Raiders embrace ground attack
ALAMEDA, Calif. — Turns out that even among NFL veterans the guys that tote the football get all the fame.
Quarterback Carson Palmer arrived in Oakland last month knowing he'd be playing with two talented running backs in Michael Bush and Darren McFadden.
The other guys that make the running game go were more of a mystery.
"I didn't know how well this offensive line and the fullback play," Palmer said. "I didn't know how good those guys were until I was here and witnessed it first hand. I didn't realize they were that dominant up front and that powerful upfront. It's been a pleasant surprise."
Jared Veldher, Stefen Wisniewski, Samson Satele, Cooper Carlisle and Khalif Barnes start on the offensive line with Joseph Barksdale and Stephon Heyer having also played key roles as reserves or extra blockers this season.
Marcel Reece and Manase Tonga are the Raider fullbacks and Kevin Boss and Brandon Myers have been primary tight ends this season.
Collectively, they have helped the Raiders become one of the dominant running teams in the NFL.
And it doesn't matter if it's the speedy McFadden or the physical style of Bush in the backfield.
"I think we've got great backs, in Darren and Bush," said Veldheer, who plays left tackle. "We know what. We knew that all along."
McFadden was the leading the NFL in rushing before going down with a foot injury. Bush, however, has stepped in and the overall running game still ranks third in the league.
Bush took over during the first quarter of the Raiders' loss to Kansas City on Oct. 23 and has averaged 115.3 yards in four games. McFadden has missed the past three with a foot sprain.
"It challenges you to just be sound in gap control and being disciplined," said Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith on playing the Raiders this Sunday. "Good offensive line, big solid offensive line, and running backs ... We have to be disciplined and make sure that everyone is in their gap and just be ready to tackle and put on your big boy pads."
The Raiders average 156.8 rushing yards and are tied for the league lead with 13 rushing touchdowns. The Raiders also lead the NFL in runs of 20 yards or more with 19.
Denver (5-5) at San Diego (4-6)
Tebowmania heads to Mission Bay, where the Chargers are drowning. They have lost five in a row, with their last victory coming at Denver, where Tim Tebow nearly rallied the Broncos to victory.
Tebow is 4-1 since supplanting Kyle Orton as Denver's starter, with three fourth-quarter comebacks.
"I obviously feel pretty comfortable with them. I played against them one and a half times (including last season), so that's the most I've played against any team," Tebow said. "I feel like I'll be able to know them pretty well."
Pittsburgh (7-3) at Kansas City (4-6)
Don't look for Kyle Orton, claimed on waivers by the Chiefs, to get much action this week. Tyler Palko, who played college ball in Pittsburgh and once was with the Steelers, gets the call at quarterback again. He didn't do much in a lopsided loss at New England on Monday night and needs Jackie Battle to get the running game off to a quick start.
That's hardly easy against this version of the Steel Curtain, which ranks second in overall defense and comes off a bye.
Houston (7-3) at Jacksonville (3-7)
Another quarterbacking change takes place in Houston, which also comes off a bye and must replace Matt Schaub, sidelined for the rest of the season with a right foot problem. Matt Leinart gets the call in what could be his final chance to prove he has the goods for the NFL.
Like Hanie, Leinart has plenty of help around him in RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, plus a solid defense. Star receiver Andre Johnson looks set to return after a six-week absence with a hamstring issue.
The Jags are good defensively, but other than Maurice Jones-Drew, they don't threaten offensively.
Minnesota (2-8) at Atlanta (6-4)
With Adrian Peterson likely to miss the game with a high left ankle sprain, the Vikings will be severely undermanned against a Falcons squad in the thick of the NFC wild-card chase. Minnesota has won four of its last five visits to the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons need to prosper the rest of the way to make the postseason.
Atlanta has its own injury issues and hopes rookie WR Julio Jones recovers from a right hamstring problem. But the Falcons won without him last week against the Titans, a more difficult foe than the Vikings.
Carolina (2-8) at Indianapolis (0-10)
OK, this might be it. With New England, Baltimore, Tennessee, Houston and Jacksonville — which just won at Indianapolis — on their radar, the Colts' best shot to avoid 0-16 ignominy could be in this one.
