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Raiders' run defense to be tested

Oakland has struggled against the rush all season, and will have to contain Denver running backs Travis Henry and Selvin Young today.

December 02, 2007|From the Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Ever since Mike Shanahan came to Denver more than a decade ago, it hasn't mattered much who carried the ball for the Broncos.

Low-round draft picks, undrafted free agents, castoffs from other teams have all had success running behind Denver's zone-blocking scheme.

Never has that been more evident than in the past three weeks with starter Travis Henry sidelined with a left knee injury. Behind backups Selvin Young, who was undrafted out of Texas this year, and Andre Hall, who was undrafted out of South Florida the previous year, the Broncos have run for a league-best 445 yards since Henry's injury.

So even though all three of those backs are nursing injuries heading into today's game against Oakland (3-8), Raiders Coach Lane Kiffin knows his team is in for a tough test no matter who carries the ball for the Broncos (5-6).

"It's a classic example of the running game system," Kiffin said. "Here they go, they plug in two undrafted players, one who was undrafted two years ago and one was just undrafted right now. They've done it for years."

Especially against Oakland. Denver has won eight of nine against its AFC West rival, getting 100-yard games from three different backs in that span, including 128 from Henry earlier this season.

The Raiders have the league's worst rushing defense this season, allowing 153.6 yards per game and five yards a carry. Whether it's missed tackles or missed assignments, the Raiders have been unable to stop almost anybody on the ground.

Even Kansas City's Kolby Smith gained 150 yards rushing last week in his first career start, but Oakland won, 20-17.

"Everybody said who's the guy running for Kansas City. I thought he was a good running back," linebacker Kirk Morrison said. "He made some nice cuts, when the plays were there he made them. It doesn't matter who runs the ball for Denver. We know that. They pride themselves on their offensive line, tight end and their play action passing helps the running game a lot. It doesn't matter who's back there. We know it's going to be a great running back."

Despite using eight-man fronts and other tactics designed to stop the run, Oakland has allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven of the past eight games. Whether it's been a backup such as Chester Taylor, a castoff like Ron Dayne, or superstars Larry Johnson or LaDanian Tomlinson, the Raiders' run defense has been shoddy.

"What's going on now is teams are running the ball over 30 times a game," Morrison said. "Who does that in the NFL? But that's what they have to do to beat us, because our pass defense and rush are doing pretty well, so teams are trying to run the ball. I'm not trying to make excuses, but when you run the ball 30, 40 times, they're going to keep hitting it and keep hitting it until they get that crack. That's what it's been, too many big plays."

Henry, who is recovering from a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, and Young (knee strain) have both practiced this week and are expected to play. Hall has a sprained ankle and will probably not play.

Hall dismisses talk that it's all about Denver's system and says the backs deserve some of the credit too.

"It's because we get the job done," Hall said. "They say if you can't do it nowhere else, you can do it here. I don't know, man. I don't get into that stuff. I don't really like it. I work hard at what I do."

There's no question about who will start at running back for the Raiders. Justin Fargas has excelled since replacing LaMont Jordan as the starter and has three 100-yard games, including 139 in last week's victory.

Running a similar zone-blocking scheme to the one so successful in Denver, Oakland is fifth in the league in rushing at 131.4 yards per game.

"Fargas has come in and really given them a lift," Denver safety John Lynch said. "I thought Jordan was running the ball well, but Fargas has come in and really sparked them. He runs hard. He's a one-cut runner. He would fit in our schedule really well."

There could be more pressure than usual on Fargas because starting quarterback Daunte Culpepper is nursing a sore quadriceps and backup Josh McCown has a dislocated pinky finger on his left hand.

There's also a chance No. 1 overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell could make his debut either as a reserve for a few series or as the starter if the injuries to Culpepper and McCown are more serious than they appear.

The Broncos are preparing for all possibilities, saying they will look at Russell's tapes from college because he missed all of the exhibition season in a contract dispute.

"That would be a little different," Lynch said. "It would be like preseason football. You go back to reading your keys."

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