Sports

The Word: Raiders must work to get run-stuffer

Many say the hardest feat in sports is to hit major-league pitching. Considering plenty of the game's top hitters can't even perform that task at a 30-percent success rate, it's tough to argue.

But in baseball, an unprepared hitter can still get lucky now and again. In football, an unprepared team will lose by 30 points every week.

The margin for error in the NFL is far smaller than in any other major sports, which makes the Raiders' current situation encouraging in so many ways. They are a team -- with a first-year coach and a young nucleus on defense -- still learning how to win. Oakland isn't being held back by a lack of talent, but rather by a lack of continuity.

The missed tackles, blown assignments and whiffed blocks of 2006 have been minimized this season, resulting in two more wins thus far. The Raiders have defensive stars, enthusiastic coaches and a solid running game, but still need plenty of retooling and upgrading to get back into championship form.

It starts on defense, where the Raiders allow the second-most rushing yards in the league. The maturation of a young linebacking core will help solve this problem, but the team desperately needs a run-stuffer to line up beside (or in place of) a thinning and aging Warren Sapp (unfortunately, a healthy body can be counter-productive to stopping an opposition's running back). The Raiders could address this need by drafting USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis in the first round and having Sapp mold him into the game's premier defensive lineman.

Although Lane Kiffin doesn't seem overly impressed with strong safeties Stuart Schweigert and Hiram Eugene, the Raiders should be solid in the secondary if they can re-sign cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. The team's pass defense is young, with plenty of ball-hawking athletes at both linebacker and defensive back, and should only continue to improve.

On offense, everything revolves around the development of quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Which means, of course, Kiffin must continue upgrading on the offensive line. After a hellacious 2006 performance that, for all intents and purposes, ended the careers of quarterbacks Aaron Brooks and Andrew Walter, the Raiders have improved to 23rd in the league in sacks allowed.

The emergence of Justin Fargas has helped take some of the pressure of the signal-caller, and a healthy LaMont Jordan (or Michael Bush) could create one of the game's top thunder-lighting combos. At receiver, both Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry have the tools to become a No. 1 guy -- but how long can Kiffin wait on that? The Raiders should address that need in the second round of the draft.

Trust Kiffin to draft some offensive linemen who fit his zone-blocking scheme in the later rounds. And whether it's done through the draft (Jake Long, Michigan) or free agency, the Raiders must finally address the Robert Gallery mistake and acquire a long-term answer at left tackle. Russell shouldn't take any snaps until these needs are addressed.

Ask Walter: No playing time is better than getting decapitated on a weekly basis.

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