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Raiders' commitment to (running) excellence

Al Davis has long been noted for his preference for the long ball, but this year's version of the Raiders' offense might force the owner to appreciate the mantra "three yards and a cloud of dust."

Under the direction of new coach Tom Cable, the Raiders are relying on a talented stable of backs and a rebuilt offensive line to anchor a smash-mouth attack that will attempt to bludgeon opponents with the run.

Even though the Raiders have a 9-23 record over the past two years, the team has ranked in the top 10 in rushing both seasons and shown promise as one of the NFL's top rushing attacks. Led by a three-headed monster at running back, the Raiders are capable of attacking defenses with a diverse ground game that features a balanced mixture of inside and outside runs.

Darren McFadden, the team's top draft pick a year ago, serves as the home-run hitter in the lineup and excels at running on the perimeter. As an upright runner with a sprinter's speed, McFadden takes the majority of his carries on outside zone plays or delayed draws. His outstanding burst allows him to quickly reach the second level, and he flashes nifty cutback ability in space.

Justin Fargas, who led the Raiders with 853 rushing yards in 2008, is a gritty, between-the-tackles runner. Though he lacks exceptional size, he is a tough, hard-nosed runner with deceptive strength and power. Fargas rarely goes down on first contact and often surprises defenders with his pop.

The wild card of the bunch is Michael Bush. The third-year pro missed all of his rookie season while recovering from a broken leg suffered in college, but he burst onto the scene last season with an eye-popping performance to close the year. Bush rushed for 177 yards and two scores against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17, displaying the smooth, gliding running style that made him a highly regarded prospect heading into his senior season at Louisville.

With three running backs capable of 100-yard games, the Raiders are wise to build their offense around the running game. This offseason, the team has added pieces around the trio, which should allow the Raiders to punish defenses at will with the ground attack.

First, the Raiders started retooling an offensive line that struggled with its consistency in the zone-based scheme last season. The Raiders jettisoned Kwame Harris and Jake Grove during the offseason and added Khalif Barnes and Samson Satele in their place.

Barnes, who spent the past four seasons starting at left tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars, gives the Raiders an athletic edge blocker. He excels in the running game and potentially could team up with Robert Gallery to give the Raiders a dominant side to direct their rushing attack.

Satele, acquired in a trade with the Miami Dolphins, gives the Raiders a more physical presence at the pivot. Satele mauls defenders at the point and has the strength to create a consistent push up the middle. With the Raiders intent on running the ball between the tackles, Satele's ability to control the line of scrimmage becomes critical to their success.

Warren Sapp chat

In a live chat Thursday on, former Raiders DT Warren Sapp touched on several topics about the team, including JaMarcus Russell, Al Davis and who would win a hot-dog eating contest between himself and coach Tom Cable. Sapp also had this to say about the Raiders' notorious Black Hole: "One of the legendary places in the NFL. I thought it was as crazy as it was insane and as insane as it was lovely." **More ...**

The Raiders also signed Erik Pears during free agency to compete with Cornell Green at right tackle. Pears, who started 26 games for the Denver Broncos over the past three seasons, understands the nuances of the zone-based scheme and should be a better fit athletically on the edge. If Pears eventually unseats Green for the position, the Raiders will sport a more physical and athletic unit in 2009.

However, the final piece to the puzzle comes in the form of hammerhead blocking fullback Lorenzo Neal. The 16-year pro has paved the way for numerous 1,000-yard backs throughout his career, and he is lauded for his ability to lead runners through small creases in the middle of the defense. With the Raiders intent on relentlessly running the ball between the tackles, the decision to add Neal to the lineup could wind up as the team's best offseason move.

Now that the Raiders sport a beefed-up running game with outstanding potential, the team might finally see the best of quarterback JaMarcus Russell in 2009. The third-year pro has superior arm strength and is at his best when allowed to throw the ball down the field. With defenses forced to play eight-man fronts against the Raiders' formidable rushing attack, Russell will have plenty of opportunities to take deep shots against one-on-one coverage on the outside.

This is part of the reason why Oakland opted for Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick in the draft. Heyward-Bey gives the Raiders a legitimate deep threat on the outside.

In addition, the threat of the run brings linebackers and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and creates bigger windows for Russell to hit tight ends and receivers over the middle. Zach Miller led the Raiders in receptions (56) last season, and he could be an even bigger factor in 2009 with the team incorporating more play-action passing.

The Raiders are by no means ready to compete with the ranks of the elite, but a renewed commitment to the run has them back on the road to respectability.

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