Oakland was nudged out of first place last season for the first time in six years and only the second time in 11 years, but don't look for it to happen this time around. The Raiders are ahead of the rest of the AFC West in depth, and in a 16-game season that could be the crucial factor.
Nevertheless, the Raiders are vulnerable on defense. The fact is that most people attack them in the wrong place. To be sure, Oakland's secondary is inviting, particularly now that Safety George Atkinson has been released, Cornerback Skip Thomas has been waived after a bout with hepatitis and Cornerback Willie Brown is 37. The Raiders surrender too many bombs, but they also come up with a lot of interceptions, and should get even more with the acquisition of Cornerback Monte Jackson from the Rams.
A much safer and more promising route against Oakland is along the ground. Opponents ran fewer times against the Raiders than against any other team in football last year, yet Oakland allowed 4.3 yards a rush, one of the worst records in the league. Coach John Madden is aware of the weakness, even if no one else is. How else do you explain trading a first draft choice for Green Bay Defensive Tackle Mike McCoy, who has been waived? The most valuable Raider for defensive purposes is Punter Ray Guy, who keeps opponents miles away from the Oakland goal line.
The Raiders are the highest-scoring team in football because they do everything so well. Their image is that of a passing, daredevil team, but, in fact, Oakland runs more—a lot more—than any other team. And so they should, given that massive line led by the left side—Guard Gene Upshaw and Tackle Art Shell. Behind their blocking, Mark van Eeghen led the AFC with 1,273 yards rushing and Clarence Davis added 787 more.
Quarterback Ken Stabler is one of the game's most versatile throwers and he has every kind of receiver in the rugged Tight End Dave Casper, speedster Cliff Branch and sideline artist Fred Biletnikoff. Even so, the way to stop the Raiders is to force Stabler to the air, where at least you have a chance to intercept him. In Denver's first game against Oakland last year the Broncos shut down the Raider ground game and ended up with seven interceptions and a 30-7 win.
Denver, the surprise of surprises, swept to the Super Bowl on the strength of its defense. To get back there, however, the Broncos must develop a more productive offense, and to do that they must get better line play. Fortunately, offensive lines and running attacks are Coach Red Miller's specialties. Miller has good enough runners in shifty Otis Armstrong and consistent Rob Lytle, but he could use more power out of the fullback position, where Jon Keyworth runs too upright. The Bronco backs find holes on the right side behind Guard Paul Howard and Tackle Claudie Minor, but not on the left, where Miller particularly needs help at tackle and an overall improvement in pass blocking. Quarterback Craig Morton was always under siege when he dropped back to pass last year.
The Denver passing attack occasionally caught teams by surprise with a deep gamble, but primarily it was carefully orchestrated to keep interceptions at a minimum. Hence the enormous number of sacks (50) but singularly few interceptions. Given better protection, Morton has all the receiving talent he needs for a strong passing game. Haven Moses is one of the best at running precise pass patterns. Jack Dolbin and Rick Upchurch supply downfield speed on the other side, and among tight ends Riley Odoms is a top receiver.
The Denver defense, which gave up the fewest points in the AFC, returns intact. A Mack truck would stall against the Broncos' 3-4 alignment. Its particular strength is the pursuit by its linebackers—Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Joe Rizzo and Bob Swenson. Gradishar is the slowest—he may also be the best—and he can run 40 yards in 4.8 seconds.
Nor were Denver's skies friendly to the opposition. The Broncos allowed plenty of short completions but little more. The line, particularly Defensive End Lyle Alzado, put on enough pressure to hurry quarterbacks, and the secondary picked off a slew of passes. Cornerback Louis Wright and Safety Billy Thompson both went to the Pro Bowl.
