(Sports Network) - That the Oakland Raiders will enter the 2012 season with a new head coach doesn't qualify as much of a surprise. The San Diego Chargers having the same one roaming the sidelines may have caught a few observers a bit off guard, however.
What's almost unanimously billed as a make-or-break year for Norv Turner begins Monday at the O.co Coliseum, where the embattled Chargers leader takes his team into a season-opening AFC West showdown with the rival Raiders in Dennis Allen's first game as an NFL head coach.
Turner was believed to be a goner as the 2011 campaign entered its final stages, with San Diego bringing a lackluster 4-7 record into the month of December. However, another customary strong finish by the Chargers granted the veteran coach a stay of execution after the team just missed out on a playoff berth.
San Diego closed out with four wins in its last five contests, capped by a 38-26 besting of the Raiders at the Coliseum in which the Bolts erupted for 463 total yards. The victory denied Oakland the AFC West title and left both clubs in a three-way deadlock with Denver for the division lead at 8-8, with the Broncos granted a postseason invite on the tie-breaking system.
The overall result was still considered disappointing for a San Diego squad that's now been left out of the postseason two straight years following a string of four straight AFC West crowns, placing both Turner and general manager A.J. Smith on notice if an improvement doesn't take place in 2012.
"There's definitely a sense of urgency," said Chargers tight end Antonio Gates. "One thing that we do know is we treat every day like it's our last. We don't know what the future holds. And I think that's our goal, that's our motto. I think that reality has set in that we have to make the most out of this year."
Oakland did make a change in command after stumbling down the stretch of last season, with new GM Reggie McKenzie releasing Hue Jackson of his duties after only one year in charge following a sequence of four losses over the final five weeks.
McKenzie tabbed the 39-year-old Allen, who spent last year as Denver's defensive coordinator, to be the Raiders' seventh head coach over a 10-year dry period in which the Silver and Black have failed to qualify for the playoffs each time.
One of those failed hirings was Turner, who managed just nine wins in two seasons with Oakland from 2004-05.
Allen takes over a roster that was partially gutted by McKenzie out of necessity with the Raiders entering the offseason well over the salary cap due to the frivolous spending of the late owner Al Davis. Among those cut loose were linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, running back Michael Bush, cornerback Stanford Routt and tight end Kevin Boss, all of whom were useful contributors to last year's near-playoff appearance.
Bush, now with Chicago, compiled nearly 1,400 yards from scrimmage while filling for Darren McFadden, Oakland's exceptional but incredibly brittle offensive catalyst who sustained a season-ending sprained foot just seven games in.
McFadden has been healthy this preseason and displayed the form that enabled the 2008 first-round pick to pile up 1,157 rushing yards and 507 more receiving while scoring 10 touchdowns in just 13 outings in 2010. As long as he can maintain good health, Allen plans on riding the big-play back as much as need be.
"We're going to do whatever it takes to win a lot of football games, so if that means playing Darren a little or a lot, that's what we're going to do," Allen said.
Raiders lead 57-45-2
2011 Meetings: Raiders 24, Chargers 17 (Nov. 10 at San Diego) Chargers 38, Raiders 26 (Jan. 1 at Oakland)
Chargers HC Norv Turner vs. Raiders: 8-4 overall, 7-3 with San Diego Raiders HC Dennis Allen vs. Chargers: 0-0 Turner vs. Allen Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Raiders have won three of the last four bouts between the teams, but Chargers bested Oakland 13 consecutive times prior to that stretch and are 7-1 at the Coliseum since 2004. Turner went 9-23 in a two-year stint as the Raiders' head coach from 2004-05 and posted a 1-1 mark against Oakland while at the helm of Washington from 1994-2000. These longtime rivals have squared off once previously in the postseason as well, with the Raiders claiming a 34-27 road win in the 1980 AFC Championship.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
San Diego: 6th overall (393.1 ypg), 16th rushing (116.5 ypg), 6th passing (276.6 ypg), tied 5th scoring (25.4 ppg)
Oakland: 9th overall (379.5 ypg), 7th rushing (131.9 ypg), 11th passing (247.6 ypg), 16th scoring (22.4 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
San Diego: 16th overall (346.6 ypg), 20th rushing (122.2 ypg), 13th passing (224.4 ypg), 21st scoring (23.6 ppg)
Oakland: 29th overall (387.6 ypg), 27th rushing (136.1 ypg), 27th passing (251.4 ypg), tied 29th scoring (27.1 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
San Diego: -7 (21 takeaways, 28 giveaways) Oakland: -4 (26 takeaways, 30 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
San Diego: 53.7 percent (54 possessions, 29 TD, 15 FG) -- 10th overall Oakland: 51.1 percent (47 possessions, 24 TD, 17 FG) -- 16th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
San Diego: 59.2 percent (49 possessions, 29 TD, 15 FG) -- 29th overall Oakland: 58.8 percent (51 possessions, 30 TD, 12 FG) -- 26th overall
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Turner's traditional philosophy on offense is to attack the field with a vertical passing game that's combined with a physical rushing attack, but that strategy may have to be altered a bit due to injuries. Ryan Mathews, the team's clear-cut No. 1 running back, is doubtful for the opener as he continues to recover from a fractured collarbone suffered in the first preseason game, while left tackle Jared Gaither has been ruled out after missing all of camp with a lingering back issue. That all-important position will be manned on Monday by Mike Harris, an undrafted rookie out of UCLA who showed well in the preseason but is very unproven, which could cause Turner to employ a more controlled, short-range approach centered around standout quarterback Philip Rivers (4624 passing yards, 27 TD, 20 INT). If that's the case, then Gates (64 receptions, 7 TD) will surely be a big part of the plan, much like the eight-time Pro Bowler was in registering a season-best 106 yards and a touchdown on five catches in San Diego's win at the Coliseum on New Year's Day. The Chargers will still take their shots downfield, however, with Rivers occasionally airing it out in the direction of deep-threat receiver Malcom Floyd (43 receptions, 5 TD), who averaged nearly 20 yards per game last season and torched the Raiders for 127 yards and a score on seven catches in the finale. Pro Bowl wideout Vincent Jackson is no longer on the roster, though, with his place taken by ex-Saint Robert Meachem (40 receptions, 6 TD), who's not quite as big or explosive as his predecessor but is still capable of stretching a defense. Veteran Ronnie Brown (136 rushing yards, 1 TD), coming off a subpar year as a backup in Philadelphia, will take over for Mathews in the interim. Though no longer a game-changer as a runner, the 30-year-old is a solid receiver who should provide a nice safety valve for Rivers.
