NEW ORLEANS – Dennis Allen is a proud Texan, but Friday’s exhibition against the New Orleans Saints will be a homecoming of sorts.
The Raiders head coach was groomed in New Orleans under Sean Payton, who still runs the high-flying Saints attack.
He spent five seasons as a Saints position coach, which set him up to coordinate Denver’s defense and eventually lead the Raiders.
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“During those five years in New Orleans, that’s where I feel like I really grew up as a football coach in the National Football League,” Allen said. “It’ll be fun to go back. It’ll be fun to get a chance to see some of those guys. I’ll get to talk to Sean and bounce a few ideas off of him and see what he has to say.”
Allen has several questions left to answer during this preseason, which has been hampered by injuries minor and major. His young, impressionable group is still coming together, a vital process with so many new faces.
The Raiders played pretty well last week in their preseason opener despite those facts, but they must do better in game No. 2.
The opposition will be much tougher. The New Orleans Saints play a frustrating style offense that will stretch a Raiders defense with nine new starters and tax a pass rush that generated little heat against the Cowboys.
The Saints defense, which Allen’s scheme is loosely based on, will gladly sacrifice yards for turnovers and big plays. The Raiders must stay away from momentum killers and build on last week’s effort.
“It will be a great challenge for us,” Allen said. “Getting a chance to play a team like New Orleans, that is the explosive offense that they are, I think it will be a great challenge for us defensively to go against them and we’ll get a little bit of a benchmark of where we’re at.”
Here are five things to watch on Friday night when the Raiders take on the Saints:
1. Grading the “D”: The Raiders defense will face a stern test against a Saints offense that scores in bunches and is led by a quarterback in Drew Brees who is tough to pressure and hard to predict. The Raiders secondary is the strength of a unit that features nine new starters, and it will be interesting to see how they hold up.
It’s uncertain whether cornerback Tracy Porter will play – he missed two practices leading up to the game – but there’s enough depth at corner and talent at safety that the Raiders should be able to hold up.
Keep an eye on the first team defense from back to front, including a linebacker corps that also must cover well. They’ll have to get by with a four-man rush, which didn’t produce much last week, or risk being vulnerable in coverage. The Saints first unit should give a glimpse of how close this defense is to regular-season form.
2. Pryor’s progress: Terrelle Pryor started his preseason off right, save one terrible throw intercepted in the end zone. The polarizing backup quarterback must be more consistent in the second exhibition if he hopes to challenge Matt Flynn’s starting spot.
It will take a Herculean effort to do so – and a strong fade from Flynn – meaning he much showcase his vast potential against the Saints. Realistically, an improved outing would help secure a stronger role in the regular season. The coaches have designed a Pryor-specific package, but confidence must be instilled before they use it. A turnover-free game, confidence in his decisions and a willingness to run should get that job done.
3. Check out the new guy: Alex Barron will make his first of many starts in place of injured left tackle Jared Veldheer, who’s expected to miss half the season at least. His performance will contribute heavily to the Raiders’ offensive production, good or bad.
Barron has just one job his first game with the first unit: Keep Flynn healthy. The Raiders can’t afford to lose their steadiest quarterback before the regular-season, no matter how many fans clamor for Pyror. Barron must protect his blind side and show toughness in the run, so Raider Nation will stop hitting the panic button over the loss of Veldheer.
4. Can McFadden build momentum? Running back Darren McFadden played just six snaps last week against the Cowboys, but should increase his workload against New Orleans. He won’t stay in as long as the first unit, but he’ll have an opportunity to build momentum he failed to generate against the Cowboys.
He had just five yards on three carries, and an improved rush average would show that the new run scheme is making headway. The Raiders should be without Mike Brisiel at right guard – this is Andre Gurode’s chance to swipe that starting spot – and have Barron in at left tackle, but that’s no excuse for McFadden to stay quiet for a second straight week.
5. Butler’s encore: Rookie receiver Brice Butler had a solid showing in the exhibition opener, but he needs to repeat that effort on Friday to continue his ascent up the depth chart. The seventh-round pick worked some with the first team during this week’s practice and seemed comfortable working in the slot.
He should get passes from Flynn and Pryor instead of McGloin and must be consistent and sure-handed to gain their trust. A word of caution: While Butler made to spectacular grabs for 70 yards and a touchdown, he was also targeted three other times without a catch. Butler said he wasn’t happy with his entire performance, and vowed to improve on it in New Orleans.