San Diego should be called Giants instead of Chargers. On the defensive line are Gary (Big Hands) Johnson and Louis Kelcher, the man with one of the biggest pairs of feet (size 16½ EEEE) in the league. Milton Hardaway, a 6'9", 312-pound tackle, is the biggest man in football. Joining him on the offensive line is 6'7" Russ Washington, who this year reported at his lightest playing weight ever, 285 pounds. Then there is Guard Ed White, who probably has the NFL's biggest biceps. But don't overlook the forest because of a few redwoods. It is not merely the size of the Chargers that merits attention, but their ability.
To make the playoffs, however, San Diego will have to develop a more consistent offense by organizing a better running game and throwing less. White, obtained in a trade with Minnesota, should muscle open some holes for the ground attack. With him in the lineup, Guard Don Macek moves to center, where his strength should be an asset for neutralizing nose tackles in the 12 games San Diego will play against 3-4 defenses. To get White, the Chargers had to give the Vikings Rickey Young, an all-purpose running back, but Coach Tommy Prothro more than compensated for that loss by trading for Baltimore's Lydell Mitchell. Bo Matthews is a reliable blocking fullback, but is lacking in the catch-and-run department. Prothro upgraded Quarterback Dan Fouts' targets by drafting Wide Receiver John Jefferson of Arizona State in the first round. Jefferson should relieve the double coverage on Charlie Joiner, who at 31 has slowed markedly following knee surgery.
The strength of the Charger defense lies in an awesome young front four: Johnson, 6'8" Leroy Jones, Fred Dean and Bigfoot Kelcher, who tips in at 282. The line is better than average against the run, and its pass rush has clearly helped an unheralded secondary rank among the league's best.
Kansas City finished the 1977 season with a 2-12 record, the worst in the 18-year history of the franchise. In the process the Chiefs ranked dead last in the league on defense and set an NFL record for futility by allowing opponents almost 3,000 yards rushing.
In a year in which Linebackers Willie Lanier and Jim Lynch have retired, new Coach Marv Levy is converting the Chiefs to a 3-4 defense. His four top draft choices were all on defense, and the top three—Defensive Ends Art Still and Sylvester Hicks and Linebacker Gary Spani—will start immediately. The Chiefs hope that Still and Hicks can generate enough pressure to help the defense's one respectable unit, the secondary.
Levy plans to turn his offense into a ball-control unit, thereby helping the defense even more. Last year Kansas City gained more than four yards a rush but finished near the bottom of the league in total rushing plays. Meanwhile, the offensive line was permitting far too many sacks, and Quarterbacks Tony Adams and Mike Livingston (the latter is still trying to prove he is the Chiefs' leader after 10 seasons) were throwing interceptions all over the place. To promote more rushing, Levy will use a wing-T offense with three running backs and just one wide receiver. MacArthur Lane will be up near the line where he can better exploit his blocking and catching abilities.
Seattle lives and dies by the pass. The Seahawks surged to a 5-9 record last year largely on the strength of a league-leading 23 touchdown passes. Unfortunately, Seattle also threw 32 interceptions, the most in the league for the second year in a row, and opponents gained more per pass play against Seattle than against any other team. The Seahawks also led the league in points allowed.
Quarterback Jim Zorn is scatter-armed. Not only does he throw interceptions, his percentage of completions is poor (41%). But Zorn gains a lot of yardage with his passing, not to mention his scrambling. Wide Receiver Steve Largent (19.5 yards a catch) is his best target.
Seattle Coach Jack Patera would like to get more runs into his play mix. He has an improving young line and a top back in 6'4", 225-pound Sherman Smith. For openers, what the Seahawks need is a better outside running game. That means more blocking from Tight End Ron Howard.
To improve his pass defense, Patera drafted Memphis State Cornerback Keith Simpson in the first round—only to have him pull a hamstring. The Seahawks need a sound Simpson to tackle as well as knock down passes, since they have been hurt by teams running wide. Despite its weakness against the run, Seattle will not follow a growing trend to the 3-4 but will stick with the 4-3.
DENVER'S ALZADO SEASONS HIS DIET WITH MEN LIKE STABLER