Raiders counting heavily on LT Mario Henderson
NAPA – When Mario Henderson gets beat in a pass-blocking drill at practice for the Oakland Raiders, he immediately hits the ground for his punishment.
With coach Tom Cable watching closely, Henderson starts doing push-up after push-up in hopes of building the consistency needed to succeed in the NFL.
“He’s got a thing where if there is something I need to correct in my sets, I have to do 50 push-ups,” Henderson said. “It’s tough, man. After I do that, my sets are straight. It’s no longer just a regular pass – now I am thinking if I don’t do this right, it’s 50 more push-ups. They are tough to do in the middle of a practice. We just started doing it this year and it’s going to help me to become better.”
Getting Henderson to play better is a big part of improving an offense that struggled mightily last season. Henderson allowed an NFL-worst 10.5 sacks last season, according to STATS LLC, and was part of a unit that slipped from sixth to 21st in the league running the ball from 2007 to ’09.
With Oakland bringing back four of the five starters from that disappointing line – midseason pickup Langston Walker replaces Cornell Green at right tackle – the Raiders are counting on Henderson to return to his late 2008 form this season.
Cable is Oakland’s former offensive line coach and still spends much of his time at practice with his former pupils. He is pleased with what he has seen from Henderson so far this summer in terms of run blocking but wants him to get more consistent with his footwork in passing situations.
“I just want to clean that up, if we can clean that up I think we can get him back where he was playing there for awhile,” Cable said.
When it comes to the passing game in the modern NFL, a solid left tackle may be only second in importance to good quarterback play.
The Raiders thought Henderson could provide that last season after he ended the 2008 campaign by keeping Richard Seymour, Mario Williams and Gaines Adams without a sack and did not commit a penalty as Oakland won two of its final three games that year.
That performance was a far cry from the ones turned in by the raw player who entered the league as a third-round pick out of Florida State in 2007 and the one who was mocked by former coach Lane Kiffin during training camp in 2008.
Henderson believes the push-ups will help make him more consistent and get him off the rollercoaster ride he has been on during his three-year career.
“It gets you into good habits and when you are playing tackle, playing well has to become a habit,” he said. “I have to not even think about it, to get to a certain spot with my hands in the right place.”
Dallas got solid play from the offensive line in the exhibition opener against Dallas, allowing only one sack – which came from up the middle, not outside against Henderson – and averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
Henderson figures to get another good test on Saturday when he likely will match up against Chicago star end Julius Peppers.
“He’s made some improvements here this week,” Cable said of Henderson. “I’m kind of excited, and I think he will be too to match up with Peppers a little bit in the game.”
Henderson was hurt last year by injuries to left guard Robert Gallery. With Gallery missing 10 games because of various injuries, Henderson did not have his usual security blanket on the inside.
The rotating guards led to some communication problems on the line, which have been less of a problem now that Gallery is healthy.
“With Robert I can just look at him or he can look at me. You can nod. It works a lot better like that sometimes than when you have a different guy,” Henderson said. “So that’s kind of good. I know how much you can trust me and I know how much I can trust him on some plays.”
Henderson also believes his blocking will improve because of a change at quarterback from JaMarcus Russell to Jason Campbell. Russell was sacked on 11.8 percent of his pass plays last season, the most in the NFL. The rate dropped to 6.2 percent with Oakland’s other quarterbacks.
“Not to bad talk JaMarcus or anything like that, but there is more definition with Jason,” Henderson said. “If he says he is dropping back three steps, it’s going to be three. If he says seven, it’s going to be seven. It’s not three and then he drops back seven. (Campbell) is good at what he does as far as footwork.”
Notes: WR Darrius Heyward-Bey missed his fourth straight practice with what is being called “fatigue.” … Among the players unlikely to play Saturday against the Bears are Heyward-Bey, WR Chaz Schilens (foot), RB Darren McFadden (hamstring), QB Bruce Gradkowski (groin), LB Sam Williams (concussion), CB Chris Johnson (hamstring).
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