To get that win, though, the Colts must slow the No. 5 overall offense, led by dynamic rookie QB Cam Newton and revitalized wideout Steve Smith.
"We're not really in a position to judge anybody's record," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. "When you're 2-8, at that point we're all just kind of in the same boat. We're just looking to win. I'm sure they're looking at us the same way, saying this is great opportunity for us to right the ship."
Buffalo (5-5) at New York Jets (5-5)
The Jets do everything in bunches: two wins, three losses, three wins, two losses. Their offense has struggled as quarterback Mark Sanchez has regressed behind a suddenly ineffective offensive line. Rex Ryan, who was fined $75,000 this week for cursing out a fan during a loss to New England, was stunned by his defense's collapse against Tebow and the Broncos on Nov. 17.
Buffalo is in even worse shape, dropping three in a row, including 21-11 to the Jets, a game in which the Bills were manhandled. They won't have their best offensive player, RB Fred Jackson, who is sidelined the rest of the way by a right leg injury.
Coach Chan Gailey doesn't want to hear about sagging spirits, though.
"If you've got a professional football team that's in the hunt and I've got to go give them some kind of talk to keep them motivated, we're in trouble," Gailey said. "My feeling is that if you've got a team that is that fragile, you're in trouble. I believe we have guys that understand about fighting through tough times and fighting through adversity."
Cleveland (4-6) at Cincinnati (6-4)
Cincinnati's chore is easy: beat the dregs of the league and likely make the playoffs. After the Browns, the Bengals do have Houston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but also St. Louis and Arizona. A 9-7 mark might be good enough, and a win over one of those better teams would get Cincinnati to 10 wins and almost certainly a wild-card berth.
The Bengals won at Cleveland to open what has been an uplifting season even though they have lost to their toughest opponents, the Ravens, Steelers and 49ers. Rookie Andy Dalton has progressed nicely at quarterback, and the defense is strong.
Cleveland has the No. 1 pass defense in football, yardage-wise, but only because teams run the ball down the Browns' throat every week.
Tampa Bay (4-6) at Tennessee (5-5)
Tampa gave Green Bay all it could handle last week but, like so many times this season, the disappointing Bucs fell short.
They bring an old, uh, friend back to Tennessee in DT Albert Haynesworth, a former All-Pro in his Titans days and now a situational player for the Bucs. Whether he gets a chance to sack Matt Hasselbeck is problematic: Hasselbeck injured his right arm in a loss to Atlanta, but vows he will start Sunday with Tennessee still in the thick of the wild-card race.
Washington (3-7) at Seattle (4-6)
Seattle seems to have found some spark with consecutive victories over Baltimore and St. Louis. It's too late for the Seahawks to repeat their NFC West crown — they're on the verge of elimination — but three more future opponents have losing records, so a .500 season isn't impossible.
The Redskins almost certainly won't get to the break-even mark. On a six-game skid, they have a pitiful run game and their minus-10 turnover differential is tied for last in the league.
Arizona (3-7) at St. Louis (2-8)
Among the league's most lopsided rivalries, this game also has become the least inviting on the holiday schedule. The Cardinals have won nine of the last 10 in the series, six straight in St. Louis, and outscored the Rams 278-161 in those 10 games. This is the third straight road game for Arizona, which won at Philadelphia and lost at San Francisco.
New York Giants (6-4) at New Orleans (7-3), Monday night
Two straight defeats erased the Giants' lead in the NFC East, and they have swooned a few times late in past seasons under Tom Coughlin. With Green Bay on deck after this prime-time visit to New Orleans, New York needs a quick remedy.
"We know the Saints are a very good home team," said Eli Manning, who grew up in New Orleans, where his father, Archie, was the Saints quarterback. "It's a loud stadium. ... We can try to start fast and move the ball and don't give up big plays to their defense, (that) should always help the occasion. It's just about being consistent."
The Saints haven't been all that consistent this year, either, but their deep corps of receivers, particularly tight end Jimmy Graham, will test the Giants' defense, which must find a pass rush that was absent last week.