The key for the Raiders defensively will be to bring consistent pressure upon Rivers. Oakland amassed six sacks in its victory at San Diego last November, though the departed Wimbley accounted for four of those takedowns, but didn't have a single one in the season-ending loss in which Rivers threw for 310 yards and three scores. That was the unit's source of strength in 2011, with the tackle tandem of Richard Seymour (29 tackles, 6 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (41 tackles, 7.5 sacks) combining for 13 1/2 sacks to lead the way along with Wimbley. End Matt Shaughnessy tallied seven sacks in a strong 2010 effort before missing most of last year with a shoulder injury, and he'll be counted on to be a factor on Monday lined up opposite the rookie Harris. The cornerback group has been overhauled with the additions of ex-Ram Ron Bartell, former 49er Shawntae Spencer and new nickel defender Joselio Hanson (30 tackles with Eagles), but remains a suspect area that's vulnerable to being exploited if Rivers has sufficient time. Stopping the run was a major weakness for Oakland as well last season, with the team allowing a league-worst 5.1 yards per carry, so the onus will be on middle linebacker Rolando McClain (99 tackles, 5 sacks) and a pair of outside newcomers, free-agent pickup Philip Wheeler (84 tackles, 1 sack with Colts) and rookie Miles Burris (4th Round, San Diego State) to be less of a liability than last year's crew.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
The Raiders have been almost forever known as a team with an offense predicated on a deep passing game featuring the fastest receivers Davis could find, but there are indications that they'll be straying from that mindset under the current regime. New coordinator Greg Knapp, who begins a second tour of duty with the organization, is bringing more of a West Coast-style with a greater emphasis on running the football, which should perfectly suit the skills of McFadden (614 rushing yards, 19 receptions, 5 total TD) provided he can stay on the field. The dangerous fifth-year pro is good to go for this contest and readying for a workhorse role against a San Diego defense that was merely ordinary in containing the run a year ago. While he'll be the centerpiece, Oakland will still look to bomb away at times behind quarterback Carson Palmer (2753 passing yards, 13 TD, 16 INT), who had two of his best games in an otherwise lackluster first season with the Silver and Black against the Chargers, throwing for 417 yards and two scores in the finale and finishing a sharp 14-of-20 for 299 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Week 10 win. The Raiders still possess plenty of speed at the receiver spots in 2011 breakout performer Darrius Heyward-Bey (64 receptions, 4 TD) and second- year talent Denarius Moore (33 receptions, 5 TD), who's tentatively expected to be okay for Monday's test after missing much of the preseason with a hamstring strain. Each caused problems for San Diego in 2011, with Heyward-Bey recording 130 yards and a touchdown on a career-best nine catches in the Week 17 loss and Moore netting over 100 yards in both matchups along with two scores. Fleet-footed No. 3 receiver Jacoby Ford is likely out for the opener due to a foot sprain, with intriguing undrafted rookie Rod Streater set to fill in.
San Diego prevailed in its last meeting with the Raiders despite surrendering a whopping 520 total yards and failing to mount much pressure on Palmer, and that poor performance prompted Smith to take action in the offseason. He signed outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (56 tackles, 2.5 sacks), one of the integral parts of a Baltimore defense that annually ranks among the league's best against the run, then further bolstered the position by using the Chargers' first-round draft selection on South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, a highly skilled pass rusher who'll start out paired with team sack leader Antwan Barnes (41 tackles, 11 sacks) on nickel downs. Getting more heat on the quarterback will be vital to the Bolts' chances for both this game and throughout the season, as the cornerback trio of the aging Quentin Jammer (53 tackles), Antoine Cason (53 tackles, 2 INT, 17 PD) and Marcus Gilchrist (34 tackles, 2 INT) wasn't very good in 2011. Veteran plugger Aubrayo Franklin (17 tackles) was also brought in to rotate at nose tackle and further assist Johnson and inside linebackers Donald Butler (96 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Takeo Spikes (106 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) in run support.
These teams combined for nearly 1,000 total yards in a wild shootout at the Coliseum to close out last season, and with both still harboring plenty of question marks on the defensive end -- particularly in the secondary -- a reprisal would hardly be surprising. That would seem to bode well for the historically slow-starting Chargers, as Rivers gives San Diego an advantage over the up-and-down Palmer at the quarterback position, but the Raiders seem to be in better shape on the offensive line in regards to protection. The deciding factor could come at running back, however, where the Chargers will be minus their best weapon in Mathews and Oakland sports a definite difference-maker in McFadden. He's primed for a big performance on the Monday night stage, and the Raiders should be able to make Rivers uncomfortable enough in the pocket to back Allen's debut a potentially successful one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Raiders 30, Chargers 24