INDIANAPOLIS — The primary storyline surrounding the Oakland Raiders heading into Sunday’s regular-season opener centers around third-year quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
Though head coach Dennis Allen is declining to name a starter before game time, several news outlets have reported the players have been told in private that Pryor will play ahead of presumed starter Matt Flynn.
The former Ohio State star will bring an athletic dimension to the Raiders’ offense and likely give the Colts a brief look at the type of read-option schemes the defense will face at least four more times this fall.
While Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano respects both quarterbacks and what they can bring to the Oakland offense, he made it clear Wednesday the Colts won’t forget about Raiders running back Darren McFadden.
“We have our work cut out for us with Pryor, but stopping McFadden is our major concern with the run game,” Pagano said. “As we all know, he’s a big, fast, physical guy that can run between the tackles, and he can cut it back or he can bounce outside. If you give him a crease, he’s got the speed to obviously take it the distance. He’s a home-run hitter. So we got to make sure we set the edge in the defense and get as many hats on Darren as possible.”
It’s been a star-crossed NFL career for McFadden, who was taken with the fourth overall draft pick in 2008 out of the University of Arkansas.
He rushed for 1,830 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior and finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting to Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. But injuries have made it difficult for McFadden to replicate that success as a pro.
He’s missed 23 games in his first five NFL seasons, and he’s yet to appear in all 16 games in any single year. His best campaign came in 2010 when he posted career-bests in starts (13), rushing yards (1,157) and rushing touchdowns (7).
Last year, McFadden rushed for 707 yards and two scores in 12 games and averaged a career-low 3.3 yards per carry. The Raiders’ ongoing offensive struggles have done the running back no favors.
McFadden has played with eight different starting quarterbacks — Flynn would be the ninth — and the consistent deficits Oakland has faced have limited his carries.
The Raiders have given McFadden 20 or more carries in just 11 games in the past five seasons. He’s responded with eight 100-yard rushing performances, and Oakland is 8-3 in those contests.
The Colts ranked 29th in the NFL last year in run defense. So it stands to reason the Raiders will look to feed McFadden early and often no matter who lines up under center.
But the running back realizes there are a lot of new faces in the Indianapolis defensive front, and he’s taking nothing for granted.
“Everybody’s different so you just have to go out there and play the game,” McFadden said. “They may come out there and have one of their best (defensive) games of the season. So you never know what’s going to happen. You just have to go out there and play your ball and stick to it.”
That’s good advice every week in the consistently unpredictable NFL.
Four teams — the Colts, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings — went from a losing record in 2011 to a playoff appearance in 2012. Oakland finished 4-12 a year ago and is a popular projection to post the league’s worst record in 2013.
Indianapolis found itself in a similar position entering last season, selected last in many preseason power rankings. The Colts used the motivation from that perceived slight during a surprising 11-5 campaign.
McFadden said the Raiders carry a similar chip on their shoulders this season.
“People don’t expect us to do much at all,” he said. “But just from what we have here and being inside these four walls, we know what we can do out here. So we’re going to go out there and surprise a lot of people.”