return in the fourth quarter, Hawkins hobbled off the field.
  • Titans rookie tight end Craig Stevens, another ex-Bear, got onto the receiving stats sheet with an 8-yard catch. Anyone who watched Stevens at Cal knows he’ll quickly become a devastating blocker at the NFL level. He has plenty of speed and strength to excel. The question, as it always is with Stevens, is whether he can consistently hold onto the football.
  • Continuing the ex-Bear theme, Raiders running back Adimchinobi Echemandu broke a 72-yard run in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Raiders, he was caught from behind, O’Neal soon lost a fumble, and the Titans drove for the game-winning field goal.

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