Last Second Audibles: Raiders win AFC West if Rolando McClain is Defensive ROY
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This headline is probably stated in a way that screws up cause and effect. McClain is likely to be voted the award winner, particularly when the Raiders win the division first.
But McClain is also the point guard in the unit that has bitten the Raiders the hardest since the days of Norv Turner: run defense. He’s the “new” piece, the hand picked replacement for Kirk Morrison, who was one of Oakland’s better defensive players, but one who the Raiders felt contributed to the overall struggles on the defense as a unit.
He’s not the only rookie who will be starting for the Raiders on defense today: the left defensive end will be Lamarr Houston, a defensive lineman from the University of Texas. Houston has also been very impressive in 2010. Third round pick Jared Veldheer is going to start at center. That’s a really, really promising draft class: one that has three guys starting on opening day, and none due to injury.
No player, though, has the ability to change the landscape of the NFL more this year than McClain. Teams that blow away the objective projections for their season tend to do so with amazing draft classes: look no further than the 2008 Falcons. This is a good start for the Raiders. But the Raiders haven’t had problems with starts: they’ve won at least one of their first two games in every year going back to 2000, and 2 of their first four in more than half those years. The Raiders could get off to another good start, and would have proven nothing.
They need to keep going into their division, and run right through teams like the Chargers and Broncos. They’ve matched the Chiefs blow for blow even through the worst run in franchise history, but they haven’t beaten the Chargers since 2002. That’s the thing that has to change this year for the Raiders to be relevant. They have a good chance if their first round rookie, McClain, outperforms the Chargers’ first round rookie, RB Ryan Mathews, by a good margin. Mathews is a trendy pick to be offensive rookie of the year in the NFL.
It would be hard to receive that honor if the Chargers finish second or third in the division for the first time since 2005. The guy who could prevent the Chargers from that is this rookie linebacker, McClain. He doesn’t have to be the best player on his own defense, not with Nnamdi Asomugha around. But if the Raiders have such problems with run defense again, they won’t be able to sit back in their strength, rush the passer, and let the game come to them. Teams will take the power running game and go right at them.
McClain’s first opponent: Tennessee Titans RB Chris Johnson, who last season, became one of six players in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards. Hopefully, they aren’t looking for McClain to play any man coverage on Johnson in this game. If he can be the difference maker today and stop Johnson, he can get the Raiders rolling in the right direction for the first time in about eight years. Up until this point, all of this Raiders-improvement discussion has been just talk. McClain can establish himself as a legitimate pro in just a game, because the schedule sends him up against the very best in the game, in Week 1.